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On Display

Finding Museums in unlikely places

Johns Hopkins is home to three traditional museums—Homewood Museum, Evergreen Museum & Library, and the Archaeological Museum—all rich representatives of our cultural fabric. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find Johns Hopkins faculty, students, and alumni involved in a broad array of museum studies and work, asking questions such as what makes a museum a museum? And where do museums live?

In a quest to tackle those questions, Erik Ledbetter ’88, of the International Council of Museums, sets the stage with a “big picture” essay about the nature of museums today and the challenges they face to stay relevant. Then we bring you a sampling of the museum-related explorations under way in the School of Arts and Sciences, which just might make you think of museums in a whole new way.

Museums in Transition, at Johns Hopkins and Beyond
Erik G. Ledbetter ’88

The museum in its modern form is a newcomer to American public life. Bursting on the scene in large numbers only during the 1890s and early 1900s, museums postdate magazines and newspapers like The Atlantic and the New York Times, and both our major political parties. Dating to 1876, Johns Hopkins is by no means an old university, but it is senior by four decades to its Homewood neighbor, the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Yet for relative newcomers, museums enjoy a place of remarkable and enduring trust in American life. At a time when long-established entities like universities, newspapers, and political parties see their audiences fall and their authority challenged daily, museums go from strength to strength. Not only do Americans line up around the corner to take in blockbuster shows like the recent Picasso exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, we also come in the tens, hundreds, and thousands to smaller art and history museums, nature centers and children’s museums, science centers and living history sites all across the country. More Americans attend museums each year than go to all professional sporting events combined—yes, more than all the pro football and basketball games, monster truck shows, and NASCAR races put together.

Why do museums occupy such a key position in our civic life? Part of the answer lies in the authenticity of their collections. In an age of synthetic experiences, museums remain bastions of the “real.” Objects in their collections have length and breadth, mass and heft, the patina of age. They have the intangible quality that comes from close association with great events and terrible struggles, with lives gone by, and with the high creativity as well as the daily commonplaces of ages and people past. Our response to these objects is irrational—any undergrad can tell you that the atoms that make up these totems are identical in every way to all other atoms of their type—but it’s a glorious, transcendent kind of irrationality. The power of objects to work on the soul remains the abiding strength of museums.

That said, challenges abound. Museums face a stringent fiscal climate for the foreseeable future. New forms of entertainment like online gaming and social media are becoming formidable competitors for Americans’ time and attention. Most of all, museums face a profound demographic challenge. In an America in which people of color will soon be a national majority, museum audiences remain disproportionately—indeed, overwhelmingly—white. There is nothing in the concept of the museum itself that prevents it from speaking to these new Americans from new and different cultural backgrounds, but that is not the same as saying that every single museum currently extant will remain relevant.

What’s more, in trying to address these challenges, contemporary museum professionals sometimes leave their own audiences confused and wanting more. Overwhelmed with choices and contested narratives in every other part of life, visitors come to museums clamoring to be told clear, reliable stories. Yet today, museum professionals often feel a responsibility to mute their own voices. Stung by their past close association with triumphal narratives that privileged the experience of white men over that of other Americans, history curators today sometimes feel more comfortable raising questions than they do presenting clear narratives with good and bad actors, winners and losers. Visitors come to art museums still demanding to be taught what is most excellent in human creativity, yet art curators and educators today grow ever more uneasy with the concept of connoisseurship and the imposition of an artistic canon on visitor’s minds and tastes.

As home to a new undergraduate concentration in museum studies at Homewood and a revolutionary online master’s program in the Krieger School’s Advanced Academic Programs, Johns Hopkins is at the forefront of educating the next generation of museum professionals. And as custodian to three very fine—yet also very traditional—museums in Baltimore, JHU faces the struggle to make older collections relevant to new audiences. It’s a challenging time for museums, and JHU is meeting the challenges through scholarship and practice alike.

Erik Ledbetter is founder and principal of Heritage Management Solutions, a museum consulting firm. He is executive director of the U.S. National Committee of the International Council of Museums. He also served as director of International Programs and Ethics at the American Association of Museums.

Museums and Academia

What compels us to collect? What objects do institutions value and what do their collections say about them (and us)? If you could create your own exhibition or museum, what would it be? These are no small questions, yet they are considered daily by students and teachers in the courses offered in the Program in Museums and Society.

Directed by Elizabeth Rodini, the program, which began offering a minor in 2007, is a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. Classes are taught by faculty from a broad range of departments, including history of science and technology, anthropology, and history, as well as by museum staff from both campus and off-campus institutions. Students from at least 20 different majors have taken courses in the program. What connects them all, says Rodini, is the “shared interest in the institutions that collect, display, and interpret material culture.”

Courses take advantage of Hopkins’ strong roots in the history of collecting and in the rich array of museums in Baltimore. In Museum Matters, students visit Baltimore’s museums as a kind of “introduction to how museums think,” says Catherine Rogers Arthur, director and curator of Homewood Museum, a showcase of fine and decorative arts representing early 19th-century Baltimore. Arthur, who co-teaches the class with Rodini, says that “museums are a relevant and engaging way to present research results.”

