University museums as ‘laboratories’ for creativity in higher education

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The conference included gallery talks, tours, and performances at the Yale museums. Titus Kaphar ’06 M.F.A. discussed how the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection is a source of inspiration and plays a role in his artistic practice, looking specifically at John Trumbull’s "The Battle of Bunker Hill."

College and university art museums are primed to play a leading role as higher education evolves in the 21st century, according to Michael Taylor, director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.

“The kind of collaborative, experience-based, interdisciplinary work that we’re doing on a daily basis is the future,” he added, “And it’s a bright one.”

Taylor was one of 300 museum professionals, educators, and students who visited campus May 8–10 for the conference “Expanding a Shared Vision: The Art Museum and the University,” hosted by the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) and the Yale Center for British Art.

This is the first time that Yale has organized the conference, which meets every few years in a new city. Past venues have included the Tang Museum at Skidmore, the Davis Museum of Art at Wellesley, and the Hood Museum. Unlike most conferences related to museum professionals, this one is designed specifically for college and university art museums.

“These are people who are charged with enriching higher education and integrating the museum into student life, as well as reaching out to communities beyond campus,” said Pam Franks, deputy director for exhibitions, programming, and education at YUAG, and one of the conference organizers.

Session topics addressed broad issues in the field, including how better to engage museum audiences and facilitate guided looking in the galleries, as well as teaching and learning with art. Several participants pointed to the way that museum collections can serve disciplines across the university, beyond traditional arts and humanities. In turn, museum colleagues gain by seeing how faculty and students take new angles of approach to objects.

“We work with faculty from philosophy to chemistry, from politics to psychology,” said Ellen Alvord, the Weatherbie Curator of Academic Programs at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. “Faculty interests are far-ranging and their willingness to experiment makes them exciting partners.”

John Walsh, director emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, noted that over the course of his career he had to learn new ways to make collections useful in teaching science, math, languages, and other subjects remote from art history. “For example, our ways of interpreting art by observing small details and patterns in objects resembles techniques in medicine for diagnosing patients and can be useful for teaching doctors,” he said.

The Yale Center for British Art was the first university art museum to establish such a program. The class, “Learning to Look,” was designed in collaboration with the School of Medicine and trains future doctors in the art of observation.

Walsh added that one of his great pleasures in watching students explore art objects is to see how they “discover their own capabilities, surprising themselves with their ability to enter the unfamiliar and make sense of it, and taking pleasure in doing that.”

The idea of the campus museum as a safe space for experimentation was a common theme among presenters. Several participants at the conference likened museum galleries to laboratories, where students and faculty can try out new ideas.  

“The museum is a place where it’s okay to take risks and even make mistakes,” said Christina Olsen, the Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art. “You can play and explore scholarship that otherwise you might not be able to do; you can explore new ways of teaching that might not otherwise be possible in a classroom. The museum can be a testing ground,” she added.

In addition to nurturing experimentation, object-based learning in campus art museums fosters creativity training in students as well as faculty.

“We can help students develop transferrable skills at the core of a liberal arts education,” said Alvord from Mount Holyoke, citing close observation, the ability to reframe problems, question assumptions, collaborate in small groups, take risks, and express oneself across many platforms as examples.

At the final roundtable discussion on Saturday morning, Jock Reynolds, the Henry Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, spoke with fellow museum directors from the Colby College Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Williams College Museum of Art, Hood Museum of Art, and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas-Austin.

One of the questions Reynolds posed was how to position the campus art museum to serve audiences into the future.

“There are huge opportunities to being a teaching museum in the digital age,” said Taylor from the Hood Museum. “Online learning is here, and in the future our students will be living in India and South Africa. We must think about how we offer transformative experiences mediated through technology,” he added.

Taylor observed that students are already harnessing digital tools for the purpose of curating shows. He mentioned in particular how the Yale students who organized “Contemporary Art/South Africa” — open May 9–Sept. 14 at the Yale University Art Gallery — embraced new forms of technology. “They are leading the way,” he said.

Building on Taylor’s comments about digital tools, attendee Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art, later said that by making collections available online, museums are in a position to collaborate internationally and extend their reach to a global audience.

“Yale now has a teaching facility in Singapore and these students are extremely important to us. We’re already in deep conversation with Yale NUS about collaborations,” she said, noting that the center’s Yale-in-London program will be open to NUS students in the spring and that they are also developing an internship program to bring NUS students to New Haven.

“This is all dependent on our collections being accessible to NUS professors; it is now possible for them to teach not only from our collections, but from those across the university,” she added.

The themes of experimentation, collaboration, object-based teaching, and collegial exchange resonated with all those who participated, but also have implications for the larger museum field and future audiences.

“The work that campus art museums do has a huge impact on the future of the museum field in general,” said Franks, noting that campus museums play a key role in training future museum professionals, as well as impacting students who visit but do not go on to become professionals in the field.

“When students visit museums during their college years, it changes the way that they engage with museums forever after,” added Franks. “They understand their value.”

“The Art Museum and the University” was made possible by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Lydia Winston Malbin Fund, the Manton Foundation Public Education Fund, the Nolen Center for Art and Education Endowment Fund, and the Nolen-Bradley Family Fund for Education.

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Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,