Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh is a consortium of local museums, galleries and archives working together to share information and expertise, and foster collaboration in research, teaching, and public engagement.

Here, at the HAA Constellations blog, you can read about some of the outcomes of these partnerships. Learn more about Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh at


Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

  • Photography set up for documenting works on paper from UAG collection


    Documentation, Databases, and Attention to Detail

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Spring 2017

    In Spring 2017 I interned at The University of Pittsburgh’s University Art Gallery. As part of my work tasks, I worked with the CollectiveAccess database, updating object records and selecting works on paper from the collection to photograph for documentation.
    During the semester, I photographed hundreds of works on paper for several weeks, and imported nearly one hundred photographs into the database website. I archived other photo files to be easily accessible for future use. From the UAG’s extensive art collection, we prioritized documentation and photographs of Andrey Avinoff’s (1884-1949) watercolor sketches of the Nationality Rooms. Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar students used these sketches and images in the UAG exhibition, Narratives of the Nationality Rooms: Immigration and Identity in Pittsburgh

    Working alongside UAG curator, Isabelle Chartier, I found this work extremely rewarding and informative. Before this internship I had never had the opportunity to handle artwork so extensively. I value this new art handling experience while also being able to improve my skills in photography and photo editing. I enjoyed learning the gallery’s organizational systems, where I honed the attention-to-detail required to maintain accuracy within the database, object records, condition reports, storage locations, object IDs, and file naming. 
    For the internship I had to improve my time management and communication skills in order to successfully complete my work within the designated time frames. The skills that I gained while working on this project will benefit me both academically and professionally. I am thankful that I was able to complete an internship that provided hands-on experience in a gallery setting. 

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    Getting Involved with Audubon Day and Pittsburgh’s Birds

    Author: Melissa Yang 

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    A complete set of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1838) is a rare collector’s item worth millions, featuring 435 life-sized images of birds dramatically depicted by the controversial French-American artist-naturalist. The University of Pittsburgh owns one of these rare sets—it is the most valuable set of volumes in our library. Each fall, the University Library System hosts a public Audubon Day to celebrate the Birds of America.

    The seventh annual Audubon Day took place at the Hillman Library on November 17, 2017. During the day, select prints were displayed in special collections, and programming included live bird meet-and-greets from the National Aviary and invited talks. Local blogger and bird expert Kate St. John (author of the terrific gave a morning talk on "The Story of Peregrine Falcons at Pitt: The Dynasty Continues.”

    In the afternoon, I shared eclectic tales drawn from my dissertation research on avian rhetoric in a talk called, “Our Archival Aviaries: Exploring Pittsburgh's Birdscapes.” In addition to the resources in Pittsburgh’s many libraries and museums, I reflected on Powdermill’s bird banders, volunteering with Birdsafe Pittsburgh, and—as a result of the Consuming Nature workshop—visiting the Tarentum Homing Club pigeon racers. Seeking to cultivate bird knowledge and citizen science efforts, I encouraged the public to engage in local organizations and initiatives, including the Audubon Society, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, BirdSafe Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Birding Club, the National Aviary (Neighbohood Nestwatch and Project Owlnet), and more.

    Read about Melissa's visit to the Tarentum Homing Club here

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Pitt + CI57: Inside the Carnegie International, 57th edition, 2018

    Authors: Erin Peters (Joint Lecturer and Assistant Curator, HAA) and Liz Park (Associate Curator, Carnegie Int’l)

    We are thrilled to announce an immersive course designed to bring students inside the Carnegie Museum of Art to learn first-hand about its highly anticipated exhibition – the 57th edition of the Carnegie International. The course develops from a multi-year collaboration of Pitt’s museum studies faculty and the International’s curatorial team. Erin Peters, Joint Lecturer and Assistant Curator, HAA, and Liz Park, Associate Curator, Carnegie Int’l, will develop and co-teach the course over the fall 2018 and spring 2019 semesters as an iteration of HAA 1021: Inside the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

    A major international survey of contemporary art, the upcoming Carnegie International will run from October 2018 through March 2019. Nearly spanning the academic year, the exhibition provides an ideal case study of current museum and curatorial practices. Our two-semester course will introduce general museum studies topics as well as focus on the multi-layered process of curating and interpreting a contemporary art exhibition through the International. The exhibition itself will be the classroom and the textbook for the course – students will engage different topics each week on the floor in the galleries. Our sessions will involve in-depth discussions of the artworks and their settings with guest speakers. The weekly topic will be determined by the exhibition and the featured artworks.

