AAMG Annual Conference: Students Respond

Hannah Kaemmer

Hannah plans to purse a PhD in Art and Architectural History in Fall 2017 and then a career within an academic art or historical museum.

I came to the 2016 AAMG conference hoping to hear experts delve into the intersection of museum exhibitions and cross-disciplinary academic pursuits. What I emerged with, however, was a much more nuanced understanding of the changing and broadening role of academic museum collections as multivalent resources for an entire institution.  Again and again, the implicit questions emerged in presentations and discussions: through what context, what lens, should we seek to interpret and engage with academic museum collections? Is “ownership” – the decision-making power about collecting, interpreting, and presenting the collection – lost if other disciplines, other institutional users and departments, take over?  Or does that further the mission of the museum?  Of the institution as a whole?

Throughout the day, panelists and attendees grappled with this theme of interpretive lenses.  In the first morning session on collaborations, Katherine Skinner cracked open the conversation by parsing out some of the key difficulties of collaborating among museums, libraries, and archives.  She emphasized the lack of common language among the sectors, which creates misunderstandings and hinders libraries, archives, and museums from pursuing collective strategies.  Her presentation raised discussion among panelists and attendees about how, by creating shared language beyond that of the museum itself, collaborative work challenges the museum’s autonomy and supports multiple ownerships.  The panelists underscored that, in today’s connected world, “world class museums can’t just serve art and art history.”  Jill Deupi, particularly, noted that, while successful collaborations can create active learning opportunities, they raise a key question: “who owns knowledge about paintings?”

The speakers in the second session – which engaged with how to integrate art museums into other disciplines, and especially STEM disciplines – further complicated the primacy of art historical narratives in the interpretation of the academic art museum collections, and of museum staff in curatorial decision making.  Professors from Colby and Oberlin discussed how they have engaged with the art collection in ways in which the “art historical context is secondary.”  Professor Taylor Allen of Oberlin particularly emphasized the power of using visual analysis to promote deep understanding of “fact as a social and cultural context” for science students.  Again, the implicit question arose – which interpretation leads?

In an afternoon breakout session on anthropological museums, presenters once again grappled with the theme of multiple lenses and multiple owners beyond the directly artistic, historical, or anthropological context.  Diana Loren underscored that, when she works with students to create new narratives for objects in the Peabody Museum collection, it is essential to have no curatorial “pride of ownership” over the exhibition and presentation of the objects. The team from the Logan Museum at Beloit furthermore added that anthropological museums should perhaps be thought of, first and foremost, as “repositories” to be mined by any and all students.  All students, they emphasized, deal with cultural objects and grapple with how objects and people play with, interact with, and impact each other.

Across sessions, conference panelists and participants confirmed the unique position of academic museums to support broader university aims: to foster critical thinking, deep understanding, and cross-sector connections, and to encourage direct engagement with objects.  Yet along with this opportunity comes a necessary re-visioning of museums’ interpretive lenses. Again and again, discussions led to the conclusion that a (if not the) paramount goal of these museums is to enable the collections, and the museum space, to present and open conversations among many users in multiple contexts. Both the Oberlin speakers before lunch and the anthropology museum panelists after lunch underscored the value of “object-based learning as a way to engage students.”  Ultimately, panelists posited that what may matter most – more than curatorial interpretive leadership, even – is the materiality and physicality of the collection.  While a particularly relevant lesson in the academic setting, it struck me again and again that this is a highly valuable model for museums outside the university setting, which also seek to engage new, diversely interested audiences in new and different ways.  Perhaps, the academic museum can lead this broader movement of reevaluating interpretive lenses.


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Mariaelena DiBenigno

Mariaelena is currently an American Studies Ph.D. candidate at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In early Spring 2016, I began to draft my dissertation prospectus — it was not an easy task. I struggled to find the best way to express my ideas about museum interpretation, archived knowledge, and hidden narratives. For much of my writing process, I searched for the appropriate language that would support my ideas and translate across disciplines in my field of American Studies. Then, I took a break, checked my email, and discovered a scholarship opportunity to attend the 2016 Association of Academic Museums & Galleries Annual Conference in Washington, DC. After composing and emailing a short application letter, I happily learned that I had been selected for a Samuel H. Kress Foundation Scholarship. By attending the well planned and welcoming 2016 AAMG conference, “Communities in Dialogue: Models of Best Practices for Academic Museums, Galleries, and Collections,” I acquired helpful vocabulary that gave the beginnings of my dissertation a much-needed museum studies focus.

At the conference, I encountered many useful practices and presentations that propelled my thoughts and helped me successfully defend my dissertation prospectus post-conference, on Friday, May 27. First, the plenary session, “Museum + Library Partnerships: Creating a New Collaborative Paradigm,” gave me a clearer idea about how academic museum, galleries and collections operate within larger academic institutions. I appreciated Dr. Katherine Skinner’s comments about recognizing differences of vocabulary within interdisciplinary conversations. I cannot stress how often conflict arises in my own work because of the many disciplines involved in American Studies. I was also very intrigued by the hands-on, collaborative curriculum example provided by Isabelle Chartier, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Art Gallery, and Professor Nora Mattern, of the Library and Information Science Program at Pittsburgh. This archival and research effort between faculty, librarians and curators to uncover accession and provenance is exactly the type of work I hope to do: understand where things came from and when. This is (obviously) not always an easy task, but the work done at the University of Pittsburgh provided a model for best collaborative practices in both research and interpretation. At my home institution, The College of William & Mary, PhD candidates are asked to propose their own course and I would love to include a similar project (with credit to Ms. Chartier and her colleagues) in my own class. As a side note, I also learned the all-inclusive phrase “cultural memory institutions” from Sarah Chicone’s presentation on NEXUS’s open-access training modules and the exceptionally fun academic acronym GLAM (or Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums).  I plan on incorporating these phrases in my own notes and conversations.

