Students + Staff: Curation and Education

    My previous field report on the museum studies students + staff experiment underway here at the Carnegie Museums and University of Pittsburgh documented the beginning of our semester with the hopes that CMP’s and Pitt’s pioneering collaboration can bring about positive and concrete change toward a dynamic museum profession. Our course, “Introduction to Museum Studies in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh,” started with the past and present of museums through the examples of two of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh: the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum. Both the Science Center and the Warhol offer us unusual lenses through which to study museums: a non-collecting museum and a single-artist museum. In this second part of our course of study, we moved to a more typical type of museum – an art museum, and its incarnation here, the Carnegie Museum of Art.

    CMOA is a collections-based art museum that houses over 30,000 works of art (primarily from the 19th – 21st centuries) and offers educational programming to over 40,000 people annually. To help us explore CMOA and relate its ways of operating to art museums at-large, numerous CMOA staff participated in our class sessions. Travis Snyder, Collections Database Administrator, introduced us to CMOA collections and how they are catalogued and tracked through the museum’s collections database: KE EMu. Rachel Delphia, Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, discussed her processes with curation, interpretation, representation, audience, and agency in the current temporary exhibition on view in the Heinz Galleries: Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk. To showcase the Education Department’s robust docent program, Hattie Lehman, Assistant Curator of Education and Learning for School Students, discussed docent training and the types of tours offered, including the poignant In the Moment tours, which are designed specifically for audiences suffering from dementia. These conversations about collections, curation, and education prepared us for our three open-staff fora, the first of which took place on February 29 in CMOA’s theater.

    For February’s forum, students were charged with designing a discussion based on the prompt: curation ≠ education. In consultation with Liz Park (Associate Curator of the Carnegie International 2018) and Divya Heffley (Program Manager of the Hillman Photography Initiative), students were divided into five groups to debate their positions regarding the prompt. A lively discussion ensued, in which the majority of groups felt the relationship between curation and education did not fit into such a simple equation and that the terms warranted further investigation. Through this investigation, each group came up with a sub-topic and questions to spark dialogue and deliberation with museum staff and HAA faculty and students, of which there were about 50 participants from CMOA, CMNH, the Warhol, and HAA present at the forum.

    In the forum, students in the first group delved more deeply into the prompt and asked museum staff if they believe curation and education are opposed by instigating discussion about collaborative tactics and the ideal relationship for curatorial and education departments. Eric Shiner (Director, the Warhol) was first to respond, and noted that the ideal relationship between curatorial and education staff is one of group collaboration early in the process so that all parties are invested: working in isolation is the way of the past.

    The second group built on the working methods of curatorial and education departments in regards to creating exhibits, and questioned whether through collaboration, staff make exhibits for particular audiences or based on a particular topic. While staff generally noted that the days of the monolithic “topic” are gone, Tim Pearce (Assistant Curator, Section of Mollusks, CMNH) commented on the complex relationship between audience and topic, remarking that public perception about topics also plays into decisions about what kinds of exhibits are produced.

    To probe the public’s involvement in museum decisions further, students in the third group asked about community impact on curation and if communities were brought in to diversify staff decisions. Deb Harding (Collections Manager, Section of Anthropology, CMNH) recounted the process in which members from all groups represented in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians partnered with museum staff to develop the content and display in the Hall. Desi Gonzalez (Manager of Digital Engagement, the Warhol) pushed further and made the point that partnering with the community isn’t enough, and that in order to be truly representative, museum staff needs to be as diverse as its communities. Eric Shiner followed up on this, and urged us to tear down perceptions from the top down and take a stand for social justice from the beginning by reaching out to communities. Catherine Evans (Chief Curator, CMOA) continued with the advice that exhibitions and programming need to be developed holistically and not just from inside, but with the community, through establishing porous museum walls.

    The fourth group followed up by posing the topic of how (digital) technology can help or hinder audiences, and particularly those with disabilities. Staff generally felt there needs to be a strategic and thoughtful approach to technology, especially in the galleries, and that careful planning (like interviewing people with disabilities and making changes while continually testing products) can produce quality experiences for visitors, as the Warhol is doing now in developing an app that will augment visitors’ experiences that are visually impaired. Mandi Lyon (Program and Development Coordinator, Education, CMNH) also noted that some technology can be distracting in certain situations and for certain groups; for instance, video monitors in Dinosaurs in Their Time need to be covered in order to not distract groups of young school children. The overall feeling for digital technology is that it works best as a connector, or runs the risk of detracting from the experience of the physical and tangible collections that are at the core of the museums.

    Following on the topic of the experience of collections, students in the fifth and final group queried how curation and education departments differ in their approaches to making collections that are not on display available to audiences. Staff generally cited conservation problems related to continuously displaying collections, and that extensive natural history collections are for research purposes and not necessarily for exhibition. Staff also remarked on the possibility that displaying all collections would result in a kind of over-stimulation and lack of “experience” not dissimilar from an inundation of digital technology.

    The forum’s concluding comments returned to the need to understand audiences, and to create personalized experiences through researching who is yet to be a museum visitor and why s/he has yet to come. In this vein, Eric Crosby (Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, CMOA) suggested we rethink our tradition to carve up audiences into distinct sections, but rather use the expansive mindset of the artist to help us envision creativity and opportunity everywhere. From this perspective, perhaps the equation artist = audience = curator = educator = museum is more fitting.

    Prior to our next forum, which will take place on March 28 from 1:15-2:30 in CMNH’s Earth Theater, my students and I will delve into the workings of natural history museums through the example of CMNH. Our next course of study will be especially important, as the different approaches to art and natural history museums became vastly evident through our discussion in February’s forum. In the next few weeks we will ask if the current trend to democratize the monolithic model of art curator as artistic genius and ultimate authority relates to the isolationist model of researcher/scientist as separate from the workings of the museum. 

    Until field report no. 3…

    This post is co-published with the Innovation Studio at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

    • Undergraduate Work
  • Carnegie Museum Gallery of Ethnology 1908


    Race and the Museum: A Pittsburgh Workshop

    In our far from post-racial world, museums are increasingly feeling the pressures of demographic change and urgent new campaigns for racial justice.  Famous European museums are altering the titles of art works to eliminate demeaning terms; Confederate monuments are being dismantled in public space and sent to history museums for storage; museums across the U.S. are scrambling to shed their image as bastions of privilege and to diversify their audiences and supporters. 

    How have museums, as collections and as institutions, created, supported, or challenged constructions of race and racial identity?  How are museums and their objects implicated in the history of slavery, indigenous peoples, and race relations?  How have museums represented and interpreted these issues?  How can and should their collections tell different stories?  What can museums do to combat white privilege, and become more inclusive in their institutional structures and in their audiences?

    For one week in May, a group of twelve faculty and graduate students representing nine different departments here at Pitt will tackle these questions in a new workshop funded by the A.W. Mellon Foundation.  Drawn from a wide array of fields from anthropology and history of science to English and art, the participants will go behind the scenes in local museums, dig into collections, and talk with curators and museum educators to see how they deal with these issues in their institutions and careers.             

    But we also plan to do more than just talk, as important as that is.  Every participant in the workshop will develop an individual or collaborative project to carry the workshop forward, whether it be a revised course for undergraduates, an exhibition, a publication, a community engagement initiative, or even a new partnership with a local institution.  We hope these projects will not only be transformative for the participants themselves but have ripple effects within the university and museum communities and ultimately out in the city and region as well.  Please check back in later and we will point you to a new website documenting their work and its impact.


    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects