Engaging in Critique and Conversation with the UAG Collection

Black and white photograph of a young girl beginning to climb up a set of stairs with dramatic lighting

Stair Climber, Los Angeles, California (1970) by Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. (UAG Collection)


Engaging in Critique and Conversation with the UAG Collection

Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery (UAG) – Spring 2021

“Don’t be afraid to be critical of our collection. What perspectives are we missing? What questions need to be raised?” This bold approach was beyond what I initially predicted I would be doing as an intern at the University Art Gallery – but I am so grateful for the conversations and insight it generated. My work consisted mainly of researching artworks, building understanding of historical context, analyzing artistic choices, and encapsulating all of it into easily digestible yet thought-provoking blurbs. With the guidance of Dr. Sylvia Rhor Samaniego, Director and Curator of the UAG, I approached this task within the unique framework posed above. I was also given the freedom to consider, what am I most interested in learning and writing about? What conversations do I think we should be having, based on the artworks in the collection? In what ways can the UAG respond to the current moment, navigating limitations imposed by a public health crisis and playing a part in nationwide social justice movements?

At the start of the semester, my assignment was to research and brainstorm ideas about how we could introduce more aspects of the collection through social media, given that physical interaction with the UAG’s exhibition space was not possible. This soon transitioned into creating content that could work for both social media and the website. The goal was to create new ways for visitors to virtually navigate the works in the collection, namely through themed series of about six works each that would shed light on underappreciated facets of the collection. I spent some time with my fellow interns examining how other university art museums organized their collections online, browsing our collection, and brainstorming potential themes. I eventually developed four series, exploring the visual representation of historic Pittsburgh through the Gimbel Collection, the objectification of women in art, the relationship between women and emotion, and international postwar abstraction in the Lowenthal Collection. The two series about women were particularly striking for me to work on; I was able to directly bring my own perspectives and questions I wanted to ask to the table. It was so powerful to be given the chance to provoke these important conversations through my writing.

In addition to doing background research and writing captions for each artwork, I spent some time learning about accessibility strategies and applying them to my work, mainly through writing alt text and image descriptions. We also had an engaging discussion during one intern meeting about ways in which the UAG, along with other museums and galleries, can improve accessibility in web design, social media, and public programming. As the semester continued, and I slowly put all the components of each series together, I was very grateful to have assistance from Brooke Wyatt, a graduate student in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. Working with her, as well as with the other interns, reminded me of the value of external perspectives for collaboration and revision.

Overall, this internship felt to me like ascending a second set of stairs into the realm of art museums and art history. The first was a course I took in the fall, during which I helped develop an exhibition for the UAG. Prior to that, my knowledge came only from occasional visits to art museums whenever I visited a new city. But it has been so much fun discovering this new world. That is why I chose the image above. To me, this photograph from our collection (and included in one of the series I developed) symbolizes the beginning of a journey. It depicts the joy and drama of a new venture, the beauty of open-endedness – feelings I know very well from my exploration of the museum world thus far. Continuing forward, I am excited to keep exploring, whether professionally within this realm, or outside using the research and writing skills I have honed during this time. Either way, this internship has been a wonderful and educational experience.