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Mellon courses are curating interest in museum practice

Alex Marko

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
Archaeology master's student Alex Marko presents his Johnson Museum gallery intervention, “The Modern Ancient Tablet,” as part of the spring 2014 Mellon graduate curatorial seminar. Marko paired ancient Near Eastern artifacts with cutting-edge scientific tools, including 3-D-printed replicas.

Students are learning the ins and outs of museum practice from a range of disciplinary perspectives in courses using Cornell resources in collaboration with the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

“Connecting Research with Practice,” an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will ultimately spawn eight collection-based courses co-taught by Cornell faculty members and museum curators and educators. The courses feature class sessions in the museum, visits to campus laboratories, study trips and guest lecturers from Cornell and beyond.

The first course last fall, “From Excavation to Exhibition: The Trajectory of Objects Between Site and Public,” partnered the museum with the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies (CIAMS) and was co-taught by chief curator and curator of Asian art Ellen Avril and professor of anthropology Adam Smith. Students learned about the ethics and practice of archaeology and aspects of collecting, preservation, display and public interpretation of archaeological finds. For their final projects, they prepared a detailed exhibition proposal including provenance research, floor plans, a press release, sample labels and text panels.

“Beyond the frequently polarized perspectives of archaeologists and museum professionals, we encouraged students to find common ground in our shared commitment to preserve and present objects in their fullest context,” Avril said.

Guest lecturers included Sturt Manning in CIAMS on scientific analysis of archaeological finds; Cornell archaeologist Kurt Jordan, whose focus is North American indigenous peoples; and Jenifer Bosworth ’93, exhibitions conservator for the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Asian Art, who talked about complex negotiations in borrowing and transporting artwork and protecting fragile items for display.

“That really opened up everybody’s eyes,” Avril said. “When you see things in a museum, you kind of take them for granted, but there’s a lot that can go into the planning.”

On a fall field trip to New York City, students met with an exhibition designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, toured New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts conservation facilities and talked with graduate students training as conservators.

Smith, director of graduate studies for CIAMS, said four students in the course have remarked on its impact in advisory conversations. “All four have spoken about their newly kindled interest in enhancing the discipline’s engagement with museums and the wider public,” he said.

This semester, in a seminar partnering the museum with the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, graduate students – in fields ranging from chemistry to studio art, medieval studies and archaeology – studied curatorial practice in relation to the politics of display, the internationalization of the art market, rituals of spectatorship and community engagement.

“We saw exciting and unexpected adjacencies as the class developed,” said co-instructor Stephanie Wiles, the museum’s Richard J. Schwartz Director. “Students learned how to expand their ideas visually, create new dialogues in the galleries, and to work collaboratively and diplomatically through borrowing precious objects from other campus collections for display at the museum.”

Students also met curators and conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library & Museum on a study trip to New York.

“The disciplinary diversity of the students has made for enriching class discussions,” said co-instructor Ananda Cohen Suarez, assistant professor of the history of art. “They have learned a great deal from one another and brought a lot of research expertise.”

Course assignments are “oriented toward actual curatorial practice,” she said, and students wrote essays to appear in an exhibition catalog and on the museum website. Their final project was a curatorial intervention, creating a new narrative for a museum gallery.

“We’re looking at curatorial practices with a critical eye, and the students have helped us to look at the collection in new ways,” said co-instructor Cathy Klimaszewski, museum associate director and Ames Curator of Education.