    We are particularly excited about the participatory feature of the course that has the students conducting group field research in the museum, interacting with the visitors in a reciprocal learning process designed to augment the experience of both the students and audiences. In addition to other course assignments, field journals will chart our progress by chronicling the students’ weekly research shifts in the galleries and changes in their understanding over the span of the course. In order to attain a fuller understanding of the International as a curatorial project, the students will be encouraged to attend related programs leading up to and throughout the run of the exhibition.

    To learn about what is already under way for the 57th edition of the Carnegie International, visit the website here

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  • Silvia Duarte, Kate Joranson, Diego Chaves-Gnecco, María Cristello, José Carlos Díaz and Angélica Ocampo


    Can curiosity be cultivated? / ¿Se puede cultivar la curiosidad?

    Author: Ana Rodríguez Castillo

    Project Coordinator, Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh, Department of History of Art and Architecture

    This is the definition of curious according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

    Curious: adjective
    1. Marked by desire to investigate and learn. 
    2. Marked by inquisitive interest in others' concerns.
    3. Exciting attention as strange, novel, or unexpected.

    Can Curiosity be Cultivated? This is an interesting question with an easy short answer: Yes. But what really sparked my curiosity to attend to this colloquium at City of Asylum was written on the back of the flyer: ¿Se puede cultivar la curiosidad? The discussion was going to be conducted in Spanish with simultaneous English interpretation via headset for the non-Spanish speakers. If we add the complexities of language to this question it becomes much more complicated. Yes, curiosity can be cultivated, but the question now requires us to consider how  a person’s curiosity is engaged, challenged, and embodied through language?

    The panel discussion was co-moderated by Kate Joranson, Head Librarian at the Frick Fine Arts Library at the University of Pittsburgh, and Silvia Duarte, associate director of City of Asylum. Each one of the four speakers were of different Spanish-speaking origins, and they all have a very diverse professional background. I think this aspect especially enriched the conversation with such varying points of view expressed from a common language. 

    Angélica Ocampo, from Argentina, is the President and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. For her curiosity means freedom, and she embraces bilingualism as a tool to access other worlds. José Carlos Díaz, born in Miami but from a Mexican background, is the Chief Curator at The Andy Warhol Museum. He channels and explores his curiosity through art and engaging with the local community. Rosa María Cristello, a Guatemalan who moved to the U.S. at a very early age, is the Executive Director and Founder of the Latino Community Center in Pittsburgh. For her, curiosity means to ask questions to others as well as to ourselves. Curiosity is the key for learning and personal growth. Diego Chaves-Gnecco MD, MPH is a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician, Director and Founder of the program Salud Para Niños. Curiosity is something natural to him not only personally but also professionally. Throughout his career, as a scientist questions concerning why and how are at the very core of his work.

    I want to clarify, although surely it is obvious to everyone who reads my name, that I am not a native English speaker. I was born in Spain and therefore English is my second language... or third. For me, the conversation was not only enriching and interesting for its content but also for its form. Language is something that goes beyond covering a communicative need. Language is an inherent part of who we are.

    One of the speakers, I believe it was Angelica, highlighted something that I think is very special about different languages: the untranslatable words. In both English and Spanish, there are words that don´t easily translate from one language to the other. Some words need a long explanation or several words to be translated. I have experienced this situation in both languages. In my native language, Spanish, I constantly miss words because they don’t have a direct equivalent in English. Sometimes I get angry at words that translate equally but have other meanings and nuances in my mother tongue that are lost in the English translation.

    An example? This is the definition of the adjective curious according to the dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (the translation is mine):

    Curioso/a: adjetivo
    1. Inclined to find out about other people's concerns. Inclinado a enterarse de cosas ajenas.
    2. Inclined to learn what he or she does not know. Inclinado a aprender lo que no conoce.
    3. Clean and well-arranged. Limpio y bien arreglado.
    4. That draws attention or attracts interest due to its rarity or originality. Que llama la atención o despierta interés por su rareza u originalidad.
    5. Admirable or valued. Estimable o apreciable. 
    6. [Colloquial, Spain and Venezuela] That does things with great skill and dedication. Coloq. Esp. y Ven. Que hace las cosas con gran habilidad y esmero.
    7. [Venezuela] Person capable of doing any job. Ven. Persona que realiza cualquier oficio.
    8. [Peru, Dominican Republic and Venezuela] Medicine man. Perú, R. Dom. y Ven. Curandero.

