Revealing Museums — Together

Michelle Millar Fisher and Dalia Habib Linssen

“Joseph Lewis as Eze Nri” (2018), Stephen Hamilton, acrylic and natural dyes/pigments on wood and hand-dyed, handwoven cloth. Image courtesy of the artist

People working in museums often get asked what it is like to do their jobs. We know we do! One of us is a curator and the other is an educator—just two of many roles that ensure that the various functions of a museum operate every day (in our case, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Students at all stages of their studies, and who are considering the museum field as a future career path or as a place they visit, are often the most curious. Even students who are less familiar with museums are often intrigued to learn about the diverse range of professional paths within them. 

When these questions about museum work are posed, and when museum staff answer them, the what of our jobs is too often foregrounded at the expense of the why, how, and for whom? And almost never discussed is: how are these roles interconnected and what things could be done differently? 

As part of a career-long desire to make the museum field more transparent and accessible to those just coming into it, and to offer a space for anyone who has questions about how museums work today and what it’s like to engage with a museum as a staff member, artist, or student, we’ve devised a three-part public program: Artist | Student | Curator: Revealing Museums

We invite you to join us — come solo, bring a friend, or bring your entire art history, museum studies, or visual culture (or any other kind of) class! We invite you to submit questions in advance to help guide the discussion in ways that will be useful for you and/or your class.

Artist / Student / Curator: Revealing Museums is a collaboration between many colleagues in the education and curatorial departments at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where we both work. The roster of participating speakers is both exciting and expansive, offering a range of viewpoints.

We launched the first Artist | Student | Curator series last summer with three programs that explored how artists, designers, students and curators, were responding to multiple crises, from the global health pandemic and related economic uncertainty to heightened social tensions around inequities resulting from ongoing racial injustice in the US and across the globe. We were interested in understanding how these challenges materialized in the lived experiences of cultural sector workers and pondered together possible future directions for artistic production and the role of cultural institutions.

The Artist | Student | Curator series not only represents a site of shared dialogue among students, artists, and museum staffers about museums, but opens a space of learning. Museums have long been seen as authoritative institutions from which students learn, but this program that centers the voices and experiences of students represents an opportunity through which institutions learn from students in a process grounded in reciprocal learning and shared authority.

This spring, we’re continuing the line of inquiry in a series that draws back the curtain on working in and engaging with museums. Drawing upon an exhibition opening at the MFA in a few months, New Light: Encounters and Connections, that features works acquired by 24 living artists in dialogue with works from the MFA’s broader collections, this series asks: 

  • How do public art museums function today? 
  • Who selects the objects on display and defines the related stories that are (de)constructed? 
  • How do exhibitions compel new ways of understanding the relationships between art objects? 
  • And, how do museums participate in, disrupt, and reinterpret narratives about art?
  • How might museums challenge the stratification of audience engagement? 
  • Can museum structures evolve to be more collaborative? 
  • How has a crisis like COVID provoked new paths of collaboration within museums?

Our goals for the program are to amplify voices and perspectives of practicing artists, college students, and MFA staff; to explore how museums are shifting to new perspectives and new ways of seeing/encountering our own collections; and to foster dialogue across communities of intellectual creation, academia, and the MFA.

In week 1, “Objects,” we’ll hear from  artist and educator Stephen Hamilton, artist Jordan Nelson, director of collections Kathryn Gunsch, MFA director of collections, and conservator Katrina Newbury about how works of art enter a museum collection — learning about the acquisitions process from the perspective of staff trained to take care of art forever, as well the artists who make the works.

In week 2, “Exhibitions,” we’ll talk with Eben Haines, artist and co-founder of Shelter in Place Gallery, as well as MFA intern and Bunker Hill Community College student Adriona King who will share her perspective on learning about museum exhibitions through a remote internship, and Kyla Hygysician, MFA exhibition designer — learning about who conceptualizes and implements the environments of display that frame artworks in museums. 

In week 3, “Narratives,” the discussion will feature artist LaKela Brown, MFA intern and Bunker Hill Community College student Tanais Garcia who will share her perspective on a museum’s efforts to rethink its permanent collection, and interpretation colleagues Catherine Johnson-Roehr and Adam Tessier — learning more about how stories are told, by whom, and to what ends in museums. 

We invite you to join us for these programs to answer the questions you might have about how museums work, and for whom. Sign up for the first week here.

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