guest post: university museums can take more risks — but they’re still risks

Today’s post for Campus Museum Week is by Gretchen Jennings. Gretchen is a longtime museum professional, having worked as an educator, administrator, and exhibition project director in a variety of museums – art, history, and science. She blogs at Museum Commons.

…museums and their staffs remain mostly timid. When confronted with public debate, we find that the most threatened have retreated….those who feel most public, and whose funding is most controlled by politicians, are most vulnerable to the pressure put upon them by the funders. That does not surprise me. However when the same institutions are led by courageous people, they create programs, policies and exhibitions that have led the world to change. (Elaine Heumann Gurian)

Adrianne’s call for guest posts on campus museums reminded me of something I learned while editing the Fall, 2008 issue of Exhibitionist (the journal of NAME, the National Association for Museum Exhibition), I discovered that when university museums are contemplating an exhibition on a “difficult” or “sensitive” topic they have some advantages over other types of museums.The theme of that issue of the journal was “The Unexhibitable,” and we had solicited articles about attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to mount controversial exhibitions. Two of the articles were submitted by colleagues working at university museums, and their experiences inspire this post. You can find both articles, as well as the entire Fall 2008 issue, in the Exhibitionist Archives on the NAME webpage.

Jack Rasmussen, Director of the American University Museum in Washington, DC, wrote an article entitled “Botero: Abu Ghraib and the Economics of Censorship.” It describes his efforts in 2006-2007 to display Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s graphic paintings of Iraqi prisoners, inspired by accounts of the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. abu3_smallThe exhibition of nearly 100 works had been traveling since 2005 to museums in Europe, but attempts to display the paintings in the United States had been largely unsuccessful. Remember that this was still the height of the war in Iraq. There had been a small show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, which represents Botero in the U.S., and an exhibition at the Doe Library on the Berkeley Campus of the University of California (another campus venue!). Otherwise, though Botero charged no rental fees for the show, no other museum in the United States took him up on the offer.

Despite an initial negative reaction to the Abu Ghraib exhibition by the American University Board and administration, Rasmussen persisted and won them over, writing, “American University decided it could take the heat for Botero: Abu Ghraib if it could tie the exhibition more closely to the curricula of its different schools.” He continues, “University museums are doubly insulated from the inevitable political pressures that will surround AbuGhraibtriptychcontroversial programming: there is ‘Freedom of Speech’ in America and ‘Academic Freedom’ on campus.” Rasmussen did face financial pressures, however. As he observes, most university museums are underfunded, and need to find outside monies. Rasmussen found a private donor, and there was no rental fee; nevertheless, the costs of shipping and display left his institution with a deficit.

And the local press was strangely silent. While the show at AU attracted worldwide media coverage, the Washington Post printed only a review by Erica Jong, who had seen the shorter New York version. (When I contacted the Post art critic about the lack of a local review, he said he had also reviewed the New York show and did not see any reason to write a second story.)

Andrea Douglas, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the University of Virginia Art Museum, contributed “Forming American Identities: Our Southern Legacy.” Her article recounts the considerable efforts of the University of Virginia Art Museum staff to create a series of exhibitions and programs that would allow for discussion and community-building around issues of race and discrimination. The University founded by Thomas Jefferson, with his own tangled relationship to slavery, and the city of Charlottesville, center of resistance to school integration in the 1950’s, appear to have a particular legacy of racial tension lying just below the surface of daily life.

The museum courageously decided to address this tension through year-long programming entitled Forming American Identities: Our Southern Legacy. Three exhibitions would be mounted over the year: The Legacy of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art; William Christenberry: Site/Possession (featuring artist Christenberry’s Klan Tableau installation); and The Dresser Trunk Project, 11 trunks filled with items related to how whites and blacks inhabited once-segregated spaces along the railroad line that still runs between New Orleans and New York City.

