Q&A with Celka Straughn, Spencer Museum of Art
Q: Is there anything a student should know before attending an art exhibition or just visiting the galleries?
A: Don’t be shy to ask people at the front desk where something is. Ask for the map. Generally the people that you encounter in the museum who are museum employees are the security staff. They are not there because they think you are going to steal something. Sometimes you do want to reach out, and you get close, and you start pointing, and... oops, my pencil almost touched that painting. We want you to be curious and get excited, and for you to do so without accidentally damaging an object. Be aware of how you move your body and what’s around you. We also ask people to check their backpacks in the cloakroom. And no food and drink in the galleries.
A term students might want to think about is “stewardship.” What is the purpose of the artworks? What is the purpose of preserving them, displaying them, having scholarship about them? A museum is a steward, and we serve to share these objects with other people, also to protect and to have them continue to be there for future generations.
When you go to a museum, don’t feel shy about asking questions, because it’s a place of inquiry and exploration. You can start with the security staff member you might see nearby, and he or she might direct you to somebody else or to take a look at something else interesting.
Q: What kinds of things might students look for when they go to an art museum?
A: I think if students are going through an exhibition, see what works of art compel them, which ones they are naturally drawn toward, how do these works seem to be fitting into the idea of the exhibition as the student understands it from the materials provided. And the materials provided about an exhibition would be the panels: there’s usually an introductory panel; depending on the size of the exhibition, there might be section labels; there might be individual labels – and these would all generally be located on the wall. There might also be brochures and other printed materials, some for takeaway and some to remain in the gallery. For some works we also have audio labels that can be listened to from your cell phone. The phone number to access the recording is listed on the label, usually with some sort of graphic identifier for the audio component. Another way to find further information is the museum’s website, and that might be good to look at before going to the museum.
I think what’s nice about museums is that your visit and your learning are self-directed. There are curatorial visions – the curators, the designers, the educators have all created certain paths and entry points, certain focal points. But it’s really up to the visitor to make his or her own decisions of what to look at and spend time thinking about. When an exhibition is put together, a
lot of choices go into where something is placed, what it’s near, how it’s positioned, what sorts of conversations are being created between the objects and with the ideas of the exhibition. The one exception at the Spencer Museum might be our teaching gallery, because that’s a flexible space where we often will pull out works of art for a variety of different classes at the same time so they can have access to works of art that aren’t already on view. So that is sort of “uncurated” in some ways. Thinking about the notion of “curation” would be a good way to prepare for going into a museum, an exhibition, and thinking about the choices that are made.
Q: What might be different about going to an art museum versus, say, a history museum? How would those curatorial choices vary?
A: For the art museum, it’s very much about the object itself, the work of art. And that is really where we tend to give primacy. Whereas at a history museum, it might be more about the story or the subject matter. For example, I know that the museum at the Kansas Historical Society displays reproductions, so it’s not as much about the object, it’s about something else. For us, there are stories behind the objects, but the object is the point of departure, it is not an illustration to an outside story. And I think that’s something to consider and use as a point of comparison – how do different institutions display and interpret objects?
Q: Can you explain the labeling system a little bit?
A: Sure! We have what is called an object label, we sometimes refer to it as a tombstone label – which is kind of fitting because it tends to give the same information you’d find on a graveyard tombstone, but we don’t want to imply that the objects are dead.
The object label identifies the maker or the culture of its production, and any basic information we have about that maker or culture. Then comes the information about the work of art itself, such as a title, the year or approximate date range for its production – if we know this information, because sometimes we don’t. And then the medium and support line. So, “oil on canvas,” “bronze,” “mixed media,” “gelatin silver print;” the kind of information to understand what the physical object is, its material construction. And then when and how we acquired it - a gift, a purchase “through funds by so-and-so”, which is called the “credit line.” The credit line gives some information about what we call provenance – where a work of art comes from, its history. So, you can tell if a work was made in 1999 and we acquired it in 1999. Or, the work was made in the 15th century, and it came to us through the Kress Foundation in 1960. We received several works – Early Modern works, Renaissance works – through the Kress Foundation.