Second, the session “STEM to STEAM (Part 1): Integrating the Arts into Higher Education,” provided yet another concrete example of positive and productive collaboration across disciplines. It is not often that I see curriculum spanning across the humanities and the sciences. Kudos to the curators and faculty at Colby and Oberlin! In this session, I learned something new about ecology, chemistry and biology: they are entirely applicable to the world of art. While I had not previously considered science within my dissertation’s framework, I now consider the possibilities within the examples provided by the session panelists. I especially enjoyed Professor Taylor Allen’s discussion of his multidisciplinary collaborative project between biology, comparative literature and history. I consider myself, above all, an educator, and the examples provided within this session show how innovative collaboration between art galleries and academic departments can show students not only the relevance of seemingly disparate disciplines but also how to work with people from different silos. Curators Liliana Milkova and Shalini Le Gall are not only assisting their institution’s faculty with course objectives, but also provided their students with useful life lessons about commonalities and partnerships. It was also wonderful that an AAMG session provided space for an undergraduate student to share her work; I was very impressed with recent Colby College graduate Martha Holland’s work fusing ecology and art history. My field of American Studies would welcome her interdisciplinary scholarship with open arms!

Third, I closed out my 2016 AAMG conference with the New Initiatives Track, and I was enthralled by the conversations that emerged in the second panel, “Digital Objects in the Collection: Directors’ Perspectives on Emerging Standards and Practices.” My classmate and I are currently proposing a session on digital public history for the 2017 National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual conference, and the debate stirred up by this AAMG panel helped me to rework my own ideas about digital and/or intangible objects within the museum collection. As a student of public history, it is important for me to consider the implications of digital born objects as well as digitized material objects — a difference I had not considered in my prospectus. “Digital Objects in the Collection” made me to think through the issue of adequately archiving digital materials for long durations. Both Richard Rinehart, from the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University, and Anne Collins Goodyear, from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, provided succinct and thought-provoking comments on the nature of simultaneous exhibition and open-access collections. Johannes Goebel’s statements regarding the archival and curatorial tensions of time-based vs. object-based art also challenged me; he also helpfully provided copies of his comments for the audience to digest. Overall, this panel not only explored best museum polices and procedures but also modeled best presentation practices.

In closing, I knew from AAMG’s Welcome Reception and “20×20” Throwdown that I would have a wonderful conference experience. From the friendly registration table to the engaged conference crowd, this opening reception taught me much about academic museums and galleries. This was a previously unexplored museum type for me, but I found the emphasis on academic rigor and collaboration to be immensely appealing. I appreciated the inclusion of graduate students, like myself, as well as talented undergraduate students. Martha Holland, previously mentioned, and the three student curators from Kenyon College, Schuyler Krogh, Jenna Wendler, and Amy Young, who presented on “Grappling with the Global: Student Curation of Modern Identities,” left me with most useful material as both a student and an aspiring professor: how to inspire students to engage with multiple disciplines and how to negotiate within a multiplicity of museum settings!

I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to attend the 2016 AAMG Annual Conference. I wish to thank AAMG’s Board of Directors and the Kress Foundation for selecting me and funding my travel. It was an honor and privilege to attend the conference unhindered by registration, lodging or meal costs. I would also like to reiterate my scholarship letter of interest and thank AAMG for providing students with scholarship opportunities. I plan to continue interacting with AAMG and pursue collaborations with my own institution’s art museum. One day, perhaps I too will work for an academic museum and gallery!


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Sarah Wyer

Sarah is a masters degree candidate studying Arts Management & Folklore at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

It was with great anticipation and excitement that I traveled across the country to present at the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) 2016 Conference in Washington, DC. No one works in a vacuum, and I was looking forward to learning about current issues and innovations in the field of academic museums on a nationwide scale. I was initially intimidated by the high-profile list of presenters, but as conversations flowed I came to realize that academic museum professionals are enthusiastic conversationalists and that most of them—or should I say “us”—were at AAMG to learn and generate ideas.

I was nervous when I realized that I would be showing my 20×20 presentation, “Who Let the Students In?,” to a crowd of roughly 200 professionals and peers. To make the task of presenting less intimidating, I decided to leave my glasses in my bag so that the audience would appear as gentle, calming blurs. The positive reception of my presentation on student engagement empowered me an emerging museum professional, and I made several invaluable connections during the conference. I attended sessions on integrated arts-based learning for adults with disabilities, how to cultivate strategic partnerships on campus, language and terminology prevalent in the field, and the sharing economy and its relationship to students and museum engagement. I came away with several pages of notes, strategies and ideas for student engagement, and the knowledge that I had something valuable to share with my student organization and academic graduate program.

The opportunity to attend—and present—at AAMG as a graduate student enabled me to better serve as a representative of my institution and encouraged me to advocate for student involvement and voices in academic museums. I boarded my flight back to Oregon feeling a little less tiny in the world.