Case in point is a recent student-curated exhibition exploring the life and work of Zelda Fitzgerald. Junior Laura Somenzi, a history of art major, worked through every angle of the curatorial process from research to loan requests, resulting in an exhibition called Zelda Fitzgerald: Choreography in Color, which was on display at Homewood Museum earlier this year.

“I really wanted to present Zelda as an independent, artistic entity, distinct from her husband,” says Somenzi.

It is research that is exciting as well as important. Through course work and museum internships, students are entering into “discussions about the institutions that preserve, interpret, and thus construct broader understandings of the past,” says Rodini.

Science on Display

The first minutes of discussion in Professor Stuart “Bill” Leslie’s Science on Display class are playful. What stands out from your visit to the Chamber of Wonders at The Walters Art Museum? Leslie asks the class. A big moose head, says one student. A snake skin so large you could see only half of it in the display, says another. Starfish. Crystals. Shells.

And what stands out in today’s reading? Leslie asks, referring to Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler’s profile of MacArthur Fellow David Wilson and his idiosyncratic museum-cum-installation, The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Inhaled objects, a human horn, fruit stone carvings, the students volunteer.

At dizzying speed, the class progresses through a discussion of authenticity versus inauthenticity, touching on conventional notions of what a visitor expects from a museum and how Wilson’s museum upends the idea of museum-as-institutional authority and challenges the “passive mode” of museum learning.

Science on Display doesn’t confine its focus to traditional museums. In order to help students “become critical viewers of popular science,” says Leslie, the class puts what Leslie calls “public discussions of science”—in film, fiction, gardens, World’s Fairs, and, yes, museums—under the microscope in disparate ways. The classes focusing on botanical gardens, for example, include a discussion of both the Pauly Shore “classic” film Biodome and an examination of Pacific exploration and 18th-century natural history.

The class culminates in the students’ final project: a proposal for their own museum, either virtual or in diorama form, a sort of sweetly old-fashioned corollary to the chamber of wonders discussion. In the brief history of the course, students have created museums of time-keeping, medicine, and sports technology. What would Leslie do for his project? He glances at his metallic green, custom-built Hollands bike leaning against the wall. “A history of bicycles,” he says without missing a beat.

Museum Buddies

Four boys run across the lawn, sticks in hand, wooden hoops rolling in front of them. Several children crouch down to shoot marbles, while others try their hand at lawn bowling. It’s a scene that could have taken place in Charles Carroll Jr.’s time, but instead it is early autumn 2011, and the children are fourth-graders from Barclay Elementary School visiting Homewood Museum under the auspices of the Museum Buddies Program.

Created in 2011 by Lydia Alcock ’12, a psychology major and museums and society minor, the Museum Buddies program is still an evolving one, but its goals are clear: to mentor local students, bring more JHU undergraduates in contact with Homewood, and take advantage of Homewood as a great learning resource.

Alcock chose Barclay as a partner because of her familiarity with the school through Story Pals, a tutoring program sponsored by Kappa Kappa Gamma, and because of its proximity to campus. That the Baltimore City fourth-grade curriculum focused on Maryland history made the relationship with Homewood a natural fit.

Last fall, Alcock and three other museums and society students took 15 students from Pablo Koropecky’s fourth-grade class on a tour of Homewood, followed by a session of game playing circa 1800-1825. “They were just asking question after question,” says Alcock, about the students’ reaction to the day at Homewood. One student even questioned a lamp plugged into an electric socket in the museum after the students had toured the museum’s outhouse and had discussed the lack of electricity. “You could just see her thinking about it, trying to work it out,” says Alcock. “It was really cute.”

This spring, the students will meet three times with Koropecky’s fourth-graders. Using curriculum developed from Homewood resources, they will teach two lessons at Barclay, one focusing on genealogy, the other on maps and travel. In April, the Barclay students will make a return trip to Homewood to learn a historically appropriate craft, most likely papermaking, and to take the tour again with what Alcock hopes is a new and more nuanced perspective.

Even in its early stages, Museum Buddies has proved a challenging and exciting outreach program for Alcock. “We didn’t know how the kids would feel about Homewood, but to see them really learning and thinking about things but still having fun [without television or expensive games] was really cool,” says Alcock. “It was so satisfying to see that this could actually work.”

Print By Print

“When I signed up, I had no idea what I was getting into,” admits Alexandra Good ’12 as she takes a visitor through Print by Print: From Dürer to Lichtenstein, the recent Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition curated by the Johns Hopkins and Maryland Institute College of Art students enrolled in Paper Museums: Exhibiting Prints at the BMA.

Turns out that what Good was getting into was life-changing.

As a result of the Paper Museums class, taught by Rena M. Hoisington, associate curator and department head in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Good has had the opportunity to be a curator, an art historian, and a BMA tour guide. She has written wall labels for exhibitions and been interviewed on the radio. The class also prompted Good, a history of art major with a minor in the Writing Seminars, to complete an additional minor in museums and society. This semester, Good is conducting copyright research through a BMA internship in the museum’s Image Services and Rights Department. In the fall, she will attend University of Pittsburgh School of Law and has been accepted in the university’s joint degree program in arts management (JD/MAM) with Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.