How we acquired a work is a lens that people can look through to understand the collection and why it is there at the museum. It is certainly something that scholars do if they’re looking at institutional history or they’re trying to understand questions like: When were people in America buying French Impressionism? And when were there exhibitions? Our database is pretty good, and online you can also look up the works on the database to find out information like how often it’s been exhibited at the museum, or maybe even on loan to another institution. And you can
see, “Oh, this seems to be the first time they’re exhibiting it.” So, there are lots of ways a student can approach understanding an object. And I guess that’s one of the things they’ll start to discover.
The last item is its unique identifier for the museum. For example, you might see a list of numbers like 2008.1234, and 2008 is the year that we accessioned it into our collection, and 1234 means that it was the 1,234th work that entered the collection that year. It’s called the “accession number” and this number is unique to that particular work of art and is very important for our record keeping and tracking the object. It’s also helpful to note down when doing research and making inquiries, especially if we have many works by a particular artist or we know very little about an object’s maker, date, and culture so the label might just list “China, artist unknown, vase”.
Q: What would you recommend that students take notes on?
A: One thing to know is that if they’re taking notes and they have their cell phone, they can take a picture, just not with flash and only of objects that belong to the museum. If it’s a loan object, because we don’t own it, the lending institution might have restrictions. Many of the works have been professionally photographed and we are working to fully photograph all objects. The images, sometimes with close-up details, are accessible on our database, so students can look them up there and have access to that information. Our collection online from the website is something I would highly recommend taking a look at, and especially if they’re doing a reflection about something or a particular work of art, it’s a really good place to start.
I would write down maybe title, name of artist/maker, the accession number. That will definitely help them find the work of art online. You can also do keyword searches on our online database. So, say you want to see images of horses: type in “horse” and anytime the word “horse” appears in the metadata, you’ll get something.
I would also write down your impressions, because you forget. And you might be like, “Oh, I really like how this painting is next to this sculpture.” What about that juxtaposition do you like? Because they’re doing a similar gesture, something about colors or shapes, or some sort of conversation seems to be going on between the works, or is it something else that strikes you?
Q: Should students just go to the art museum on their own, or should they try to go on a guided tour? What options are there for students, and what do you recommend?
A: Well, it’s kind of twofold. Students might go on their own to get some familiarity with the exhibit, but going on a guided gallery talk would give them a different lens to look at something, a more focused discussion of the works of art. That helps them start to think about how might the person doing the gallery talk choose to focus on objects or think about the exhibition as a whole.
There are different kinds of guided experiences at the museum. Some gallery talks only focus on a couple pieces of art, and it’s more of a presentation, or a talk, and then people ask questions at the end. A guided tour might cover more objects and invite more interaction and conversation throughout. There’s a wide range; we’re trying different formats.
We also have talks in our auditorium, usually geared for larger audiences. Sometimes these are artist talks, which can be really fascinating. They might talk about their process, the history of what they’re making; it really depends. And some are really great and some are less so. I think students can reflect on that aspect, too – what makes for an interesting talk, or doesn’t?
Q: So if students are at a gallery talk rather than just walking around by themselves, how is that going to be different? How is that going to impact their experience?
A: It brings them into conversation with other people about the exhibition, and they start to learn how someone else is understanding it. And I hope it would then kind of prompt “oh, I looked at this before on my own, but when so-and-so was talking about it or the group started to get into a discussion about it, I started to see all these different things. I understood it in this way, but then they were showing me how, when you looked at it like this, then you can understand it in this way.” And that’s something that students often get when they come to the art museum, that they see how many different ways you can interpret something. So, even if you don’t participate in a guided tour or a gallery talk, come with a friend or two.
Q: Do you have any final advice for students coming to the art museum?
A: I think like with many things, the more you can inform yourself in advance, the more you might get out of it because you have some basis to build on. Also, and more importantly, just be open and curious, at the museum and with all of their university experiences.