Adventures in the New Humanities: Galleries and Museums 101
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
Art galleries, Flaten Art Museum Director and Curator Jane Becker Nelson ’04 assured my American Studies class, are essentially white cubes designed to present art in neutral spaces. But, she asked, are they truly neutral? For a second, my class wasn’t sure how to respond or whether a response was necessary. For most of them, this was a step into the unknown — and however excited they were about being somewhere beside the classroom, they were still a little nervous about what was expected of them. I could sense their hesitation, and willed them to volunteer answers to her question.
I needn’t have worried. Her question engaged them, as did her introduction to the Flaten Art Museum exhibit More Than That, where artists of color play with assumptions about race and identity. My class looked at pieces, offered opinions, and Jane deftly helped them dig deeper. She reassured them that there were no right answers and got excited when people offered other perspectives on the works. My students came out of the gallery feeling smarter than when they walked in and more confident of their ability to tackle the next curated display.
Most of us started to practice museum-going as children. Museums are a ubiquitous cultural presence across the globe. They are opportunities to document, celebrate, and teach visitors. Parents and educators gravitate to them as learning tools that are also entertaining. Art classes result in art shows and brave art teachers take their classes to art galleries or museums to further their artistic educations. Who can forget those magic words, “field trip”? Family travel often features museums, especially if we broaden our definition of museums to include parks, which are really outdoor museums with rangers and interpretive centers to help us understand the natural world. On vacations, your parents probably stopped at a few historical markers to let you literally stand in the footsteps of history.
Museums are a ubiquitous cultural presence across the globe. They are opportunities to document, celebrate, and teach visitors.
Museums and galleries have positive social value. They are no longer the purview of the leisured classes seeking culture or tourists rushing through the Louvre, ticking off the famous works of art before buying postcards to boast about seeing them. Today’s museums enhance our understanding of how the world works and depict the struggles and victories of its various inhabitants or, I suppose, in the case of the International UFO Museum and Research Center, other worlds. Interpretive centers explain the natural phenomena that produce the views 19th-century Americans regarded as “sublime.” Galleries invite us to think about what’s in those neutral white cubes.
Modern museums, moreover, are individualized, democratic, and interactive. There are opportunities to touch, to watch informational videos, to rent and listen to digital guides, to follow human guides, and sometimes to interact with reenactors. Museums are more kid-friendly, too, especially those with the word “children’s” in their name. Most of our students arrive at the college as museum veterans. And it is our job to extend and encourage the idea that museums are a good thing.
Museums and galleries are a liberal arts education in a nutshell. They are about the arts, science, history, social phenomena, and just about anything in between. They are general education extended and expanded across a person’s lifetime. Unlike actual GE, though, they are not mandatory. Thus we must take advantage of our short time with our students to encourage the lifelong practice of museum-ing.
These days that’s an especially important responsibility since we live in an intensely-curated world, one where we are both curators and consumers of the curated. We post our best photos on Instagram and commemorate what were once private moments with carefully staged events meant for public consumption like gender-reveal parties and prom-posals. Display is everywhere, documenting the history of public spaces, whether natural or made by humans. I just ate lunch in a Minneapolis restaurant that featured a pictorial history of the space in which I was about to be seated.
Instilling a love of museums may seem like just one more task in a long line of tasks previous generations of college professors probably didn’t worry about. Nobody goes to college to train for art crawls, and nobody’s parent regards museum-going as a critical life skill worth the price of college admission. Museums and galleries, though, are an integral part of lives full of experiences rather than things, meaning rather than status. It goes without saying that we want our students to have socially useful careers that compensate them well, deep respect for their planet and its inhabitants, past, present, and future, and ethical and caring value systems that encourage good citizenship. We also want them to continue to be curious, to explore thoughtfully, and to keep on learning. We want them to use their leisure to nourish their spirits and intellects.
Museums and galleries facilitate such nourishment. They are places where logic, intuition, and imagination come together, and if you don’t believe that, you’ve never been to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. Museums and galleries should have little to do with how we make our livings and everything to do with who we are.
Campus is teeming with “museums,” holding art, snippets of the past, and curated aspects of the present.
Campus is teeming with “museums,” holding art, snippets of the past, and curated aspects of the present. You can see mugs in the Ron Gallas Cup Library and old computers in the basement of Rolvaag. There is art on the walls of Holland Hall and informative posters in Regents Hall. When you walk the St. Olaf Natural Lands, there are signs to help you identify the flora. Off-campus courses are secretly living museum immersions. We are but a way station on our students’ lifelong museum experiences.
As educators, we have altered our pedagogies to give students more display and curatorial experiences. There are internships, assignments that use digital tools, and class hours in the makerspace. Poster sessions often represent the culmination of research. A good part of Jane Becker Nelson’s time is given over to leading classes in gallery discussions or helping students have curatorial experiences. Remodeled Holland Hall invites professors to display their individuality on display shelves, which are wonderful conversation-starters during office hours. Collecting, as Professor of English Mary Titus tells her classes, has its own scholarship.
Whatever their specific experiences with museums while on campus, the education we provide should help promote a lifelong interest in the leisure pursuits that will keep sending our graduates back to museums. It’s baked right into the liberal arts and, in particular, the idea of general education. A student focus group recently endorsed the idea of us pushing our charges into areas of the curriculum they probably wouldn’t visit otherwise, which is a pretty good endorsement of the value of the liberal arts for expanding horizons. This has not been a humanities-centered post because the whole of the St. Olaf education provides the sort of broad-based, curiosity-inspiring, critical-thinking liberal arts experience that will continue to grow as our grads add experiences of their own and as they take their progeny to museums and galleries.
The whole of the St. Olaf education provides the sort of broad-based, curiosity-inspiring, critical-thinking liberal arts experience that will continue to grow as our grads add experiences of their own and as they take their progeny to museums and galleries.
Here comes my pitch: Take a walk around campus and discover just how many opportunities there are to see, read, or experience something new. More Than That is thought-provoking and on display in the Flaten Gallery until April 14 — plenty of time to catch on your own or with your class. It is part of a city-wide collection of exhibits welcoming the National Council of Ceramic Educators Association’s Claytopia conference in Minneapolis. The Northfield Arts Guild also has three clay-related exhibits, including Cell Persona, our own Paul Briggs’ exploration of incarceration’s impact on black lives, and a To the Top! display of mugs including the work of yours truly.
Northfield is also teeming with non-clay exhibits, galleries, and displays. Learn more about Jesse James without the crowds at the Northfield Historical Society or go there and learn something about Northfield that doesn’t involve Jesse James. Did you know Antiques of Northfield has a collection of vintage TV lamps? There’s local art displayed everywhere from the Ole Store to the Northfield Senior Center. It’s spring and the sidewalks — which in Northfield are filled with poetry — are finally clear of ice and snow. Museums and galleries are calling you.
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.