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Tales from Campus: how a collections-based seminar went virtual

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Materials assembled for The Trout Gallery's curatorial seminar, as adapted for remote learning
Materials assembled for The Trout Gallery's curatorial seminar, as adapted for remote learning

All museums have had their worlds turned upside-down in the past year, but college and university museums and galleries face a specific set of challenges. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as this academic year began only 27 percent of US universities and colleges planned to conduct classes entirely or primarily in person, 21 percent offered a mix of online and in-person instruction, and 44 percent implemented fully or primarily virtual instruction. Many campus museums are closed to the public, and can provide only limited access for their academic community. In this environment, how can museums continue to support students, researchers, and instructors who rely on the museum for opportunities and resources? In today’s guest post, Phillip Earenfight, Director and Associate Professor at The Trout Gallery of Dickinson College, walks us through one ingenious, if labor intensive, way to meet these needs.
–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

Every year The Trout Gallery—the art museum of Dickinson College—organizes a curatorial seminar exhibition in conjunction the college’s department of art history. This theme-based curatorial project draws from the museum’s 10,0000 work collection and is a required course for all art history seniors and result in a major exhibition and catalogue. (Examples of past exhibitions are available online.)

Normally, the curatorial work is performed during the fall semester in a seminar that meets in the museum’s print/drawing study center, with the exhibition going on display in the winter/spring. However, this fall, the college has chosen to implement 100 percent virtual instruction. Consequently, I am charged with running the seminar entirely online with six co-curators who are scattered across 12 different time zones. To make matters more complicated, the theme for this year’s exhibition is “Experiencing Photography”—which focuses on how viewers interact with photos from 1839-2020. This is not easy since all the photos are in storage (at the museum or at other institutions) and students do not have physical access to them.

In an effort to make this seemingly improbable if not impossible process work, I have adopted the following tools and strategies:

  • I had all students build a camera obscura through a craft-kit that I found online and shipped to them. It was important for them all to understand directly the optics of such a device, particularly since our first section of the exhibition deals with daguerreotypes and related direct image captures. I also made and posted a video of how to assemble the camera (the instructions that came with the kit were confusing and left out some key steps). Students were required to make a photo using their camera obscura and capturing the image on their cell phone. Although it may seem gimmicky, the goal was to start off by putting something physical and tactile into their hands. Something to put on their desks. Something to toy with, to ponder, to play with, to imagine how amazing the camera is—in all its simplicity and wonder. Something to inspire them in the absence of their colleagues and the collections.
  • In addition to the works in the museum’s collection (which are all online), the exhibition will draw as well from works in the college’s archives and special collections as well from the county’s historical society—none of which are digitized. This means I am visiting all of these collections, taking photos and videos of works, posting them on our server for the students to review and build up the exhibition checklists.
  • As part of the exhibition’s section on “Snapshot” photography, I am conducting a COVID-candid photo project whereby all students (2300 of them) are invited to submit (digital) photos of their work away from campus, often in the company of their family; to contemplate the place of photographs in their life when they cannot be where they wish. These photographs will be compiled for a digital book that supplements the exhibition and selections of these candids will be considered for inclusion in the actual exhibition when it is (eventually) installed (it is scheduled for February-April 2021).
  • In early October, we will begin designing the exhibition layout, using Sketchup and related CAD software via Zoom.
  • In October, I will lay out all the photos in the print room and hold Zoom discussions on editing the show to its final form.
  • In December, I will take the framed works, lay them out in the gallery and lead a discussion on Zoom to gain a working sense of what fits in the space.
  • In addition to Zoom sessions for the class (which meets from 8:00pm-9:15pm EST, Mondays and Thursdays), I meet with each student independently to talk about anything on their minds, keep them on track with their work and to close the distance. When necessary, I hold objects up to my laptop camera, turn and manipulate them, and try to give the student a sense of what it’s like to hold such objects.
  • Conducting research is also a challenge. Each student is required to prepare a scholarly essay for the catalogue. This means I have become a one-man inter-library loan service, shuttling materials to them from our library (which is closed) via UPS/FedEX/USPS, scanning and sending articles not available online, and buying books new and used to ship to students where they live. This is a daily service I provide—requests are fulfilled in 12–24 hrs. Keep in mind, with all the students gone, I have no student work study help. Sono solo io.

This is exhausting work—on many levels, particularly with my beloved staff entirety away from the office and working remotely.

The College is aiming to reopen on-campus courses, provided the conditions to do so safely are in place. If not, the co-curators and I will press on, produce the exhibition catalogue as scheduled, and, at a future date, reschedule the exhibition for fall of 2021 or winter 2022. Although they will all have since graduated by then, we will make arrangements to bring them back to campus for the opening.

This said, academic museums are fortunate in that most of them operate under the aegis of their parent institution, many of which provide a wide range of support, including: salary assistance; COVID testing and tracking of staff members; and retrofitting facilities to enable social distancing. Such support is costly, particularly at a time with reduced attendance or none at all. While academic museums face challenges particularly to the academic environment, many are in a position to better absorb the financial headwinds resulting from the pandemic (many do not charge an entrance fee and are thus not dependent on such revenue).  Stand-alone museums, which lack such insulation, are particularly vulnerable under the present conditions.

In her most recent update to the Dickinson College community, President Margee Ensign wrote “We are reviewing and updating our reopening plan and we expect to make an announcement regarding the spring semester in November, guided—as we have been—by data, evidence and science.”

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