    The event was very interesting and revealing. Can curiosity be cultivated? It is a question that is relevant to almost anyone. I'm curious, so yes I'm interested in the answer. But when the question is phrased as ¿Puede cultivarse la curiosidad? I also felt that the question was addressed to me. And this detail, for a foreigner who lives her day-to-day using a non-native language, it made me feel like a part of the answer.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Toward a Critical yet Empathetic Eye for Exhibition Design in the Anthropocene

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Late October, Alex Taylor and Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh gave me the opportunity to attend a conference concerning exhibition in the Anthropocene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. This opportunity enabled me to sit in on talks and discussions on exhibiting climate change, postnatural histories, and geologic time scales in contemporary ways. The University of Pittsburgh’s Colleen O'Reilly and Aisling Quigley's historical and digital work on Botany Hall in the museum and Richard Pell's keynote, The Missing Museum: Excavating Wonder and Curiosity, are exemplars in illuminating hidden histories through digital supplements and attention to provenance. 

    O'Reilly and Quigley presented their work on historically and digitally preserving and interpreting the pedagogical and artistic integrity of the museum’s Botany Hall. They illustrated the history of the dioramas as well as their provenance. Making a point to complicate that history, they discussed how the dioramas in their current state still argue for the dominion of man over nature. Reframing this modernist fallacy under the current conditions of the Anthropocene, O'Reilly and Quigley argue for the forefronting of prerequisite historical interpretation. They interrogated the assertion in the previous panel, that "dioramas are useful teaching tools," and maintained that objects in themselves, even with the aid of wall and brochure information, do not provide their own interpretation. Rather, as demonstrated in the preceding panel concerning the visually stimulating and interactive exhibits a the Natural History Museum of Utah, supporters of geologic, botanical, or biological knowledge must supplement the material in a historically oriented way. Within these questions of visual and historical representation, they offer a compromise: Botany Hall: Dioramas in Context is a work in progress that offers entrances to disciplinary knowledge in a pedagogical capacity. This compromise was echoed by audience members afterward, proposing the possibilities of social media, audio-visual, and Virtual Reality supplements to exhibition design. You can read more about their Botany Hall project here.

    Rich Pell's keynote began with complicating the seemingly evergreen dichotomy between natural and culture. He positioned his Center for Postnatural History as an intervention in this divide, a descendant of the first museum in the United States, Peale’s Museum in Baltimore,  Maryland. Peale's museum was dedicated to science, art, nature, and technology, a mission expressing the unity of cultural industries in the early history of the United States. “Sincere science,” as it were, put on display: conundrums, wonderful and curious things in the arts and natural world, wild and domesticated animals, and the awesome like. The postnatural, as an approach to the natural and unnatural world, posits that biological life has been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. The postnatural stems from this exhibition lineage and provides the foundation for the Center. His exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History debuted at the conference: We are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, is a manifestation of innovative exhibition design and historical positioning.

    With the postnatural as the un/natural force behind his thinking, he argued that the Anthropocene is always in the background of our collections, that "we have always been collecting the Anthropocene.” He provided his artifact of the Common Grackle that was stoned to death by schoolchildren from a Pennsylvania school district. He forefronted this provenance of this artifact, a specimen intentionally altered by schoolchildren. Naming it an "ambassador of that moment," he pairs it with another artifact, a bald eagle shot to death during the Battle of Gettysburg. The bald eagle was witness to the Civil War, war being a notable arbiter of the Anthropocene. These artifacts are interlocutors between moments long passed and today. In his work at the Smithsonian, he uncovered and reconstructed a history of genetically modified organisms while documenting the people that brought specimens, recently killed by newly cleaned windows or quick-at-hand brooms, to the attention of the on-site collector. Security guards and secretaries then became arbiters of the museum’s displays of knowledge; they became wrapped up in the species’ and institutional history. It is in this ways that Pell validated provenance and attribution as critical historical markers in exhibit display in the Anthropocene.

