The Southwest in Motion: Students Curating Native American Art, Part 2

Last week, I posted the first of this two-part series about the intrepid and dedicated group of students from my ART 4763/5763 History of Native American Art and Material Culture course who put together an exhibition for the OSU Museum of Art last spring. Volunteering to get involved above and beyond their coursework, these students—Roxanne Beason, Calli Heflin, Katelynn Pipestem, Chestiké Williams, and Amanda Zimmerman—experienced the challenge of curating Native American art from soup to nuts.

The resulting exhibition, “The Southwest in Motion: Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Paintings from the Charles Little Collection,” opened on June 11, 2019. The closing reception, featuring guest speakers Dr. Farina King and Myron Beeson, will be Thursday, September 5, from 5-7pm. The show will be on view through September 14, 2019. Last week and this week on the blog, I recap our curatorial process, inviting you behind the scenes.

Community Collaboration

Conversations about decolonization have taught us that Indigenous communities and voices should be prioritized in any museum exhibition involving their cultures—but although we had several Native students in the class, none identified culturally with the tribes represented in the exhibition. I wrote to my colleague at the Edmon Low Library, Julie Pearson-Little Thunder, to ask her for suggestions of local artists and historians who might be willing to help us out. Without a budget from the museum, I was initially asking for volunteers, which would not have been my preference, as it continues a pattern of institutional exploitation of marginalized voices. I began to explore alternative funding sources, but because our timeline was short, I initially reached out to people with the open admission that my students and I were dependent upon their goodwill and generosity.

The first person I spoke with was Dr. Farina King, a history professor at Northeastern State University. She was immediately enthusiastic about connecting with us, sharing her work and engaging thoughtfully with ours. Meanwhile, graduate student Roxanne Beason was in conversation with artist Myron Beeson, whose work is in the exhibition. He offered her insight into his painting, but also offered to come and share his knowledge and skill—both as an artist and as a traditional flute player—with museum visitors at the opening reception.

Southwest in Motion reception poster

After we had put together a checklist and drafted exhibition labels, we sent our work to Dr. King in order to give her a sense of the exhibition’s direction. We met with her via Skype after class one afternoon, and I invited all the students in the class to participate in the conversation, whether or not they had volunteered for the exhibition. One of the students, Robert Streeter, observed afterwards that the conversation helped him connect what we learned in class about the history of Native people to the museum world. “We talked about the negative effects of colonialism and how to better show respect towards the Native American art in the exhibition,” he recalled, expressing appreciation for Dr. King’s interest in the project and the ideas she offered to students about connecting history and culture.

Research and Writing

Because we were all learning together, our research and writing was a group process. We met after class for up to three hours a week, sharing library books, bouncing ideas back and forth, and editing texts. Questions were raised: why is so much writing about Native American art about form rather than iconography? What information is appropriate to share with a general audience, and how have understandings of sacred and/or culturally private knowledge changed over time? How can we increase the number of Diné (Navajo), Hopi, and Pueblo perspectives that we’re bringing to bear on our research and writing through research as well as community engagement? How do we evaluate scholarly texts written twenty, forty, or eighty years ago?

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Dr. Trever Lee Holland, Roxanne Beason, Chestiké Williams (obscured), Amanda Zimmerman, and Katelynn Pipestem work together on research and writing for “The Southwest in Motion.”

Dr. Trever Lee Holland and I took responsibility for writing the introductory text for the show, based on the students’ research. But before we could do that, we needed a title. For me, coming up with a title is the most difficult part of any curatorial process—but thanks to years of teaching, I’ve come up with a strategy for collaborative title-making that generates a high level of conceptual conversation, as well as a thoughtful approach to the poetics of phrasing.

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Process board for devising an exhibition title.

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Process board for devising an exhibition title.

Once we had a title with which we were all happy—“The Southwest in Motion”—Trever and I drafted the introductory text. We sent it to our third community consultant, professor Marwin Begaye, at the University of Oklahoma. His acute editorial comments helped us polish our language and clarify our intent in the essay, and reminded me that when it comes to any sort of writing, more eyes are always better.

