August 2011 Features

Curators for the 21st Century

Transforming museums in the information age

Whether amid the monuments of Washington, D.C., the ancient ruins of Amman, or the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, history of art graduates focus on making their institutions relevant in a fast-moving digital age. The role of a curator is in flux, as many museums struggle to keep their doors open and engage a distracted public.

By Alicia Bessette

“Curators need to identify what we can do to keep people coming to museums,” says Jordana Pomeroy ’84, chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, many museums are free to the public, but this is not the case throughout the country. “Why should a person pay $20 to come to a museum, when they can go to a movie?”

The modern museum’s charge is twofold: to preserve and protect works of art, and to present these works to a public that is increasingly dependent on a digital environment for stimulation and information.

“Museums can provide a respite from the ‘connected’ life, but also must cater to the desire for instant information delivery that all of our visitors expect,” says Katherine Crawford Luber, Ph.D. ’92, the Kelso Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) in Texas.

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington is actively involved in community outreach to attract visitors. As art disappears from the primary education curriculum, museums fill that void, says Chief Curator and Curator of the Bancroft Collection Margaretta Frederick, M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’96. “Museums need to educate an audience, which no longer naturally gravitates to us.”

Virtual-real hybrid

Most curators believe museums can and should encourage a meditative experience. As Catharine H. Roehrig, M.A. ’77, a curator in the department of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, points out: “One thing many people value about the Metropolitan Museum is that it has been a place where you can come and contemplate great works of art without the dis­tractions of the fast-paced world of the city that lies just outside.”

At the same time, the Internet is a tool to lure visitors from the virtual to the brick-and-mortar. Websites provide extraordinary access to collections, as well as present how-to films on printmaking techniques or a web chat on a particular exhibit. In the unregulated deluge of online information, the museum website is seen as a solid source. For Roehrig in the Met’s Egyptian department, “It’s a way of counteracting the vast amount of misinformation that one finds elsewhere on the Internet about ancient Egyptian culture.”

The web also shapes the experience inside the museum. “Once across the threshold, visitors arrive in the galleries with apps to guide them, to create their own tours, and to expand upon limited label information,” explains Pomeroy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “They perhaps have already downloaded a guided tour to their iPods or, at the very least, use their cell phones as an audioguide.”

Increasingly, museums are a combination virtual and real experience. While the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles boasts 1.4 million visitors a year, that figure is only a fraction of the eight million virtual visitors who peruse the website every month, according to Scott Schaefer, M.A. ’72, Ph.D. ’76. The former senior vice president of Sotheby’s is now senior curator of paintings at the Getty.

“Any collection with a presence on the web has a far greater reach than anyone ever dreamed in the 1970s,” says Schaefer.

The Getty soon will shift to a solely online cataloging system. Indeed, many museums are undertaking the digitization of their collections They are hiring webmasters, graphic designers, and other professionals to decide what materials to make available online, and how.

Ellen Miles ’64, chair of the department of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from 1994 to 2010, says the virtual question is foremost on many curators’ minds. “A lot of this activity is relatively new,” she says.


Chiyo L. Ishikawa, M.A. ’83, Ph.D. ’89, Seattle Art Museum’s deputy director of art and curator of European painting and sculpture, thinks many museums would like to be perceived as friendlier. “We’re asking ourselves, as we’re designing our programs, what our audience will be,” she says.

In an attempt to connect visitors directly with works of art, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent “It’s Time We Met” campaign included a contest for visitors who submitted photos of themselves alongside the Met’s masterpieces.

The museum-going public is larger and more diverse than in the past. Museums have responded to accommodate a more complex audience. They’ve become more democratic, says Susan Dackerman, M.A. ’91, Ph.D. ’95, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. “That’s a good thing,” she says.

According to Dackerman, museums are more idea-based. “Exhibitions don’t just explore the material nature of objects,” she says. “They attempt to present the meaning of the art work.”

And the audience is no longer just local. “Anyone creating a permanent collection that is open to the general public is creating an international impact,” says Schaefer.

Global impact

Barbara Porter '75 in Petra

At the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan, Barbara Porter ’75 directs all aspects of operations in Jordan and abroad, including managing the center’s publications, organizing international conferences, and fundraising.

“All combined, the work done here allows for North American scholars to connect with Jordanians and work together on issues that can pertain just to Jordan but are certainly regional, and often global,” Porter says. And in terms of their research interests, the scholars who visit ACOR run the gamut from archaeology to women’s rights to climate concerns.

At the museum in San Antonio (SAMA), the connections are with Latin America and Asia. “By building relationships between SAMA and other museums, then presenting exhibitions and collaborative studies based on those relationships, I hope we will build connections that will allow people to share their commonalities and savor the beauty of their differences,” says Luber. “I may be old-fashioned, but I truly believe in the unifying nature of great works of art.”

In D.C., Pomeroy, too, sees her work as having far-reaching implications. Policy makers from Caribbean nations and from the post-Soviet states have requested tours of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “They’re fascinated by our mission, our programming, and how we subsist,” Pomeroy says. “We’re a model or template for people in other countries who would like to sustain this type of museum where they live.”

Multiple roles

In this period of upheaval in the museum world, the curator becomes an increasingly hybrid position. Art historians employed by museums are expected to master myriad responsibilities including grant writing and fundraising.

Pomeroy is deeply involved not only in art historical pursuits, but also in technology, public relations, and education. At Georgetown University, where she teaches a course in museum studies, she advises students that curating is an expansive job. “I tell them, enter the field with great optimism, as I did—but know that you will be ensconced in a complex web of issues. As a curator, you’re not out there with a tin cup. But you are selling ideas, and you’re working with people on all different levels. Curators must take into account so many different factors. Visitor statistics, for example.”

Pomeroy views the curatorial profession as shifting to keep pace with museum culture as it, in turn, responds to new demands that derive from the entertainment industry. The question of whether museums are primarily entertainment or research facilities polarizes many in the art historical professions.

“There’s no either/or,” says Bryn Mawr Assistant Professor of Archaeology and History of Art Alicia Walker ’94, who has worked in museums across the country, including the Harvard University Art Museums and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Museums have always been both; there’s the entertainment/public exposition aspect, and then there are deep roots in the academy and in research. The most successful museums respect and value both traditions.”

Meanwhile, the history of art program at Bryn Mawr has evolved to prepare graduates for the new challenges facing museums today. The college offers a broad range of courses that corresponds to the increasingly multicultural experience of both undergraduate and graduate students.

“We live during a changing time of global interconnection and collision of world cultures that is prominently played out in art, photography, film, video, television, and new digital media,” says Professor Steven Z. Levine, chair of history of art and Leslie Clark Professor in the Humanities. And because of the department’s rigorous approach to the history of art, it is likely that future graduates will continue to occupy prominent positions in the museum world.

They will find a wide variety of institutions—and an expanded vision of the role of museums in the 21st century. Former curator of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and founder and president of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Emily Rauh Pulitzer ’55 describes the new playing field: “Certainly there are big attempts by some museums to entice large numbers of people whose presence help the bottom line with restaurants, shops, blockbusters and exhibitions of perhaps dubious quality.

“At the same time museums are providing insights into world cultures of the past and better understanding of the creative thinking as well as the issues of today. And then there are museums which provide experiential and visual stimulation unavailable elsewhere. In a culture providing deadening amounts of continuous stimulus this has greater and greater value.

“Happily there are many different kinds of art museums.”