    Pell defended his study and exhibition practice (though I do not think he had to!) when he said, “you might think what you’re looking at is boring,” that if you look closely enough something awe-inspiring happens. He invited us into the inspiring, frustrating, and wonderful dignity of “boring” research. Though he admitted that the spectacle will often supersede sincerity, an indebtedness to sincere inquiry will preserve the integrity of knowledge and the integrity of sincere exhibition practices. Same with O’Reilly and Quigley: updating our exhibition methods continuously within the shifting conditions of the Anthropocene will maintain the integrity of these spaces as mediators of systems of knowledge, especially today when those systems are under increased scrutiny, questioning, and in some cases, attack. These stories take intention and effort to unfold, as Pell states in Land, Animal, and Nonanimal (K Verlag 2015). I would like to add to the discussion that though a historically critical eye will help viewing these deceivingly complicated objects, I argue that intentional, tender attention to these objects—and an understanding that artifacts are not as simple as they appear—will engender a empathetic yet critically thinking audience, newly motivated to preserve the life and lives on this planet.


    Thanks to Colleen O'Reilly, Aisling Quigley, Deborah Danuser, and Rich Pell for the winding conversations supporting many of these observations.


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    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
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    Promotional Poster from the opening of "The River Ran Red".


    Experiencing Domike

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Library System (University of Pittsburgh Archives Service Center) - Fall 2017

    Coming into the university archives, I knew two things about Steffi Domike. I knew that she was a filmmaker and I knew that she was a women’s labor activist. But that’s barely scratching the surface when it comes to the career of Steffi Domike. My first real exposure to the material came from reading the entire finding guide. As I went through the finding guide, I made a list of boxes and folders with titles that intrigued me. That list guided me through the actual collection for the first time. Each box or folder revealed a new aspect of Domike’s career.  Her collection is housed in two sections, the first portion being in the labor section of the archive stacks. The materials I read were pretty much what I expected; pamphlets, buttons, flyers for various events, photographs, and newspaper articles. What surprised me about Domike’s interest in labor activities in the 19th century. However, I had only gone through a small portion of the collection so I put my curiosity aside. I moved on to the other section of her collection and read syllabi for her classes, personal art projects, and various proposals and summaries for her films. The materials from Life Without Father really caught my interest and I read everything from that particular film project. By the end of that first week, my understanding of Steffi Domike had changed dramatically. She was no longer simply a labor activist and filmmaker; she was a professor, creator, and researcher. She is this renaissance woman who kept her overall goal of advancing labor and women’s rights at the front of her work.

    The second week of the internship a box of new materials appeared on my desk and I was tasked with housing its contents within the permanent collection. I wanted to do the collection justice and find the best home for each of the new materials. I began by reading every piece of material completely. Once I had finished reading and making notes on everything in the box, I began making connections between the new material and the themes and elements of the collection. Events and themes began to come to the forefront: the Battle of Homestead, the Patriot Act, the decline of the steel industry, and non-profit finances. While reading the materials about the Battle of Homestead, which is the subject of Domike’s River Ran Red, I realized how old and embedded the labor movement was in the fabric of Pittsburgh steel. Until this point, almost of the materials I had read were from the 1970s and 1980s, which is what I had been expecting. I gained a completely new perspective on her work while working with anything dealing with River Ran Red or the Battle of Homestead Centennial materials. I became almost obsessed with the event and took on a small rehousing project for her binders of images from the film. In my mind the scope of Domike’s career had drastically changed. I had been under the impression that Steffi Domike became a creator because she desired justice for her own career within the steel industry, but in reality Domike desired justice for all those who had been wronged by the steel industry.

