Fellow’s Report: Joining the Museum as a Kress Interpretive Fellow
“Imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation.”
Author and museum director Nina Simon proposes this approach in her book The Participatory Museum, where she describes museum artifacts as “social objects” around which people — even strangers — can connect. To illustrate the concept, she gives the useful example of meeting people while walking her dog. Asking to pet someone’s dog or inquiring about the breed can be the first step in starting a new conversation. As she writes, “it’s much less threatening to engage someone by approaching and interacting with her dog.” George Eastman probably knew this well: he had a running group of setters and pointers (up to nine at a time!) that joined him at his hunting lodge in North Carolina.
As a museum dedicated to photography and cinema, the George Eastman Museum is fortunate to collect art and artifacts that are fundamentally social. We all use these media every day, both as things to talk about and ways to talk about them. Through exhibitions, screenings, and special events, the Eastman Museum is always striving to be a place where those conversations can happen. For example, our photography exhibitions often feature Spark cards, which can be found outside and scattered throughout the galleries. These cards suggest questions to ask yourself and others that are designed to encourage Simon’s approach of “looking at an object…for its ability to spark conversation.”
For the next academic year, I’m supporting the Eastman Museum in this mission to create conversations as a Samuel H. Kress Interpretive Fellow. Mr. Kress was a businessman and philanthropist who gathered one of the 20th century’s foremost collections of Italian Renaissance and European artwork. In addition to donating these works to museums around the United States, Kress also started the Kress Foundation in 1929 to further support the work of arts institutions and scholars. Each year, the foundation sponsors Interpretive Fellows at art museums across the country to work in the area between the curatorial and education departments. The program is meant to strengthen the ties between these departments and to enrich a museum’s connection to its community through educational and public programming. This year, other recipients of the grant include the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and past years have included the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In short, the Eastman Museum is in good company here.
You may have seen me a few posts ago sharing my experience as a Gallery Docent. During my tenure as a Kress Fellow, I’ll be working on three interrelated projects that have a lot to do with this experience. First up, is the reorganization of our docent program to include a more diverse selection of thematic tours that better support the museum’s mission of celebrating George Eastman’s legacy. Possible topics include a focused look at the moving image collection, Eastman as an inventor, and histories of the house and garden restorations, but feel free to comment with other aspects of the museum you’d like to learn more about.
The other two projects will concern the History of Photography gallery. I’ll be collaborating on the exhibition for next summer with Lisa Hostetler, curator-in-charge of the Department of Photography, and some graduate students in the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management. In addition, I am working with Kate Meyers Emery, manager of digital engagement, to develop and experiment with digital tools that will make our online collections even more accessible, user-friendly, and exciting.
It’s pure coincidence that my post about this fellowship in Museum Interpretation follows close on the heels of our Director’s Note about “the question of interpretation” as it relates to David Levinthal: War, Myth, Desire. However, I think this position is a great opportunity to keep this question open, both for our special exhibitions and our permanent displays. The question at the core of my fellowship is: How else can we present and share our collection with all of you? Last month, I helped conduct a survey of over 100 visitors to the museum about the highs and lows of their experiences at the Eastman Museum. In addition to requesting more cameras and more materials related to cinema, many of you simply said you wanted more information. As Dr. Barnes pointed out, more interpretation is available through other forums, such as gallery tours, audio guides, and lectures. I hope the digital tool will add substantially to these, though the question of how it does so is still wide open. I’ll be soliciting feedback by testing paper prototypes in the galleries, and I’ll be posting about them here each month, so watch here and on social media for opportunities to participate. For now, some of the inspiring projects from other museums I’m looking at include:
- This expanded digital archive for Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 at UCLA’s Hammer Museum
- This fun tour generator at the Art Institute of Chicago
- This interactive collection visualization at the Royal Academy in London
- And this unbelievable ARTLens initiative at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
While doing my research, one thing I personally enjoy is browsing the photographs posted under #EastmanMuseum. Instagram is a great way to see how you all see the museum. More than that, as a graduate student in photography and visual culture, I’m very aware that photo-sharing apps are not only part of how we publicize what we do: they’re also part of the history of photography and moving images that is our bread and butter.
Overall, one of my goals as a Fellow is to think creatively about new ways the museum can pursue its mission as an educational institution and, in turn, learn more from all of you about how images impact your lives. Your comments are always welcome, and I look forward to many future conversations!
Tracy Stuber is the 2018–2019 Kress Interpretive Fellow at the George Eastman Museum. She is presently a Ph.D Candidate in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, where she is writing a dissertation about the changing status of American photography as a mass medium in the 1970s.