by Erin Peters
Today’s museums strive to be increasingly relevant, ethical, and responsible public-facing institutions by engaging with issues like accessibility, diversity, collaboration, and inclusion. Yet in many ways, these are still buzzwords of best practice, and not yet actual pillars of museum work. This begs the question: can museum work of the future solidly marry the theory of ideas and the practicality of making the best intentions happen on the ground? I have hope that we may find answers in a collaborative initiative underway here in Pittsburgh.
A partnership stemming from a $1 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant awarded to the Department of History of Art and Architecture (HAA) at Pitt to establish a consortium of cultural institutions in the region brought about my pioneering joint position as Lecturer in Curatorial Studies at Pitt and Assistant Curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. My position charges me to bring together the theories of museum studies and the practicalities of working in museums to develop courses that will best prepare students in HAA’s Museum Studies Minor – the museum professionals of tomorrow. This next generation of museum professionals will find an ideal training ground within Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, as four distinctive museums with different staff, collections, and modes of operating. At CMP, students will gain immersive involvement with the myriad ways a natural history museum, art museum, single-artist museum, and science center work on a day-to-day basis.
The broad range of training available here at the CMP will both add empirical dimension to the education of museum studies students and invigorate the current museum profession by merging pedagogical and instructional experiences for students and museum staff. I believe this mash-up of students as future museum professionals (with new, exciting, and un-entrenched ideas) with staff as current museum professionals (with concrete on-the-ground expertise) will develop robust museum work for the future here at CMP and ideally in the field at large.
The first course developed from this initiative with Pitt and CMP is underway this spring, entitled Introduction to Museum Studies in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. HAA faculty and CMP administration came up with the idea of using CMP as a living laboratory, establishing from the get-go that the course is rooted in experiential pedagogy. The content is completely new and developed through my process of getting to know the Museums since my arrival in September 2015. Over the course of the fall, I immersed myself in our richest resources for teaching about museums: the sites themselves, the collections they contain, the programming that engages visitors with the collections, and the staff making it all happen.
So far, my twenty students and I have spent little time in our assigned classroom in Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts building, and instead have studied museums who work with non-tangible collections (like the ideas of science) with Jason Brown, the Carnegie Science Center’s Director of Science and Education. The Project Cataloguer for the Archives at the Andy Warhol Museum, Matt Gray, helped us examine the methods and strategies of collecting at the Warhol, focusing on the tensions of art and artifact/material culture with the time capsules. This week I led an exploratory field trip around the CMP complex in Oakland and we thought about the ways the architecture itself makes us perform “civilizing rituals,” and communicates messages about how visitors are intended to act while in museum space. For instance, making our way up the long Scaife staircase to the second floor galleries of CMOA could be compared to a laborious religious procession up to Propylaeum of the Athenian Acropolis.
We will continue our survey of museum studies in CMOA and CMNH and end the semester envisioning the future of museums and how CMP can lead the charge into that future. Key to our endeavors will be the primary assignment the students will complete: they will develop a series of three fora (open discussions) for which all CMP and HAA staff, faculty, and students will be invited to attend. The first forum will take place in February and students will design a program that will form questions and discussion around the ways that the concepts of curation and education are changing in the museum world to be less opposed and more related and inter-dependent. The second forum will take place in March and will tackle how museums are dealing with the changing landscapes of education and engagement, especially in a field that seeks to be more public-facing. In the last and third forum, to take place in April, students will present and defend projects they have designed to further CMP’s goal to be integral to the future of museums.
By bringing students and staff together, we will capitalize on the unique resources of Pitt and CMP to pose questions that have yet been raised and bridge disciplines to find new answers. This open process of co-creation will allow a multitude of perspectives to emerge, ultimately building an informed, dynamic, and diverse museum profession spearheaded with the resources of the four Carnegie Museums and the University of Pittsburgh.
To chart the progress of our experiment and the ways our thoughts are developing, I will write field reports in a series here with the Innovation Studio. Until field report no. 2…
This post is co-published in partnership with The Constellations at the University of Pittsburgh.
Erin Peters is passionate about museums and believes in their power in contributing to social change. She is training the next generation of socially-minded museum professionals as Joint Lecturer in Curatorial Studies at Pitt and Assistant Curator in CMNH. Erin has a Ph.D. in art history and specializes in ancient Egypt.