Visitors to the Exhibition

“The Southwest in Motion” has had many visitors over the course of its run, but one group stood out for me. The OSU Museum’s Associate Curator of Education, Cat de Araújo, reported that the Oklahoma Future Native Leaders visited the exhibition, which served as the focal point of a two-hour program with 33 teens from across the state of Oklahoma. In a workshop that engaged the students’ bodies and poses with those depicted in the paintings, they discovered how movement and migration affect identity in their own lives as well as in the artworks and throughout history.

Closing Reception

Thanks to the generous support of American Studies at OSU, I was ultimately able to offer all three of our community consultants a modest honorarium in return for their help with “The Southwest in Motion”—but it is characteristic of our academic and artistic communities in Oklahoma that they all offered to collaborate without any expectation of compensation. I hope you will join us on September 5 to help celebrate the culmination of this wonderful exhibition, the students whose work made it possible, and the community that supported their learning experience.

 

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The Southwest in Motion: Students Curating Native American Art

Over the summer, this blog  focused on the experiences of my students in ART 4813 Museum Exhibition / History of Photography—but at the same time that they were working hard as a class, an intrepid and dedicated group of students from my ART 4763/5763 History of Native American Art and Material Culture course were also putting together an exhibition for the OSU Museum of Art. Volunteering to get involved above and beyond their coursework, these students—Roxanne Beason, Calli Heflin, Katelynn Pipestem, Chestiké Williams, and Amanda Zimmerman—experienced the challenge of curating Native American art from soup to nuts.

The resulting exhibition, “The Southwest in Motion: Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Paintings from the Charles Little Collection,” opened on June 11, 2019. The closing reception, featuring guest speakers Dr. Farina King and Myron Beeson, will be Thursday, September 5, from 5-7pm. The show will be on view through September 14, 2019. This week and next week on the blog, I recap our curatorial process, inviting you behind the scenes. How were these students’ experiences different from those in the Museum Exhibition course?

Just after the Spring 2019 semester started, we were invited to curate an exhibition drawn from the Charles Little Collection, a recent gift to the OSU Museum of Art. The director of the Museum had reached out to Elizabeth Payne, director of the Center for Sovereign Nations at OSU, seeking students interested in curating an exhibition with a proposed opening date in June. Because I’m a faculty partner at the Center, Elizabeth knew that I was teaching Native American Art, so she passed the invitation on to me straight away. I, in turn, offered the opportunity to my students—and their enthusiasm was immediate!

I knew that we’d have to be disciplined in order to fit this unexpected opportunity into student (and faculty!) workloads that were already brimming over with coursework, jobs, and family commitments. My first step, therefore, was to enlist some help. I turned to Dr. Trever Lee Holland, then a visiting assistant professor in the English Department at OSU, whose expertise in 20th-century Native American performance and literature, as well as his skill and experience teaching students writing and composition, were both assets I was eager to add to the project.* He, too, was intrigued by the opportunity to help students curate an exhibition.

Streamlining our approach to the collection

A former faculty member at OSU, Charles Little is eager for his collection to be of value to students. As with many large gifts, the collection is arriving at the museum in stages over time, so our registrar, Cindy Clark, sent me a list of works that were potentially available to the students for their exhibition. I immediately noticed that an appropriately-sized subset was from the Southwest—paintings and drawings by Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo artists, most of which were created between 1940 and 1980. Here, then, was an easy way to jumpstart the students’ research: instead of trying to find a common thread among a hundred paintings, they could focus on these thirty.

Visiting the museum

For some of the students in the group, our visit to see those thirty artworks in person was their first trip to the OSU Museum of Art. As we looked at each piece on our list, we made observations about its condition, its relationship with other artworks in the selection, and its potential appeal to museum visitors. We also discussed symbolism and subject matter—in some cases, applying our existing knowledge to our interpretations or hypotheses about the work, and in others, simply asking questions based on its imagery. By the end of our visit, students had confirmed a checklist for their show, and each had selected specific artworks they were committed to researching further.

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Students Roxanne Beason, Amanda Zimmerman, and Chestiké Williams looking at artworks from the Charles Little Collection.

