The transformative potential of museum-university partnerships

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Are you old enough to remember Reader’s DigesThis is the most popular feature: “The most unforgettable character I’ve ever met”?

When I was 19, I had the incredible good fortune to meet three truly unforgettable geniuses: Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas and Georgia O’Keeffe.

I had undertaken a thesis on Jean Toomer, the recently recovered poet and author of the Harlem Renaissance. Raised largely by his grandfather PBS Pinchback – who for 30 days during Reconstruction served as this nation’s first black governor (of Louisiana) – Toomer later renounced racial identities and embraced the philosophy of mystic Georges Gurdjieff.

That year was in many ways my annus mirabilis, a truly magical opportunity to work in the Fisk University archives, live with amazing Fisk dorms, including a Fisk Jubilee singer, and spend my time free with Arna Bontemps, the poet, novelist and biographer, who shared her memories of Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance figures, and with Aaron Douglas, the muralist (some of whose great works were hidden behind plasterboard in Fisk’s administration building), who spoke at length about his mystical beliefs.

Then it was absolutely exciting when Georgia O’Keeffe, America’s greatest modernist painter, invited me to visit her New Mexico ranch. For more than half a century no one had mentioned Toomer’s name, and she would welcome the opportunity to speak of him.

Since I was too young to rent a car, I hitchhiked from Santa Fe to Abiquiu. When I arrived, scruffy and unkempt, the then 85-year-old entertainer met me at her doorstep with the words, “A lot of stray things were walking around. I see they still do.”

For all the wonders of my later life—attending Watergate hearings and listening to the rich, deep voice of Barbara Jordan or studying at the epicenter of deconstruction during her formative years—little experience outside of family life would really correspond to the wonders of my 19th year.

Yet among the many unforgettable characters I have had the enormous privilege of interacting with, one that stands out is the late Peter Marzio, who served as director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts for nearly thirty years. A born impresario, he believed in his heart and soul that his museum should serve as the cultural heart of the city. To this end, it exhibited the art of high school students, hosted dance parties in the museum foyer, and allowed community groups to host receptions at the museum free of charge.

Anything but a standard museum director, he was a former high school football player who had taken a wrong turn, saved by the religion of art. Donors invariably pulled out their checkbooks during his evangelism, drawing on his experience along his road to Damascus.

Unlike many museum directors, he was not an art historian. He was a doctor of history. who had studied under Daniel Boorstin, who was later Librarian of Congress and author of a library full of volumes that appealed to a wide popular readership. But Marzio was a visionary, who created what is probably the main national center for the study of Latin American art and photography.

He had many opportunities to leave Houston, but like the late Dominique de Menil, the heir to the Schlumberger oil equipment fortune, who funded the Black Image in Western Art project, supported the careers of militant politicians like the late Mickey Leland, and whose Menil collection includes many masterpieces of Surrealism, Marzio was, for reasons known to God, a Bayou City loyalist.

Most striking of all was his willingness to work hand in hand with a group of faculty members and myself and our students at the University of Houston. He was the rare kind of museum director who invited us to come into his office and see up close one of Rembrandt’s great portraits, his 1633 Portrait of a Young Woman, which was on inspection. But more importantly, it enabled students and faculty to create educational websites to accompany museum exhibits.

If you have the chance, take a look at an example, The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico, which compares and contrasts contemporary objects from the Museo Franz Mayer and Ima Hogg’s Bayou Bend collection of American decorative art. Other educational resource sites have been created around exhibitions featuring the works of John Biggers, Chuck Close, Jessica Stockholder and James Surls, all orchestrated by my colleagues and friends Sara McNeil and Benard Robin.

I say all this to encourage you to forge similar partnerships with local cultural institutions.

This might involve creating websites connected to an exhibition, but maybe something else:

  • Perhaps your campus could partner with local art, history, natural history, and science museums to create a museum ambassador outreach program, through which students reach out to their classmates and K-12 schools, and serve as museum guides who lead tours, answer questions, and provide context.
  • Perhaps you and your students could participate in the brainstorming sessions that play a vital role in exhibit planning and design.
  • Perhaps you could create courses related to specific museum exhibits that not only build on the resources of the exhibits, but create educational projects that can accompany the exhibits, artworks, and artifacts.

So what are my takeaways?

Individual internships are great, but group projects can be even more transformative.
By working collaboratively on public-facing projects, students learn what it is to be a practicing professional. It’s not just that students engage in the kinds of tasks that designers, developers, and professional writers do, but they learn what it’s like to work to a deadline, to receive sharp feedback and create something that a wide audience will use.

Make sure you and your students have something to offer.
These partnerships should not involve job creation projects, like too many internships. They must lead to a significant result of real value. Houston students were rightly expected to create museum-quality websites. Therefore, it was essential that their work be impressive in terms of design, content, rigor and interactivity.

Do what educational institutions do best: create teaching and instructional resources.
How about producing traveling exhibits on panels that can be shown in schools, libraries or elsewhere? Or educational resource kits filled with attractive, useful and practical materials to distribute in schools and classrooms? Or collections of relevant sources widely distributed online?

Serve as true partners.
Conduct research that will enrich the exhibits. Participate in the planning and presentation of exhibitions. Be present and available in the galleries. Bring artists, curators and other museum professionals to campus. ViVA, which features virtual guest artists and a focus on themes of women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and social justice, offers an exciting model for university-artist collaborations.

Work jointly with museums to expand professional development opportunities
I’ve always loved Stewart Brand’s aphorism, “information wants to be free,” although I also realize that reality is complicated. After all, when people can freely access information, the producers of the information either get little or no pay or make money by monetizing their viewers’ data. But academics should certainly do all they can to share their knowledge and expertise, and one way to do that is to partner with museums to provide professional development for teachers.

Many of the highlights of my academic career have been working in partnership with museums. One example was an exhibit on New Jersey teenagers in conjunction with the New Jersey Historical Society. Take my word for it, the Garden State was the birthplace of the modern teenager. This is where many of those who defined this stage of life were born or lived, including Frank Sinatra, Rickie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Queen Latifa and many more. This project offered a fantastic opportunity to connect a later generation with its predecessors, despite profound differences in their demographics.

I particularly appreciated my chance to work with the New-York Historical Society, and its exhibition on slavery in New York, its Dimenna children’s history museum and its 17-minute orientation film. Projects like these exemplify what scholarship and education should entail: Brainstorming with scholars, community representatives, museum professionals, archivists, designers and many others who argue passionately about service of a common purpose – to enlighten, excite, provoke, educate, elucidate, and perhaps even uplift.

The conception of the academy as an ivory tower, a walled garden and a place apart, where contemplation and study can take place outside the hustle and bustle of everyday life and sheltered from the Political interference is an extremely valuable ideal, especially today. But let’s not forget: many more people learn art, history, nature or science outside of university than inside.

If we really want our scholarship to have an impact and if we really want to expose our students to exciting possibilities that can be found in the real world, we must venture outside the ivy covered wall of the academy and meet the public where they are.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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