The museum developed associated lectures and discussions and made a concerted effort to recruit and train a multi-racial docent corps. This latter project involved a tremendous amount of frank discussion, the revelation of painful memories, and the building of trust between the museum and the local community. Although Douglas does not say this, I would venture that the university museum was perhaps the only cultural institution in this community that could have succeeded with this delicate project. Douglas goes on to describe efforts to travel the Christenberry exhibition with its Klan artifacts (displayed to show the savage and violent nature of the Klan) to other university museums:

We directed our solicitations to university museums, believing they would bring the necessary inter-disciplinary resources to the exhibition and were freer to engender conversations about race. However, may of the institutions we contacted did not take the exhibition, citing reasons such as fear of alienating donors; fear of branding the organization as controversial; or an inability to do the extensive community program that seemed to be required. In the South it seemed that displaying the Tableau could cause one to lose one’s job.

Nevertheless, a number of university museums, including Ol’ Miss, did take the exhibition, although it appears they did not attempt the kind of intense community involvement taken on by the UVA Art Museum.

You can read the articles in full at the site given at the beginning of this article. Reflecting five years later on the issues they raise, and on the continuing reluctance of most museums to take on crucial issues in our culture if they appear to be controversial, I think that university museums are in a unique position to tackle these kinds of topics because they have the following characteristics:

  • The tradition of academic freedom
  • An overarching board and administration (the university) that provides a measure of legal protection and moral credibility
  • Availability of multi-disciplinary resources to provide context to difficult and complex topics
  • An academic tradition of taking on complex discussions

There will certainly be difficulties and challenges in deciding to exhibit contested content, as these articles illustrate. But the authors and their institutions showed the kind of courage, persistence, and leadership that Elaine Gurian called for in the opening quotation. It would be wonderful to see more university museums follow their lead.

10 years, 20 countries, 100 thought leaders

For the next two days, I’m in Central Texas for New Media Consortium‘s The Future of Education: The Horizon Project Retreat.

Since 2002, NMC has brought hundreds of technologists, educators, college and university faculty, museum professionals and corporate representatives together to examine how emerging technologies impact informal and formal learning in the K-12, higher education and museum sectors.  The findings are discussed openly and then freely shared through the resulting reports.

I eagerly read the Horizon Report: 2010 Museum Edition and immediately shared it with my co-workers. It was exciting because the report provided scholarly substantiation for many of the technology-based initiatives the Education Department was trying to establish and served as validation for the forward-thinking programs already in progress.

When the call for Advisory Board members for the 2011 report went out, I gave it a shot. So much time passed between applying and notification that I assumed it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Needless to say, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to serve.

Contributing to the 2011 Museum Edition of the Horizon Report was an unforgettable experience and I’m honored to be part of the collaborative community that has arisen from ten years of helping educators “facilitate global collaboration and encourage smarter discovery and dissemination of emerging learning approaches.”

I’ll try to tweet as much as I’m able but you can follow the conversation on #NMChz. Britt Watwood provided a quick wrap-up of tonight’s opening session (I’m still in awe of how David Sibbet’s visual mapping brought our conversation to life.)

needle in a haystack

Have you noticed the euphemisms created to describe the economy? Phrases like “recent economic downturn”, “rough patch”, “slow economic growth” and “credit crunch” are tossed about like confetti, all in an effort to keep from telling us what we already know–the economy sucks.  The fact that 14.6 million people in the United States alone are unemployed is frightening.   Does that stat make anyone else want to run screaming through the streets?  Either we’re really great at policing ourselves, or we’ve collectively bought into the hype that everything is okay.  I don’t know about you, but something don’t feel right out here.  And the aforementioned figure doesn’t even take into account those who haven’t filed for unemployment benefits, have just given up on ever finding work or are retired.

As evidenced by the preceeding paragraph, the current economy is on my mind, and I’m noticing how it’s playing out amongst the recently graduated.  In the past couple of months, I’ve been asked “How did you get your job?” with increasing frequency and urgency as newly-minted art, art history, museology and art education grads find themselves scrapping for specialized museum jobs alongside displaced museum employees and/or sector switchers.   Finding entry-level work in the museum field was tough before the economy went south.  Now, I’m being told, it is nearly impossible.

