Symposium at the Hood showcases the dynamic museum field

by Macy Toppan | 10/29/19 2:15am

Last weekend, the Hood Museum hosted its third and final reopening event, a symposium featuring panels and guest speakers composed of Dartmouth alumni. With curators from large, internationally renowned institutions and small, academic-focused museums, as well as directors of memorial museums and nonprofit foundations, the museum hosted alumni from near and far in a celebration of and conversation about the world of museum work.

“The New Now: Art, Museums, and the Future” served as the conclusion to a tripartite series. The symposium was preceded by a celebration in January of the reopening of the building and donors who made it possible as well as an artist symposium in May. 

Hood director John Stomberg said that the Hood’s two most recent events, including the artist symposium in May, celebrated the featured art and artists in the Hood, while last weekend’s symposium focused on Dartmouth-trained museum professionals in celebration of the College’s 250th anniversary.

According to both Stomberg and senior curator of collections and curator of academic programming Katherine Hart, the primary purpose of hosting such events is to introduce students to the range of possibilities available in creative and artistic fields. 

“It’s a story that we don’t tell a lot at Dartmouth — how many people have migrated toward creative art fields who have graduated,” Stomberg said. “For students, I’m hoping that it just becomes clearer that there’s vitality in the liberal arts and there’s also viability in the liberal arts.”

Each session of the symposium began with individual, 15-minute-long lectures from each panelist about their respective fields of study, followed by panel discussions of an overarching topic. Some speakers, including Yuriko Jackall ’99, curator of French painting at the Wallace Collection in London, and Seán Hemingway ’89, curator in charge of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, used case studies relating to research and acquisition, respectively, of specific works of art to discuss their fields. 

Through all of the lectures and panels, moderators and panelists discussed the seemingly infinite routes to locating creative passions and how Dartmouth supported them through this process. 

During a discussion of academic museums — the first of Saturday’s talks — Catherine Roberts Shteynberg ’05, assistant director and curator of arts and culture collections at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee, discussed how her career path led her in an unexpected direction and routed her to her passion.

“I had no idea that I wanted to work in museums, and it was the faculty here that really made me realize that that was something I was interested in,” Shteynberg said. “I went from the Smithsonian to working at a lesser-known academic museum. You go where the jobs are and where you can make an impact.”

The first session elaborated on campus-based museums: how such establishments articulate and confront their responsibility toward students, the opportunities that they offer that differ from larger private museums and the role that they should play in administrative decisions.

In Friday’s standalone panel, “Museum Practice: Futures/Directions,” panelists again spoke about their journeys to the field. In addition to emphasizing the role Dartmouth played in their academic and professional development, they focused on the wide range of paths and skill sets, artistic and otherwise, that prepared them for careers in curation at the Guggenheim, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney and even the New York Public Library. 

Liz Tunick Cedar ’05, manager of global cultural sustainability programs in the office of international relations at the Smithsonian, detailed her own path into the museum field. 

“My route here was somewhat circuitous: I worked at a law firm, I worked at a publishing company,” Cedar said. “Some of the things there that I was thinking about — what makes people tick, what changes people’s behavior, what gets their attention, what do they care about — were some of the same things that I’m now thinking about in this field. You don’t have to go straight into the museum field or the cultural heritage field to end up there.”

The panel provided opportunities for the speakers to discuss their respective directions, while questions as to the future from both the moderator and the audience largely examined the growing role of the digital world in both displays and outreach. 

Megan Fontanella ’04, curator of modern art and provenance at the Guggenheim, moderated Friday’s session and returned as a panelist the following day for the aptly named session, “Curators and Conservators Collaborate.” This discussion focused more heavily on case studies presented by conservators and curators, illustrating the way their respective roles in the museum field complement each other to facilitate both the discovery and the passage of knowledge through the museum to its visitors.

The final panel of the day focused further on inclusion, discussing the importance of including and celebrating people of color and the LGBTQ+ community in museums and the art world. 

The stereotypical image of the artistsic professional is one of socioeconomic and racial privilege, according to Hood intern Allison Carey ’20..

“There’s a lot of discussion about art history as a study and museums as a sort of space that’s usually kind of WASPy and more high-art in who gets to be in these spaces and who gets to decide what’s in these spaces,” Carey said.

The youngest panelist, Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol ’13, a fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, explained his interpretation of their topic of discussion.

“With a lot of the conversations that we’ve had in my museum, inclusion and diversity are about expanding the room at the table and who has a seat at the table and who has a voice,” Praepipatmongkol said. “What a lot of community engagement work shows is that it’s not just about who is at the table, but it’s about how and why the dialogue takes form.”

The penultimate discussion diverged from the symposium’s discussion of art museums, widening the discourse to establish a greater focus on history. 

Jan Seidler Ramirez ’73, chief curator and director of collections at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, delivered a particularly powerful lecture. She emphasized the essential value of both having and understanding memorial museums.

“With the phenomenon of the memorial museum, our mission is to reckon with the far more significant and incalculable loss of human life, usually under violent circumstances,” Ramirez said. “Straddling the double obligations of tribute and truth telling, of remembrance and analysis, these hybrid institutions also confront often these situational ethics of practicing the museum tradecraft at or near an authentic site of mass atrocity.”

The panel also included further discussions of the importance of comprehending, acknowledging and respecting history through museums. Director of the Osage Nation Museum Marla Red Corn ‘89 discussed the history of that museum and the incorporation of the nation’s art and culture into the exhibits, while Hemingway described a case study of the recent acquisition of a Roman wellhead to illustrate his specific roles at the Met. 

Ultimately, the symposium used the museum profession as a means for discussion of a number of issues: diversity, historical preservation, reconciliation with tragedy, scholarship and modern media, to name a few. 

“This is a very great opportunity for the top-of-the-top in different departments to come together and talk about how [the exclusive reputation of museums] is going to change moving forward and how museums are responding to the needs of outsiders and the 21st century,” Carey said. “Also, I think that it’s really great exposure for Dartmouth to consider the museum and the careers in the museum field and to understand more what exists out there.”

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