All this from a single class? Yes indeed.

With the support of a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Hoisington conceived the class as a way to showcase a portion of the BMA’s outstanding and expansive print collection, educate visitors to the history of printmaking, and build bridges between the BMA, JHU, and MICA. In the first few weeks, students, nearly half of them with no background in art history, got a crash course in the history of Western prints and printmaking. Throughout the semester, students prepared presentations on a series of prints in the collection. In the last few weeks, they selected works, brainstormed themes, discussed the arrangement of prints, and developed marketing strategies for the exhibition. The semester-long schedule was “really tight for such a large-scale project,” admits Hoisington, but the students embraced their task, in the process gaining an intimate knowledge of not only the works themselves but a behind-the-scenes look into how a museum operates that can be, well, life-changing.

Of the many challenges involved with curating an exhibition, the trickiest, says Good, was crafting the 100-word wall labels for each print. When the exhibition opened, she says, “it was weird to see my words on the wall.” But it was also pretty wonderful, too.

Where Museums and Technology Meet

Curator. Conservator. Wikipedian? In the future, says Phyllis Hecht, director of the Advanced Academic Programs’ Master of Arts in Museum Studies, more and more museums may have a “Wikipedian in Residence,” acting as a liaison between the museum and Wikipedia to improve online information about their museum on the online encyclopedia. In June 2012, 20 part-time Museum Studies graduate students will have the opportunity to learn from and work with the Wikipedian at the Museu Picasso de Barcelona to research objects in the museum’s collections and add content to its Wikipedia entry as part of the program’s two week on-site seminar. Not only will students have the chance to put their course work to practice, but this will be one of the rare opportunities for Museum Studies students to see each other in person, since this graduate program is as virtual as Wikipedia itself.

Hecht characterizes the fruition of this innovative, part-time, online degree as “a confluence of ideas” between herself and Robert Kargon, the Willis K. Shepard Chair of the Department ofHistory of Science and Technology. “We felt that technology and global perspective were imperative for this program,” says Hecht, adding that “there is a desperate need in the field for an online part-time program where people don’t have to move or leave their jobs to participate.”

Started in 2008, the program draws students from all over the world, creating a global conversation on museums and their roles in different cultures. Approximately one-third of the students already work in museums when they enter the program; the other two-thirds are new to the museum field, career-changers or members of museum boards.

As with many museum studies programs, there is the classic emphasis on curatorship, exhibition strategies, and fundraising, but technology plays a huge role not only as a subject for study but as a teaching and learning tool. Beyond the online course management tool, classes use Google Docs, VoiceThread, Wikis, and all types of social media;there are even assignments involving Twitter. “Using technology in assignments builds a learning community and gives students ways to work on assignments together,” says Hecht. “But another benefit is that it gives students tools they can introduce to their professional work.” Since the program’s inception, students have worked on video podcasts for the Walters Art Museum and the Textile Museum and audio podcasts for the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens in Washington, D.C.

“Technology has been the stepchild of the museum,” says Hecht, and yet there are “so many ways technology runs through museums—in collection information management, outreach, business social processes, social media, and in online programming.” The Museum Studies program prepares students to embrace “new ways of technology to engage the [museum] visitor and the global community.”


When the committee charged with commissioning a public art project for the Quiet Reading Room in the new Brody Learning Commons began a discussion of possible artists, they knew they wanted an artist whose work would be a deep response to the university and its history.

Within five minutes of meeting Mark Dion, says Jackie O’Regan, Hopkins’ curator of cultural properties, the committee was on board with his vision. Dion’s Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Wonder, an installation inspired by the cabinets of curiosity, or “wonder-rooms,” of Renaissance Europe, will be open to public view in October 2012.

Dion, who has been working in the Wunderkammer tradition for 20 years, explains in his project proposal: “Adopting the Wunderkammer model and imagining the university as universe, our visual cabinet will be an archaeology of the material culture of knowledge—a microcosm of the university’s collections.”

Dion acts as both curator and artist, and his method includes “going into the closets, going into the backrooms” of university departments and labs, explains O’Regan. “[His work asks] what does what’s hidden away teach us about the university?”

Dion has scoured the campus for a treasure trove of finds to fill and build his Wunderkammer. The Cabinet of Wonder may contain fossils from the medical campus as well as rocks and specimens from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Olin Hall, a “fantastic collection find,” says O’Regan. Part of the laboratory that belonged to Saul Roseman, former chair of the biology department, who passed away recently, will form some of the casework of the installation. Dion believes that the piece should not only hold found objects but be built of them as well.

Dion visited many sites on campus and found piles of scientific research instruments and inventions, evidence, O’Regan says, of a research university at work and moving forward.

Ultimately, the installation will consist of three cabinet pieces and may include thousands of parts, all of which O’Regan hopes will be documented in a field guide and checklist created by Johns Hopkins students via paid internships for them and a paid practicum for one Maryland Institute College of Art student. “What Dion is creating,” says O’Regan, “is a kind of museum and gathering place to see and be able to study and research some of our material culture.”