We had a set of artworks, but the students also needed some background knowledge and a methodological framework. My second task, therefore, was to coordinate our existing course material with the curatorial timeline—and then work out supplementary learning opportunities so that students could most effectively apply their coursework to their curatorial research.

Already on deck: existing coursework

We began the semester reading Michelle Raheja on visual sovereignty, Hilary Weaver on Indigenous identity, and a mainstream press article about the “evolution” of Indigenous art. From the beginning, in other words, students were having conversations about who defines Native American people and art, and how expression through visual culture is an important (and often overlooked) aspect of Native sovereignty. As the semester went on, we read essays by and about artists, including museum catalogues and exhibition reviews, that directly addressed questions of how to interpret and curate Native American art in ways that highlight sovereignty.

In the second and third weeks of the semester, we studied the history of art in the southwest. Our textbook offered an invaluable overview, and an article by Sascha Scott about the San Ildefonso painter Awa Tsireh offered a powerful model for finding meaning—and expressions of visual sovereignty—in the formal qualities of individual artworks.

Field trip!

By happy coincidence, in the third week of the semester I had also scheduled a field trip to visit a variety of exhibitions and curators in Norman and Oklahoma City. Newly engaged in a curatorial project of our own, I encouraged my students to arrive for the trip prepared with specific questions for the curators we were going to meet: Michelle Lanteri, a graduate student and curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, heather ahtone, Ph.D., senior curator of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, and Eric Singleton, Ph.D., curator of ethnology at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. In preparation for the trip, I had assigned two essays about Indigenous curating: heather’s 2018 essay for Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, and an essay by Michelle McGeough published a few years earlier in Wicazo Sa Review.

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The results of our in-class discussion with curators Michelle Lanteri, heather ahtone, and Eric Singleton.

After our field trip, we spent a class period discussing what we’d learned from each curator, and highlighting approaches we hoped to emulate in our own curatorial practice. One significant result of this experience was that it highlighted the variety of strengths different curators bring to the table, and implicitly, the value of collaboration in bringing all those diverse skill sets to the table. Even though the students were new to curating, they all brought useful background knowledge to bear on the show we were putting together.

Next week: research and writing, community collaborators, and most challenging of all, coming up with the exhibition’s title!

 

*As of this writing, Dr. Holland has joined the English faculty at Mohave Community College in Kingman, Arizona.

 

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Curating “Intentional Exposure”: Sheridan Dunn

From April 2 through June 1, 2019, the student-curated exhibition “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” was on view at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. Part of my Spring 2019 course on the history of photography and museum studies, the exhibition prompted a series of responses from students. In the last post of this series, art history major Sheridan Dunn summarizes the benefits, both personal and practical, of her curatorial experience.

My name is Sheridan Dunn, and I am a student in the Art History department of Oklahoma State University. I took the Museum Exhibition course to better learn the different paths that you can go down in a museum or gallery job and it taught me just that!

Pursuing this course has been extremely impactful for my future career goals of working in a museum or gallery setting. Any individual who has an interest in museum studies should take any opportunity to participate in an internship or employment in this field. I have dabbled in various paths within my Art History degree. Being able to work directly with the OSU Museum of Art was an amazing opportunity that really helped me to narrow down what I want to do. In the end, anyone who takes this course will get hands-on experience that can be placed on your resume, and will form real connections and relationships with people in the museum. These individuals are helpful and will answer any questions you have about their jobs as well as the tasks you are assigned in the class.

The process of putting together our show was one of the most satisfying journeys to accomplish. We were able to take the time and go through every single detail of curating a show step by step, starting out with learning to appreciate the objects that the museum houses—therefore learning what it truly means to be a curator. Luckily, I was among great company, hardworking classmates, and assigned teammates who encouraged the process. The people working in the OSU Museum of Art were very knowledgeable about each step and the collection we were assigned to showcase. We as a class were able to hold memorable conversations regarding individual pieces. Each student was given the opportunity to choose the photographs we wanted and defend each piece as we learned more about them during the research process.