    As this experience comes to an end and I spend my final hours working with Domike, I have a deep sense of accomplishment for each of the materials that I’ve been able to place into the collection. I believe that I’ve done the everything within my ability to put these materials in effective places within the collection. But in truth, I’ve learned much more than practical archival skills this semester. I’ve learned to always approach a new experience with an open mind rather than letting my expectation cloud the experience. Domike and her career taught me that at times expectations can potentially be the downfall of a great learning experience. Academically, I’ve chosen to focus on history that is much older and broad in scope than Domike. I concentrated on Ancient Civilizations in my history studies and so Domike’s career is much too modern for my liking, but by no means does that diminish that value of Domike to me personally. Quite frankly, I’ve become quite fond of Domike over the past last few months and I’ll miss her presence in my daily life.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here


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  • Patricia E. Beeson, Andrew Masich, Laurence Glasco, Kirk Savage, Christel Temple and Deane Root


    Monuments controversy discussed by Pitt and Heinz History Center experts

    Author: Alex J. Taylor

    Assistant Professor and Academic Curator, Department of History of Art and Architecture

    On 20 November, scholars from the University of Pittsburgh and our museum partners contributed to a panel discussion titled American Memorials in the 21st Century: A Monumental Mess at Posvar Hall at the University of Pittsburgh. Building on controversies about confederate public monuments prompted by Charlottesville protests, and more local discussions concerning the future of the Stephen Foster Memorial, the wide-ranging discussion focused on the politics of monuments on the university campus, and the ethical challenges they can present. 

    ‘As long as there have been memorials, people have been tearing down memorials,’ observed Andy Masich from the Heinz History Center in his opening remarks. Kirk Savage from History of Art and Architecture agreed, but pointed out that monuments had been removed for a wide variety of reasons (both political and practical), and often involve their own forms historical erasure in the heroes they choose to celebrate. Other speakers directly addressed their varied understandings of the meaning of the Stephen Foster Memorial, and the politics of racial difference that its imagery engaged. Conclusions and audience comments explored the challenges of solving these problems, and discussed the policies and practicalities of reinterpretation and removal.

    The discussion was hosted by Provost Patricia E. Beeson, and included contributions from Andrew Masich, CEO and President of the Heinz History Center, Kirk Savage, Dietrich Chair in the History of Art and Architecture, Laurence Glasco, Associate Professor in History, Christel Temple, Associate Professor of Africana Studies, and Deane Root, Professor, Chair and Director of the Center for American Music.

    To read more about the response of History of Art and Architecture faculty and students to the Stephen Foster Memorial see Remembering or Erasing The Past? The HAA Department Responds to Stephen Foster Memorial

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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  • Chambers, Nicholas. Adman: Warhol before Pop. Sydney: New South Wales, 2017.


    Discovering Adman

    Museum Studies Intern at The Andy Warhol Museum - Fall 2017

    When I began my undergraduate career at the University of Pittsburgh, hours from home and eager to explore my new city, one of my first stops was The Andy Warhol Museum. I was immediately fascinated by the concept of a museum dedicated to a single artist and equally interested in the museum’s mission to ‘contribute research and scholarship about contemporary art and Andy Warhol.’ Before my first visit, I was somewhat familiar with Warhol’s most popular work, including his portraits of celebrities and Campbell’s Soup Cans, but was naïve to the breadth and longevity of the Pittsburgh native’s career. On countless return trips to the museum, I was always intrigued by both the work of curators who continuously reimagined the collection and of Warhol’s ability to produce art that remains relevant decades after its inception.

    This past semester I had the opportunity to intern with Milton Fine Curator of Art, Jessica Beck. My work for the term centered around researching two upcoming shows, Adman: Warhol Before Pop and Cry Baby: Devan Shimoyama. One of the most rewarding aspects of my time at The Andy Warhol Museum has been the opportunity to gain insight on the inner workings of the curatorial process. Compiling bibliographies on Warhol’s Boy Book drawings and photography has not only increased my personal knowledge of previous scholarship on Warhol, but also allowed me to provide valuable sources of reference to the curatorial team. During this process, I utilized Pitt’s University Library System. Having access to databases and sources helped me do my job efficiently and continue to learn more about Warhol as I researched.  

    Serving as a curatorial assistant at The Andy Warhol Museum has been extremely gratifying. As an Art History and Museum Studies student who is interested in contemporary art and passionate about the city of Pittsburgh, this position has allowed me to explore future career possibilities and learn about the innovative, complex, and immortal work of Andy Warhol.  

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Image of the Carnegie Funerary Boat within the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt


    To Survey or not To Survey: Conducting Audience Evaluations

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2017

    A survey is just a piece of paper or an online questionnaire that takes a couple of minutes of your time; a completely insignificant portion of a lifetime. Who knew that the small piece of paper or the few seemingly simple questions could hold so much weight in the world of museum curation.

