The Role of the Campus Museum: Staff Perspectives

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 

Guest Blogger: Prof. Kourelis of the Art and Art History Department

This post comes from F&M’s own Prof. Kourelis. The current exhibitions in the Phillips both feature somewhat obscure female artists, artists who deserve our attention. One of them is Leonora Herman (1888-1966) who painted “Camac Street, Philadelphia” (1924), which is hanging in the Dana Gallery. Prof. Kourelis delves into Herman’s painting and unpacks its significance through a look at the architecture historic street in Philadelphia. You can see more of Prof. Kourelis’ writing on his blog

The city is the big theme at the Phillips Museum this academic semester. Complementing the traveling show Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art, Art History major Ali Tufano has curated Art for Life’s Sake: Perceptions of American Realities in the 20th Century. Tufano has brought out of the Phillips Museum’s vaults a set of paintings, drawings, and photographs that have never been seen. The show includes a couple of relatively obscure female Impressionists that deserve our attention, Caroline Peart (1870-1962) and Leonora Herman (1888-1966). The latter is especially important for Franklin and Marshall College, as our studio building is named after her relative, Jacob Leon Herman (Class of 1916)Featured in the exhibit is Leonora Herman’s Camac Street, Philadelphia (1924), which opened the viewer into a remarkable historical street, as well as, to a series of questions regarding the role of the female artist in the city. This is the question that my colleague Linda Aleci raised in her lecture that compared Theresa Bernstein to Marguerite Zorach (recently curated at the Phillips Museum). For Aleci, Zorach had to leave New York City in order to create a more primordial and equitable domestic reality. It is much more difficult to answer that question for Leonora Herman since so little has been written about her life and works. In this scholarly vacuum, I try to re-inhabit Herman’s painting in order to understand its contemporary urban context. I do this by a combination of observation and light research, using the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps that Penn State has recently digitized for the entire state of Pennsylvania. The relevant map isPhiladelphia, vol. 2, (1916), sheet 143.

Camac Street is a North-South alleyway between 12th and 13th Streets in Center City Philadelphia. Like many such alleyways in the city, its prohibitive width has spared it from major automobile traffic and helped it retain its 19th-century charm. The block that Herman painted stretches between Spruce and Locust Streets and its best known for the innovative private clubs that it housed (and continues to house). Herman’s painting focuses on the East side of the block. Built in 1825, a group of 12 row houses here were consolidated during the later 19th century into six private clubs, giving the block the name “The Little Street of Clubs.” It is relevant for the artistic career of Herman because the block housed the Plastic Club, a women’s fine arts club founded in 1897, to which Herman no doubt belonged. A little further down the blog, we find the oldest art club in the U.S., the Philadelphia Sketch Club, founded in 1860, but with membership limited to men. Both institutions continue to function today on the same spot. Herman’s painting, therefore, should be seen as a celebration of artistic comradery and the new social roles offered to women, who would meet every Wednesday, attend a morning workshop, paint, and given the opportunity to exhibit works on a monthly show. At the Plastic Club, Herman would have interacted with leading women artists, such as Violet Oakley, who completed the murals of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg at the same time as Herman’s Camac Street was painted. And we can also presume that the painting of Camac Street was once displayed at the Plastic Club on Camac Street. The hanging textiles that Herman painted across the alley way may also refer to the spirit of exhibition that was sanctioned here.

Using the 1916 Sanborn maps, we can get a little closer to the urban environment that forms Herman’s subject matter. I have extracted the relevant information on the sketch (left). The centerpiece of Herman’s painting in a distinctive white stucco building with round windows, illuminated by the afternoon light shining from the west on Manning Street. Originally a stable, 255 S. Camac Street is marked in the 1916 map as “Office.” Soon after the end of World War I, in 1919, it was converted into a popular tea room, The Venture Inn, run by Blanche L. James. As the photo from the Free Library of Philadelphia shows (below), this cosy tea room also functioned as an art shop. Although I am not sure if this information was known when Herman painted Camac Street in 1924, the stable had been connected to the the underground railroad. In later years, urban myth developed that the stable was originally owned by the Barrymore family of actors, but that seems to have been fabricated. Today, the Venture Inn is a centerpiece of gay pride, housing Philadelphia’s oldest operating gay bar and restaurant.

The second prominent building shown in Herman’s painting is the two-story red brick at 252 S Camak St, that was restored in the 2000s into the Acanthus Office Building. When Herman painted it, the structure housed Le Coin d’Or, a private club devoted to French cuisine. The space once housed a leading French restaurant, Deux Cheminees that moved one block away, and ultimately closed in 2006. Next in line, in 247 S Camac, which continues to house the Plastic Club. Rising beyond it is 239 S Camac, which housed the Charlotte Cushman Club, named after a famous actress, and first female director of the Walnut Street Theater around the corner. Cushman’s Lesbian history makes this an appropriate member of today’s Gayborhood. The function of the Cushman Club was to offer residence to traveling female actresses passing through Philadelphia. Although not visible in Herman’s painting, two more clubs continue northwards. The Poor Richard Club (241 S Camac) was founded in 1906 by members of the advertising industry. And finally the Sketch Club (235 S Camac) provided a meeting place for artists like Thomas Eakins and W. C. Wyeth.

Having performed this archaeological review of the spaces within the painting, the work begins to take up some additional significance. Some elements need further clarification. For instance, what are those fabrics hanging between the Coin d’Or club and the garage across the street? Do they resemble flags? Might this be a reference to armistice celebrations? Furthermore, we see a finial or sculpture rising out of the corner of the corner of a distant building. What exactly is that? It is not there today.

Herman’s Camac Street is more than a recording of contemporary social realities. It has an artistic value of its own that needs to be brought into alignment with the depicted subject. The interplay of light and shadow, the bright post-Impressionist colors, even the modernistic shapes of the stucco’ed Venture Tea Room command our attention. With the archaeological information in place, we might be able to unpack this work further and evaluate the work of this female artist in the cultural practices of Philadelphia.

The image of the painting, courtesy of the Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin and Marshall College. For more historical images of Camac Street, see here.