Researching is something that we all have to do as Art History students, but getting to use the actual museum database and learn more about each photograph we chose was really amazing. Research helped me connect to my photographs, making the whole process more intimate and special. I also got a fresh perspective on what it is like to be unable to come up with information on someone at all: sometimes it happens, and you have to figure out how to continue with your show even when problems arise.

I will never forget the hands-on experience and one-on-one time I had! I was assigned to the Exhibition/Installation team, and given the opportunity to handle the pieces for the show, even hang them on the wall. Experiencing each step as it happened was really influential in helping me narrow down what I actually want to do in a future museum job, and for that I am forever thankful for Professor Siddons and the entire OSU Museum of Art staff, who gave us the ability to show people what we could do as a class!

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Curating “Intentional Exposure”: Bianca Martucci-Fink and Roxanne Beason

From April 2 through June 1, 2019, the student-curated exhibition “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” was on view at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. Part of my Spring 2019 course on the history of photography and museum studies, the exhibition prompted a series of responses from students. The first half of this week’s post, written by Bianca Martucci-Fink (Art History MA 2019), uses the experience of team curating as a starting point for broader questions about subjectivity and exhibition experiences. And the second half, by current MA student Roxanne Beason, offers a personal story embodying the subjective experience we all bring to museums and art.

Bianca: In co-curating Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection, I found that the most insightful and rewarding component to the experience was actually working with a large team and communicating with one another to meet our final goals. Though small group projects have been always been part of my academic endeavors, curating this show was the largest collaborative project I have worked on—both academically and professionally. Working closely with a team of roughly fifteen students, in conjunction with the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art staff, taught me how to better practice patience, trust, and cooperative and constructive criticism.

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Developing the title of “Intentional Exposure.”

Our first task—deciding our preferred images out of the extensive collection of photographs in the museum’s archives, many of which are not seen in the exhibition—was a process wherein we had to resolve our different opinions quickly and efficiently. After the images themselves were agreed upon, we all had to centralize our “big ideas,” or themes, and the title. Though these developments may seem relatively simple in nature, they were difficult to work through in a large team because everyone’s opinions and ideas would have made for an excellent approach to this photographic collection. This has led me to consider the unanswerable concern of subjectivity that is inevitably part of working in a museum or artistic space.

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Senior art history major Tanna Newberg explaining an aspect of the proposed exhibition layout for “Intentional Exposure” to art history MA student Bianca Martucci-Fink.

As an aspiring museum professional, how do you know when one idea is the “best” one? When there are so many “correct” ways to interpret and display works of art, how do we know when we, the ones in charge of sharing this art with the public, have even decided on the most effective way to communicate with our audiences? This curating experience has not only broadened my skill-set in museum and curatorial practices, but has continually reminded me that art experiences are often what you make them—as both an audience member and a curator. It is in fact our differing opinions and interpretations that make the art what it is. Rather than one Museum Exhibition class, our group experience is reflected in a collection of voices, thoughts, and ideas shared on the walls of the gallery.

Roxanne: Beginning the Museum Exhibitions course, I had very minimal curating experience. I was not sure how all of us in this course coming from so many different backgrounds and majors were going to agree and make exhibition work, but we did—and relatively smoothly. While we were learning the history of photography, we also were using our newly-developed knowledge and applying it to the OSU Museum of Art’s permanent collection of photographs. We each had to develop biographies and descriptions for the photographs we liked, and we had to present our arguments before our classmates as to why we thought they belonged in the show.

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Richard S. Buswell, MD (American, b. 1945). “Sod Roof,” 1994. Gelatin silver print, gift of the artist, 2012.018.001.

For myself, the most compelling photograph was Richard Buswell’s Sod Roof. As a physician, Buswell met a lot of success through his hobby of photography by capturing abandoned, antiquated spaces around his hometown. Sod Roof makes me think of my Grandmother, who never shied from stopping to see things like sod houses or historic markers whenever we road tripped together. Though she passed away in 2008, I’ll never forget those trips and everything we saw together. She taught me that her grandmother had lived in a sod house when our family first settled in Kansas in the mid-19th century.