    This semester I had the privilege of interning with Dr. Erin Peters, the Assistant Curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in the development stages of the new Egyptian exhibit Egypt on the Nile. I was tasked with creating and carrying out formative audience evaluations; gathering feedback from the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt visitors on the plans and ideas for the future exhibit. Before my time on the museum floor, I began by reading articles and past evaluations to gain an understanding of the methodologies and importance of audience evaluation. Although the curators and the museum staff have the final word in an exhibition, audience feedback will feed into the creation of the exhibit; after all, the exhibit is for the visitors.

    As they were in the later stages of the evaluations, the survey I created had to be more specific to the designs of the new exhibit. I was focused on the digital display for the Carnegie Funerary Boat, specifically its auditory segment. This resulted in a multi-style question survey about the possible interactive ideas for the boat's installment. In addition to the survey, I used visual aids to give the visitors a clue as to how the exhibit will come together and to illustrate the new themes and digital additions to the current objects on display. This resulted in approximately one hundred and five total responses. I will be concluding my internship by compiling all the responses and analysis into a final report that will be used in the two next stages of exhibit development.

    Due to the large number of responses in a short amount of time, the significance of visitor feedback becomes more apparent. While compiling the results you begin to realize how a collective audience feels about a museum experience; what kinds of displays attract the most people, how lines affect a museum experience, whether visitors are willing to stop and read labels, and what they are hoping to learn when they enter a museum space. This survey will help dictate the use of handsets versus the overhead projection of sound, how the boat segments are displayed, whether or not they utilize both auditory and visual displays, and even what themes and concepts are focused on within the exhibit as a whole. As a past visitor I never really get a chance to see the impact I made on the exhibit just by visiting, but working behind the scenes I got the chance to experience first hand not only how important the visitors are, but how stopping to fill out a few quick questions can shape future museum experiences.

    Overall, this internship provided me with a greater appreciation and understanding for the work and effort needed to create an accessible and effective exhibit, as well as the skills and the drive to continue working on curatorial projects in the future.


    Timing and tracking at the Carnegie Museum of Art

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Art - Fall 2017

    Think about your favorite museum. What immediately catches your attention? Which attractions—whether an artwork, a specific exhibit, an interactive activity—do you always make sure to see? Are there ones that don’t interest you, ones you tend to skip over?  

    This fall, I was given the amazing opportunity to conduct a tracking-and-timing study as an intern at the Carnegie Museum of Art. During this time, I observed visitor behavior in the Created, Collected, Conserved: The Life Stories of Paintings exhibit in the museum’s Scaife Galleries. Tracking and timing is an observational method that gives museums an idea of how their spaces are being utilized—what museum components attract the most attention, how long visitors are spending in museum spaces, and more. It’s a great tool for museums to understand which elements of their exhibits work—and which ones do not—in order to better construct exhibits that truly engage their visitors.

    Before I began this internship, I was an employee of the Visitor Services department at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History; I have worked there since October 2016, and working directly with visitors proves to be an eye-opening experience every day. However, verbal or written visitor feedback is often lacking or impractical—it would be nearly impossible for a visitor to recount their opinion of every work in a given exhibit, and surveys are relatively infrequent, and thus less reliable. In this case, timing and tracking, a way to anonymously ‘survey’ visitors, can signal the good and bad in a museum solely based on the behavior and movements of a visitor in a gallery or exhibit.

    The most important thing I learned from this internship is how much our understanding of visitor opinion changes when we view museum-goers in a more natural, relaxed state. As a Visitor Services representative, my job is to directly engage with our guests and ask them blatantly, ‘How did you like our museum?’ My tasks included taking surveys directly from the visitor, seemingly looming over them while they choose from formulated answers to closed-ended questions. I’ve come to realize how intrusive formal surveys can feel to a visitor. But my task as an intern was to take a hands-off approach with visitors, to watch them from afar, to let their actions answer the questions we have about our galleries. These behaviors are incredibly informative; by studying patterns of our guests’ movements and coding the pertinent behaviors, I was able to glean which artworks were the most eye-catching and which ones tended to be ignored, and study. Based on their engagement with each art object, visitors wordlessly showed me what they liked and what they didn’t find interesting. It was amazing to see how some of the most valuable visitor feedback lay in the unconscious behaviors of museum-goers.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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