Interning used to be a golden ticket into the field.  But with the Department of Labor investigating the potential illegality of that unpaid labor force, expect many of those positions to dry up if  the Feds insist that minimum wage and/or benefits are required.   And even if cash-strapped museums are able to slip through the unpaid loophole, whom but the most affluent among us can afford to work long-term for free?

Some feel an advanced degree will make you stand out from the pack.  With most full-time entry-level positions at museums  now requiring an undergraduate degree, this seems like a sensible course of action.   But Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wonders if museum studies graduate programs are worth the effort, contributing to unnecessary barriers being placed before potential museum employees, while Center for the Future of Museums suggests that museums skip the college crowd altogether in their staffing searches.

So how did I find my job?  When I was in AmeriCorps, I emailed my sister (a recently-graduated art major) info about a position at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.     She scored that gig (’cause she’s awesome).  Several months later, as she prepared to move out of state, she informed me that the Museum was trying to fill a program assistant position in the Education Department.  For sure, the fact that she referred me helped, but everything after that was up to the fates.   I can’t say for sure what combination of experience, education, moxie or bargaining with a higher power gave me the edge, but it wasn’t an easy process.  I had a total of four interviews: two via phone, a one-on-one in person, and a group in-person.  After all that, I was so grateful to get it, I never thought about asking why they hired me!   *adding that to my to-do list* 

Apparently, my entry into the museum field was a bit nontraditional (no art, art history, education or museology background), so I decided to ask  May Evans, a degreed museologist, about her recent experiences with museum employment prospects (or the lack thereof.) Her responses definitely provided much-needed insight into this issue.  A poet, blogger, artist, museum-lover and self-described “weirdo with a big heart”, you can also follow Ms. Evans on Twitter @readheadgirl.

Why did you decide to pursue a museum-related degree?

I was searching for a grad school to put me on a career path after earning a degree in English: Creative Writing. I’d done that largely for personal development. I have been writing poetry since I was twelve and I loved working with words. Unfortunately, the only career paths I could see with that degree weren’t anything I was interested in at the time: marketing, specifically, but working for a corporation generally.  I was looking for something that was in the non-profit world when I ran across the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Museology Master’s program.  Instantly this made sense for me. I have been in more museums than I can name over my life! Most of my family vacations were arranged around museums and historical sites to visit and I have always been in love with art and the art museums that house it.  That’s the long answer. The short answer is that I couldn’t image myself in any other career path at the time.

Where did you study?

I studied at the University of Washington, Seattle. While I was there I worked for two years in on-campus Henry Art Gallery.  I also had internships at three other museums, one of which turned into my final project for the program.

How many attempts at securing museum-related work have you made?

I can’t say how many in total I’ve made since before I graduated from UW 3 years ago, but since February 2010, I’ve made 35 attempts.

Has the experience been positive or negative?

Overwhelmingly negative. Most museums will never get back with me. The ones that do normally respond that while my skills are impressive, they went with a candidate who more closely matched their needs.  I have not gotten a single interview from a museum in all this time.

What are the common barriers you have experienced in pursuing museum work?

My hugest barrier is that I do not have much more than two years worth of museum experience, and only two years of PAID museum experience.  Most museum job postings I’ve seen asks for 3+ years of experience at the least. Sometimes this keeps me from applying and sometimes it doesn’t.   Either way, it isn’t helpful and it makes me concerned I might never get the type of work I want to do.  My other barrier is that many museums want a curator to have a Ph.D. in some type of art.   Since I don’t have a B.A. in art, it’s basically impossible for me to get a Ph.D. in it as most universities require that. So I feel I can’t even further my education any more in order to get over my inexperience barrier, which is doubly frustrating.

What should museums do to encourage and develop the next generation of museum workers?

Be willing to consider applicants with less than “ideal” education or experience.  Provide a broader range of volunteer activities that prospective employees could take part in.

Are you frustrated by your search for museum-related work? Check  out the resources below and feel free to add your suggestions, tips or responses in the comments.

How to Get a Job in Museums Part 1

How to Get a Job in Museums Part 2

Deb’s Unofficial Guide to Getting a Job in the Museum World

So You Want to Work in a Museum? Confessions of an Art History Major