I think that is the ultimate power of art and especially photography—how it can resonate with you and recall your memories. I know I will never be able to look at these selected photographs in Intentional Exposure and not think of the work and passion we all put into this project. I enjoyed working with my classmates to create something beautiful and thought-provoking. The memory of putting this show together and working with others to create something like Intentional Exposure is just as defining as the photographs themselves, I will cherish it, and I look forward to doing this again in the future.

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Curating “Intentional Exposure”: Kayla Andrus

From April 2 through June 1, 2019, the student-curated exhibition “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” was on view at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. Part of my Spring 2019 course on the history of photography and museum studies, the exhibition prompted a series of responses from students. This week’s post was written by art history major Kayla Andrus. Like her partner in the course, Katlyn Young (who wrote last week’s post), Kayla addresses some of the challenges, as well as the rewards, of the curatorial experience.

Working as a student curator/ education programmer for this class was an amazing experience.  Together Katlyn Young and I came up with a few ideas for “Intentional Exposure.” Some went better than planned and others, well, not so well. Our favorite idea was the tube and fuzzy ball activity [editor’s note: see Katlyn’s post for pictures]. This activity coordinated pom-pom ball colors to emotions: for example, the red fuzzy ball was paired with the emotion of anger and the yellow fuzzy ball was paired with the emotion of happiness. Visitors to the OSU Museum of Art were encouraged to pick one of each color from the chart and place them in tubes next to the photographs. The activity was to look at the photograph on the wall and to think about its emotional portrayal, the visitor would then put the color/emotion that they felt the photograph portrayed in the tube next to the work. This activity was intended to further engage the museums visitors with our exhibition and to provide them with a sensory activity allowing them to touch something while looking. This activity has worked so well that the museum is constantly emptying the tubes so that there is enough room for other visitors to participate.

On the other hand, Katlyn and I worked on making a different activity for the Museums Art Lab. This activity involved storytelling through photographic images. Our initial idea was to copy and print cut-outs of the photographs that were in the exhibition so that people could collage them together to make a new story. Although the idea was strong, the activity wasn’t. All the photographs were at different scale, some images were cut off differently than others and it made the activity incompatible with the idea. However, we kept trying to make it work and chose to supplement the images we already had from the exhibition with images from the internet. These images included, portraits of the photographers, famous figures, soda bottles, funny hats and even butterfly wings. The supplementation of the photographs started to look like it was a good idea, however, when we took a step back from the activity, we realized that it no longer related to the major themes of the exhibition. Because of this, we abandoned the idea; but with enthusiasm we realized that we learned from our mistakes.

Overall, being apart of the education/ programming team allowed me to experiment with the capabilities of viewer experience and to find some pride within myself. I have really enjoyed seeing visitors use the fuzzy balls to interact with the exhibition, all ages seem to respond positively to the activity and with that I feel successful.

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Curating “Intentional Exposure”: Katlyn Young

From April 2 through June 1, 2019, the student-curated exhibition “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” was on view at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. Part of my Spring 2019 course on the history of photography and museum studies, the exhibition prompted a series of responses from students. This week’s post was written by student Katlyn Young (Art History BA 2019) just before the end of the semester, and addresses some of the challenges, as well as the rewards, of the curatorial experience.

My name is Katlyn Young and I am a student in Dr. Louise Siddons’ Museum Exhibition class. This semester I was given the opportunity to work on the “Intentional Exposure” exhibition as a co-curator and a partner on the Community and College Programming team. This experience has contributed to my professional development by offering me lessons on communication, practicality, and applied creativity. It has also given me a new perspective on the idea of a job within the museum field by exposing me to different kinds of situations that one may come across while working on an exhibition. Overall, it was a satisfying feeling once everything had been completed, and the installation was finally on the walls of the gallery. However, there were a couple of bumps down the road in regards to planning and execution.

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A view of one of the visitor activities designed by Katlyn and Kayla, in which visitors were asked to code their emotional responses to selected photographs in the exhibition.

