Mapping the Provenance of Museum Objects
Project Leader Commentary by Elizabeth Rodini
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Material Migrations, like many of the practicum courses offered in the Program in Museums and Society (M&S), gave students the chance to engage directly with objects, conduct research in and around those materials, and, most distinctively, develop a final project to be shared with a general audience—in this case, Google Earth “tours” of object provenance histories, to be incorporated into the website of the Walters Art Museum. M&S practicum projects take the form of exhibitions, both actual and virtual; interpretative materials, such as audio tours, gallery guides, and websites; and program development. I like to think of them as works of “public humanities,” sharing the research we do in the university with a larger audience.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Why bother with such an exercise? The answer Ben Tilghman and I provided in our syllabus for this course: “To share what we are learning with the public. This is a fundamental task of museums. . . in this course we extend that mission to the undergraduate classroom.” Universities suffer from being removed from the broader community, while humanistic disciplines without clear “practical” applications are particularly at risk from this sort of isolation and perceived irrelevance. On the other hand, archives, museums, and other collections with a public face are places where humanistic research can be made available, accessible, and meaningful.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Although historians are familiar with the sub-field of public history, other disciplines have not developed the potential for outreach in such a direct, institutionalized way. It is hard to imagine the awarding of a degree in, say, public art history. But in this class our students were taking on that very role as curators presenting research through a lively interactive tool with broad dissemination.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In developing their object itineraries for the Walters Art Museum and Google Earth, students had to consider both the historical narratives they were tracing and the matter of presenting them to the public. What information would be accessible? How could they both engage and challenge their audience? How would they balance the nuanced elements of their story with the broader theoretical issues at stake in the project? What is lost in the task of producing highly condensed text, and what might be gained?
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In all of our museum-based practicum courses we face the challenge of fitting student work into an established institutional frame. Classrooms are messy places where ideas are tested and debated. Despite our best efforts, the many young voices we work with over the semester may not easily gel into the perfect, marketable whole that modern museums require. Our students carefully crafted their texts, which Walters professionals then polished to a sheen. The students constructed imaginative itineraries that we honed to fit a simpler, more streamlined model.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 If it seems like the nature of university research (independent, serendipitous, evolving) cannot quite square with museum exhibitions (corporate, formal, fixed), there is nevertheless much to be gained from encouraging their intersection—for students, audiences, and collections, and for universities as well. University humanities made more public are also more relevant, appreciated, and valued.