What the Water Knows

by Katie Kerekes

Tucked off to the side of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, past the condos and tennis courts, is the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum. This beautiful stone building is the former High Service Pumping Station, which pumped water from the reservoir to Boston. While the station was decommissioned in the 1970s, the reservoir remains an emergency backup source of water. Given this history, the Waterworks Museum is unsurprisingly best known for its Great Engines Hall, which houses the three historic, steam-powered pumping engines, and can count school groups, nonprofits, and wedding parties among its regular visitors.  

Beyond its engines, the museum also regularly hosts special exhibitions in a small space overlooking the Hall. This season’s special exhibit, Reservoir: What the Water Knows, examines our complex interactions with water. Curated by Arlinda Shtuni, the exhibition

presents new and freshly rendered works by six noted local artists that probe our complicated relationship with water. The artists look deeply into how climate warming is impacting us–both from the outside in and the inside out–and inquire: how are our watery bodies registering and responding to these shifts?[1]

The multimedia show not only features local professional artists, but also includes soundscapes created by current Northeastern University music students. The result is an effective, locally-rooted and immersive exhibit, where visitors are asked to visually and aurally consider their personal relationship with water. The exhibit is also intentionally interactive; visitors are presented with a series of questions about their relationship with water, ranging from the mundane—“do you have a favorite water shape?”—to the existential: “Our bodies are mostly made of water. Our hearts are full of water. So is our blood, sweat and tears. As the climate warms, what do you think happens inside of us?” These answers are collected physically in a clear glass jar outside the exhibit and electronically in a survey that will “remain open in perpetuity.” This is a low-stakes way of getting visitors to participate with the exhibit, and a way to extend the influence of the collection to audiences who may not make it to the museum in person.

In late September, the museum hosted three local authors for “What the Water Knows: A Reading.” The free community event was so well-attended that the organizers needed to set up additional chairs in the exhibition space to fit everyone. The three authors featured had extremely different styles of writing, but all focused on the theme of water and its powerful nature. The first author, Nina MacLaughlin, read two excerpts from Wake, Siren, her 2019 retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These poetic verses highlighted the anthropomorphic nature of water in myths, as well as the water inside our bodies. The second author, Christina Thompson, read a chapter from her nonfiction exploration of the wide Pacific, Sea People, which touched on themes of colonialism and water as movement. Tracy Winn closed out the night with a short story based on a recent devastating New England flood, drawing attention to water’s destructive power.

The activation of the exhibition objects through the use of reading aloud created an interesting layering of space. Attendees were surrounded by art inspired by water, listening to texts inspired by water, overlooking massive engines that ran on water, and were physically situated next to a body of water. This event was a wonderful entry point into exploring the connections between artistic creativity, industry, and the environment, as well as a fun and out of the ordinary way to interact with the museum. It effectively connected community members to each other, to local art, to the museum, and to the reservoir.

Afterward, attendees were welcome to chat informally with the invited authors and exhibition curator or explore the Great Engine Hall. It became clear at this point that there was a strong sense of community among the audience. Attendees were mainly drawn from nearby condo residents, writers’ groups, and friends and family of the artists and authors represented; all seemed to know each other. It felt like a bunch of old friends catching up, which was beautiful to watch but difficult for an outsider to feel welcome and break into these conversations. The event fostered existing community, but did not extend it to newcomers.

The audience (and the authors) heavily skewed white and over fifty, which is likely a reflection of the neighborhood and of the writer groups present. This was somewhat frustrating, as a major theme of the exhibition and readings is the precarity of our water resources and the impact of climate change, which will disproportionately affect young people and minorities. More efforts could be made in diversifying the audience, in terms of both age and race; perhaps tapping into the university student partners would be a start, or inviting authors from marginalized communities to participate in future events.

The museum has put together an impressive number of outreach programs centered around the special exhibit. June saw a music ensemble performance, while October featured a multidisciplinary panel of artists, activists and writers discussing the connection between water infrastructure, cities, and climate change. The exhibition’s closing reception in November will include a poetry reading. Based on this programming calendar, it seems that the museum is deeply interested in and effective at reaching creative audiences and tapping into existing local communities of writers, artists, poets, and other creatives. Perhaps this is another area for inclusion; the museum could reach out to more diverse groups of creatives and intentionally invite communities from beyond the Chestnut Hill neighborhood.   

The Metropolitan Waterworks Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday with free admission for all. Reservoir: What the Water Knows closes on November 18, 2023. A closing celebration will be held on November 18 to mark the end of the exhibition. Tickets are available on the event webpage.

[1] “Reservoir: What the Water Knows,” Waterworks Museum, accessed October 12, 2023, https://waterworksmuseum.org/exhibits/reservoir-what-the-water-knows/.