My project partner, Kayla Andrus, and I completed two major aspects of our community programming, but we did have trouble with our third concept.  We had proposed a storytelling activity to be included within the ArtLab, but there were practical constraints once we started the process of physically creating the activity. We both decided to discuss this problem with Dr. Siddons, and she reassured us that some projects may not always work out like you may have hoped. She advised us to instead take this as a learning experience for the future, and to reflect on what we had already accomplished by that point.

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View of a photograph in the exhibition accompanied by the emotion activity tube.

And we had accomplished a great deal before addressing the storytelling activity. Kayla and Ms. Carrie Kim, Curator of Education and Public Programming, proposed the idea of our physically-engaging activity that encouraged the audience to display how a certain photograph made them feel. Ms. Kim also provided us with examples and guidelines of engaging worksheets and handouts in order to open up the conversation around art and photography.

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Two examples of the emotion activity’s results for Henri Huet’s 1966 photograph of soldiers during the Vietnam War (Gift of Robert Flynn Johnson, 2015.014.004).

I found the entire project to be essential to the development of my professional interest and experience. I learned what it was like to work with a large team within a museum institution, and I found this to be very rewarding as I had previously only worked on a small team of one or two people in a gallery. This project also taught me some lessons on practicality, and that sometimes not everything will work out exactly like you planned. This led to experience with the idea of applied creativity, and how that works within an environment and for an exhibition that is viewed by the public.

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Curating “Intentional Exposure”: Tanna Newberg and Ariel Reimbold

From April 2 through June 1, 2019, the student-curated exhibition “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” was on view at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. Part of my Spring 2019 course on the history of photography and museum studies, the exhibition prompted a series of responses from students. This week’s post includes reflections from two of the undergraduate students in the course: Tanna Newberg (Art History BA 2019) and Ariel Reimbold (Art History BA 2019).

Tanna: Museum Exhibition with Dr. Siddons has been one of my favorite courses of college. It is always refreshing to take a class in which I feel I’m attaining real-life experience and learning material that I will actually be able to apply in the future. Having the opportunity to curate Intentional Exposure was not only invaluable experience, it was also fun. Sorting through a collection of hundreds of photographs with the intent of narrowing them down to twenty or thirty that are connected through some type of theme seems like a nearly impossible task, and it could be anticipated that in a group of twelve students tension might arise. The most difficult aspect of curating this exhibition was simply that we all loved too many photos. However, the class worked very well as a team: everyone respected the opinions of others and was willing to sacrifice personal preferences. It is so unusual to be in an environment in which people want to listen to the perspectives of others and let their minds be changed.

Being on the installation team was definitely another part of curating that I enjoyed. Sheridan [Dunn] and I collaborated and utilized class input to plan the layout, figure out an order that connected the photographs, and choose pieces to capture viewers’ attention from specific sightlines. JM, the museum preparator, taught us the process behind hanging the exhibition. Sheridan definitely preferred the hammering and drilling, whereas I was very content doing the math! It was a complicated process and an amazing learning experience.

Overall, our class created an exhibition of which I am immensely proud. I have been so fortunate to be in a department that strives to teach us these applicable skills and use what we have learned. Although Intentional Exposure’s title refers to the choices that photographers make, it could also refer to the specific choices we made as curators. We worked on every aspect of the exhibition with care and precision, and I know we will all look back on it with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Ariel: Last summer, I completed a curatorial and collections internship at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, during which I conducted research for a large reinstallation; but through this class I was able to engage with other aspects of putting a show together. The benefit of curating a show as a class, in a short period of time, is that we were all involved in the entire process. From picking out the pieces we wanted to show, deciding on a title and themes, and organizing the pieces in the gallery space, we participated in every aspect of putting together a show. This is something which internships or volunteer positions don’t typically allow; rather, one would be completing a set of tasks and likely wouldn’t learn about every single stage of the process.

I really valued this class, because in the future I would like to become a curator and work in a gallery or museum. Helping put together Intentional Exposure is something else I can add to my resume. Additionally, I was able to work on aspects which I’m particularly interested in – I enjoy writing, so I worked on the introductory essay team, and learned about this style of writing. Again, in an internship, the museum or gallery wouldn’t ask the intern to complete this task, so I was glad to have the opportunity to do so in this setting.

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