August 2013 Features

On Course: Inside the Glass Case

Student curators devote an exhibition to four Bryn Mawr alumnae.

By Nancy Brokaw

What, exactly, does a curator do? This spring, a team of Bryn Mawr and Haverford students discovered firsthand the answer to that question as they organized and mounted an exhibition in a class taught by Brian Wallace, the College’s curator and academic liaison for art and artifacts.

In the course The Curator in the Museum, a team of students curated Making Our World, an exhibition devoted to four Bryn Mawr alumnae. Photos by Anna Moblard Meier.

In the course The Curator in the Museum, a team of students curated Making Our World, an exhibition devoted to four Bryn Mawr alumnae. Photo by Anna Moblard Meier.

According to Wallace, the course, titled The Curator in the Museum, mixes theory and practice and gives students a taste of the curatorial life. The student-curated exhibition, called Making Our World, was on display in the Eva Jane Romaine Coombe ’52 Special Collections Suite of Canaday Library and served as a companion to the Taking Her Place exhibit in Canaday’s Rare Book Room. With the downstairs gallery devoted to the early history of women’s higher education (and Bryn Mawr’s role in it), the upstairs space brought the story up to date, with profiles of four Bryn Mawr alumnae who graduated between 1946 and 2012. Jacqueline Levine ’46, Margery Lee ’51, Kimberly Blessing ’97, and Courtney Pinkerton ’12 gave generously of the time, memories, and objects they had accumulated over the years.

“One of the challenges of creating an exhibit around living individuals is how to portray their personalities and intangible qualities,” explains Claudia Keep ’15. “How does one pick and choose the object or series of objects that would best represent … these individuals?”

Through a series of oral interviews, the students got to know all four women: Jennifer Rabowsky ’15 picked up clues about Pinkerton’s Texas spirit, Xingzhe He ’14 heard about Lee’s role as Garden Party coordinator and Blessing’s accomplishments and confusions as a young college student, and Alison Whitney ’13 learned about Levine’s participation in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery.

The young curators were quick to find a focus with the older alumnae. Both Levine and Lee are longtime art collectors who have donated generously to the College’s Special Collections, and the class was able to draw on those holdings.

Lee insisted that the exhibition reflect her passion for the arts, “a vital and defining experience in her life,” as Christine Villanueva ’13 puts it. The B. Herbert Lee and Margery Peterson Lee collection includes photographs by Andres Serrano, David Graham, and Ansel Adams; lithographs by Jim Dine, Marlene Dumas, and Jody Pinto; a John Kindness aquatint; and serigraphs by George Segal and James Rosenquist.

The thinking behind students’ final selection—Rosenquist’s For the Young Artist, Dumas’s Supermodel, and Kindness’s China Cabinet Fly—was a textbook example of curatorial decision-making. As Villanueva explains, the Rosenquist piece, a dynamic image that spoke to the notion of mentorship between generations, was “the fulcrum around which we based Margery Lee’s display.” She adds it, “worked well next to Kimberly Blessing’s technology-oriented objects.” As the only female artist, Dumas was not only “a shoe-in” but also “played well against … Levine’s displayed artworks of figuratively focused and politically/racially charged works.”

Pinkerton, a recent grad with less life behind her, presented more of a challenge to the curators. “Courtney’s time at Bryn Mawr was shaped greatly by her independence and her work ethic,” says Keep. “But how do you show independence, hard work, and commitment inside of a glass case?”

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Photo by Anna Moblard Meier.

The class also hosted groups of high-school age students from several nearby schools for a hands-on look at the work of organizing and interpreting exhibitions. Wallace’s students distilled themes from the exhibition that matched high school curricula and then developed materials and activities that engaged the high school students in interactive, collaborative explorations of objects and ideas.

Wallace describes the visits as a “pilot program” that the college plans to offer to schools in the future. “We are still learning that a project like this one that meshes classroom discussions, theoretical perspectives, and real-world situations poses problems that require patience, flexibility, and compromise,” he says. “Student input is invaluable in this regard, as is the feedback we’ve had from faculty, staff, and the visiting high school students and their teachers.”

Read more about students’ experiences on the Special Collections Blog.

 

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