As a student who works at the Phillips Museum of Art, I am often peeved when students tell me that they are not even aware that the museum exists (which happens more than you would think!). This lack of awareness stems from a lack of understanding with regard to the role the museum plays here at Franklin & Marshall. As a way of coping with this disconnect, I recently sat down with members of the Phillips Museum staff to talk to them about the museum and the purpose they see it serving on a small liberal arts campus such as Franklin & Marshall. Here is what they had to say.
Do you think there is a difference between art museums that are affiliated with college campuses and independent museums such as the MOMA?
Maureen Lane, Acting Curator and Collections Manager: In many aspects campus art museums and independent museums are very much the same. They are collecting institutions, have robust educational mandates, organize exhibitions and public programing and have accountability to a public beyond their own walls. In general there are major transitions occurring throughout the museum field as museums are being responsive to to changing social, cultural and economic challenges and examine the role of the museum in the 21st century and how museums will move forward to best serve their current visitors and communities as well as serve as stewards to preserve cultural heritage for generations. This is particularly challenging in a climate of diminished resources for cultural and nonprofit organizations. College museums are unique in that their most important role is to provide curricular service to their institution’s academic program, and that their primary constituents are faculty and students in addition to the communities in which they are located. While many museum’s tend to focus on a single discipline such as art, history or the sciences, academic museums are uniquely positioned to engage in interdisciplinary research and collaboration, examining many different fields of inquiry.
What is unique about a college museum such as The Phillips Museum of Art is our focus on undergraduate learning in which we actively collaborate with faculty and students to customize research and learning experiences related to current coursework and independent student research. Our role as a teaching museum allows students to work directly with objects in a way that isn’t common in larger public museums. We also have a mandate to provide career development opportunities for students and to provided them with hands-on training and real world skills that will help them achieve internships, prepare them for graduate school and help them land jobs in the cultural sector.
Where does an art museum fit in the environment of a college campus? What purpose does it serve in relationship to other aspects of an academic institution?
Maddie Fye, Cataloging Assistant: Museums, like colleges and universities, are teaching institutions and thus their goals are inline. The manner in which museums inform is different, object based vs. text based, but the expected outcome is the same. Museums can offer physicality to history. Studying Rome out of textbooks is one thing, but the experience shifts when a 2000 year old coin is placed in your hand. Objects can breathe life into history.
Marissa Sobel, Education Assistant: I would say that an art museum on a college campus serves the purpose of connecting the college with the surrounding community. With the exhibitions at the Phillips Museum of Art this semester, we’ve gotten a lot of class visits from students at F&M, but also from PCA&D, Millersville University, and local public schools. Also, different classes at F&M use objects from the museum’s collection for learning materials so students can learn about a period of history or art history in ways that they can’t if they stay in a classroom.
What would you say the mission of the Phillips Museum is?
Maureen Lane: There are three overarching elements that guide the museum’s work: 1. Service to the academic curriculum to advance interdisciplinary teaching 2. The enrichment of the cultural life of the campus and the community in a way that deepens understanding and appreciation of the arts 3. The stewardship and long term preservation of cultural and historical objects for future generations of learners.
Brittany Baksa, Outreach and Programs Manager: Our mission currently states that we are a cultural resource for the campus and local community; To advance the educational objectives of the college by presenting exhibitions and programs that support the curriculum and provide research and study opportunities for faculty and research. More importantly, I think the mission of the museum should include making art more accessible to a variety of audiences by supporting a free choice learning environment.
What is the most difficult part of achieving this mission?
Brittany Baksa: I think the most challenging part of achieving this mission is changing the preconceived notion that one needs to be a mastery of specific knowledge in order to enter the museum. The challenge is to bridge the gap between disciplines of the college, increase accessibility, and make it more commonplace for a variety of audiences. Having to continually demonstrate the value to the campus and wider community the value of the museum as a resource.
Maureen Lane: In an independent museum, the museum is the mission and everyone in the organization works in accordance with the best practices and standards that guide the museum profession. Academic museums are functioning within very complex organizations whose missions inform the educational mandate of the museum but whose priorities, professional practices and decision making are often very different from the principles that guide the museum profession. It can be challenging to balance the museum’s guiding principles and best practices with that of the overall institution. However, there are opportunities that can arise from these challenges that allow an academic museums to to do things that other types of museums can’t do.
What is lost when there is not art museum on a campus?
Marissa Sobel: One of the main reasons I think colleges benefit from having a museum of any kind on a campus is that the museum provides a space for student artists to showcase their work to their peers. Without a museum on campus, student artists would have to find space at nearby galleries or other student centers if they wanted a place to display their work.
Brittany Baksa: The opportunity to learn. An appreciation for something new. Conversation. It is one thing to learn about a work of art through presentations or printed material, but it makes an even greater impact when you are engaging with the physical object. Museums offer the opportunity for in-depth visual investigation, knowledge curation, and object analysis that might not otherwise be achieved through lecture in a classroom setting.
What role do see students, faculty, and administrative members playing with regard to the museum?
Maureen Lane: The museum works very closely with students, faculty and staff from many different disciplines to collaborate in developing exhibitions, programs and the collections. We seek broad input into the campus community and value participation from all of these constituencies. Students from any major have many opportunities to contribute to the museum and serve as members of the museum’s exhibitions committee, curate their own exhibitions, give public tours to the community, research the collections, work as gallery attendants and hold programs in the museum. We seek and welcome broad input from the members of the campus community.
Andrew Meriwether, ’14 Philosophy, Digital Media Assistant