Bookshelf: The Exemplary Museum – Art and Academia

ExemplaryMuseum-coverIn The Exemplary Museum: Art and Academia, Corrine Glesne takes a far-reaching survey of the state of academic art museums throughout the United States, primarily by means of detailed interviews with the diverse makeup of these museums’ constituents, including directors, staff, students, faculty, administrators, volunteers, as well as public and school audiences. Though my own experience in working with academic museums is admittedly somewhat limited, I became interested in this book through my frequent work with university audiences in museums. I was looking to this book to provide fresh insights into the relationship between the museum and the academic community, and it certainly did provide them. Some ideas presented in the book may already be familiar to many of us, but it was still nice to see them being reinforced across the field. One of the big questions it raised for me is: how can we, as educators, regardless of institutional affiliation, learn from academic museums, which have traditionally focused much more on education at their core than the traditional public encyclopedic museum model of “preserve and collect”? What challenges and opportunities do we have in common with academic museums, and what challenges and opportunities are unique to these museums?

In determining just what makes a museum “exemplary,” Glesne, who was commissioned for this project by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, narrowed her search by locating academic museums with objects donated from the Kress collection, and further refined her field of inquiry by identifying academic museums through surveys that seemed to be functioning as model institutions in terms of leading by example. This led her to a consideration of twelve institutions. While I would have liked to see a bit more information on the criteria that Glesne used to determine these museums’ “exemplary” status, this particular focus does lend itself to a manageable series of case studies. Tellingly, Glesne begins her analysis of the academic museum with an example of a docent-led high school tour of a Kress Foundation object, revealing her own personal emphasis on the educational role of the academic museum, as well as a somewhat obligatory focus on the role of the “great Kress giveaway” which is the subject of her first chapter. She also discusses how crucial outreach programs and K-12 educational programs became in the development of the academic museum’s history during the second half of the twentieth century, as they transitioned from private study collections to fully public institutions.

Connecting on Campus

Perhaps the crux of the book, in a chapter titled “Art Across the Curriculum,” Glesne discusses how academic museums have attempted to become embedded in the curricula of their parent institutions. For those of you who have worked with faculty before, many of these strategies for engagement in the museum might sound familiar, in terms of seeking out specific courses that mesh with a collection, networking with faculty at regularly-scheduled departmental meetings, and forming committees to develop curricula.

Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago

For me, this chapter reinforced the challenges of finding meaningful, sustainable connections with classes and allowing faculty, especially those from non-art-related disciplines, to feel independent and at home in working with a collection on their own, rather than with a museum staff serving as a mediator. Glesne also suggests some very novel approaches to connecting with faculty, including emphasizing the museum’s presence at new faculty orientations so that they are aware of the possibilities a museum can offer before they have even designed their classes.

In a particularly useful section of this chapter, Glesne breaks down the ways in which museums connect with academic curricula by identifying specific categories of curricular involvement. These categories include:

  1. “Skill development,” for example, a foreign language class that uses museum objects to provide structure to a conversation;
  2. “Interdisciplinary analysis,” or using a museum’s collection to find meaningful cross-references to other, non-art-related aspects of history;
  3. “Comparative analysis” which seeks to make connections around specific concepts, for example, how objects might communicate different messages about “love” across time and cultures;
  4. “Social critique,” which is often a topic of engagement for classes, especially as academic museums are sometimes more in a position to take risks in terms of controversial exhibitions;
  5.  “Research,” or how the practice of art historical analysis can cultivate research skills around these objects as primary source documents;
  6. And finally, “creative inspiration” as a platform for the creation of works in other forms or media.

Glesne also discusses the increasing role of the “academic curator” as it evolved out of the Mellon Foundation’s College and University Art Museum Program, and how this unique position has played a vital role in establishing stronger connections between academic museums and university faculty. As Glesne points out, this position has often had the effect of freeing up the academic museum’s other education staff to think in a more focused way about K-12 involvement. However, I am somewhat cautious about this split, as it could be seen to reinforce differences in the approach to these two audience segments, rather than seeking to address commonalities between them. On the other hand, I often wonder if public museums might find an academic curator to be a valuable position in terms of focusing on increased interactions with college audiences.

Alternative Forms of Campus & Community Engagement

Photo from "Anything for Art" http://blogs.oberlin.edu
Photo from “Anything for Art” http://blogs.oberlin.edu

Glesne’s next chapter, “Museum Art in Everyday Life,” considers the ways in which academic museums seek to connect to students and the public outside of the curriculum. She discusses the many ways in which campus art museums have tried to increase visibility through social events and informal learning. Some examples that stood out in my mind are the Snite Museum of Art’s desire to make the Museum a kind of alternative “tailgate” space to connect the Museum with Notre Dame’s much more visible football games, and the always-popular Art Rental Program at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. I was particularly struck by how meaningful the ability to check out original works of art has been, not just for the students who rent these objects (for a mere $5), but for the greater Oberlin community, including a senior center that proudly displayed works from the program in its central building. Some of simplest, yet most effective programs involve turning over the programming to a student advisory council, allowing students to take ownership of the galleries. Glesne concludes this chapter by discussing the role that academic museums play in preparing people for careers in the arts. In surveying 79 museum workers, including staff, faculty, volunteers, and students, she concludes that while, admittedly, involvement in the arts is usually something that is inculcated at a very young age, experience with an academic museum in college can lead to further interest down the road in a career in the arts.

In the Periphery and at the Center

In the final section of The Exemplary Museum, Glesne ruminates on the larger role that academic museums play, both in academia and in the art world. She addresses the often peripheral nature of these spaces and the effects that the recent economic downturn has had on many campus art museums. However, she also addresses the ways in which these museums have been successful, through positioning themselves as centers of arts and culture on campus, and/or emphasizing the possibilities for collaborative, interdisciplinary education. For the public community, she notes that academic museums have been invaluable in providing arts access to regions that are either rural or are outside the coastal art centers of the United States.

Remarkably, Glesne first discusses the importance of the academic museum through metaphor, noting that her respondents often used words like “hidden gem, platform for narrative, catalyst, laboratory, library, and portal” in describing the changing role of the campus museum (p. 204). While these terms are certainly applicable to the twelve exemplary museums that Glesne surveys, they are also pertinent to the larger discussion about the shifting role of museums in the 21st century. Glesne also includes a useful bibliography and appendix section at the end of her book, including mission statements from participating museums, detailed responses to questions on why participants became interested in museums, and questions that she asked of museum directors. Of particular interest to the readers of this blog, she also includes an appendix on examples of educational technology in academic museums, which often tend to overlap with faculty projects involving these technology platforms.

Overall, The Exemplary Museum: Art and Academia provides a thorough and compelling survey of recent activities of academic museums around the country and the unique challenges and opportunities they encounter. While educators in public museums may find some of these ideas familiar, it is heartening to know that we are not alone in our work, and the unique role of the academic art museum provides a fascinating set of case studies for thinking about how any museum can make education at the center of its mission.

I am interested in hearing more on your thoughts on Glesne’s book in the comments below, especially from those of you who do work in academic art museums.

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