"The Art in the Liberal Arts"

The Art in the Liberal Arts

Deborah Barkun is working with students involved in curating the current Berman Museum exhibition, and teaching a museum studies class in Philadelphia.

Deborah Barkun, Chair of the Department of Art and Art History and Director of Museum Studies, is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and holds her master’s and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College. Ursinus Magazine asked her about the new Museum Studies minor, the role of art and a museum, at a liberal arts college and a class she is co-teaching around an exhibition.

Tell us something about your background and research interests.

My parents introduced me to art at a very early age and regularly brought me to museums before I could even walk. At the same time, I grew up with a family member who was visually impaired and I was frequently asked to translate what I saw into words. This process of translation sensitized me to the interplay of the visual and the verbal. As an undergraduate, I studied in a rigorous studio-intensive program within a research university, where reading, writing, and research were considered integral to studio practice. My research on social dynamics of artistic collaboration and the visual culture of HIV/AIDS developed from my graduate work at Bryn Mawr. Currently, I am working on a book called Tangled Web that examines issues of gender and labor in textile-based contemporary art.

How has the Ursinus College art curriculum evolved, and where do you hope it will go next?

The curriculum in the Art and Art History Department bridges theory and practice through cross-media intermediate and advanced studio courses, a writing-intensive critical theory and methodologies course, and collaborations between seniors in studio art and art history. In the past several years, we have added exciting special topic courses, such as The Photobook, and courses in Islamic art history to our offerings. The Annual Student Exhibition in the Berman Museum and annual participation in the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Art History Symposium remain highlights. Moving forward, we hope to expand and enhance our physical facilities to foster continued growth of our programs.

Why is the new Museum Studies minor important for a liberal arts college?

Although it is administrated through the Department of Art and Art History, the Museum Studies minor at Ursinus is the result a long-term collaboration between an interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff. In one sense, we were addressing existing student enthusiasm for museum professions, as well as our alumni’s successes in the museum and culture industry. Ursinus’s academic programs, independent learning experiences, and the Berman Museum’s student worker program were already preparing students to enter museum professions and many of our graduates were pursuing graduate studies in museum studies or moving into museum careers. The curriculum of the Museum Studies minor formalizes and builds on these successes. The new minor integrates academic, intellectual, theoretical, and experiential ways of learning central to liberal education that facilitate development of critical skills. Like liberal education, museums are interdisciplinary producers of knowledge: they help us know the world and our place in it. As such, the Museum Studies minor cultivates ways of knowing that resonate deeply with the broader goals and philosophies of the College.

Please describe the class activity curating the Natessa Amin exhibition. What is the role of the students?

The exhibition, Natessa Amin: Dancing on the Water Tank, is the result of the first offering of the curatorial practices seminar, a two-part course that began in August and extended through the winter break. The students in the course drew from their knowledge of museum history and theory that they acquired in Introduction to Museum Studies. Berman Museum Curator of Exhibitions Ginny Kollak and I co-taught the seminar, which began with a critical examination of definitions, roles, and activities of curators. This is especially fascinating at a moment when the activity of “curating” extends to social media sites, music playlists, and commercial inventories, etc.

In a gallery or museum context, curating involves close looking, research, writing, and synthesis. It is not a neutral activity. Curators contextualize and combine images, objects, and didactic materials to tell specific stories. In the first half of the course, we examined the kinds of narratives curators tell through exhibitions and the methodologies they use to connect with public audiences. These studies prepared us to work collaboratively with the artist Natessa Amin to determine a narrative and approach for the exhibition. This entailed reaching consensus between 13 thoughtful, creative, and diverse participants. Ginny and I primarily worked as facilitators of the student-directed production. Students were central to and crucial for all aspects of the exhibition, from the initial studio visit to the opening reception and public programming. They selected artworks, worked with Berman Registrar Julie Choma to unpack, check-in, and document works of art, patched and painted gallery walls, staged the exhibition, conducted artist interviews and research, wrote promotional material and wall text, and produced a 64-page zine chronicling the exhibition process.

What are the educational advantages of having a museum on campus?

The Berman Museum of Art provides the Ursinus and Collegeville communities unique proximity to objects and images that offer tremendous opportunities for learning and growth. Artists create works that confront significant issues and function as documents of a particular time and place. The Berman Museum’s permanent collection and special exhibitions give special access to visual and material culture that speaks to central questions of a liberal education: How should we live our lives? What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of the universe, and what is our place in it? The Berman Museum is an invaluable campus laboratory without which the Museum Studies minor would be unthinkable.

You are also teaching a class in the Philadelphia Experience, Introduction to Museum Studies. What do you hope to convey about exploring art in Philadelphia?

The course is less about exploring art, than it is about exploring museums as institutional and ideological producers of knowledge. In this iteration of the course, Philadelphia serves as the laboratory in which we are examining the complex dynamics of varied museum contexts—science museums, history museums, art museums, among others—as well as varied museum professions: conservation and restoration, accessibility and inclusion, development, volunteer coordination, museum education, publicity and promotions, museum governance, among others. Students are studying museum history, theory, and practice on site. Our plans include visits to the Mütter Museum, the Wagner Free Institute of Science, the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the African-American Museum, the Rosenbach Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Barnes Foundation, the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Asian Arts Initiative, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Please Touch Museum, to name a few.