Rather slowly and gradually, I have been assembling the syllabus for my spring course on museums. Through the fall and early winter, I read essays and books about museums to search for material to use in the course. The readings are now mostly selected, but I debate with myself about the choices. Some readings, such as the choice of an article from The New York Times on the conservation of Spiral Jetty, which I will use to begin the course, make me very happy. I like the quirkiness of beginning a course on museums with an article about art made from stones that lies in a lake (albeit an receding lake). The short, simple article raises questions about what constitutes a museum, the roles of curators, choices of conservation, and the significance of objects (especially how museums create significance) that will be an excellent way to introduce important ideas for the course.
We’ll also be reading chapters from Susan Pearce’s Museums, Objects and Collections, which I find clear and interesting. I like Pearce’s logic and organization, but I’m concerned the students will not be engaged by her. A dilemma debated in my head is whether I should use articles that are logical, well organized, and informative (and likely not to engage the students) or those that are more pointed, outlandish, and less informative (but more likely to rouse and hold the students’ interest). I am opting mostly for the informative, which is a weakness of mine. I will need to bring examples and thoughts into the discussions to keep them lively.
Among the most engaging of readings for the course is a long selection from Edward Linenthal’s Preserving Memory, which is about the development of America’s Holocaust Museum. His discussion of the development of the exhibits, how the architecture of the building shaped exhibit decision-making, how stories were to be told using materials, and especially how exhibit design emerged from both creativity and compromise, is marvelous as well as poignant. Linenthal’s book provides one of the best examples of how museums operate to tell stories, create perspective, and maintain memory.
Among the lighter pieces in our readings will be a chapter from William King’s Collections of Nothing—the story of one man’s obsessive collecting that raises good points about how much of the material in museums was originally assembled. There are also essays on museum architecture, virtual collections, and the Parthenon Marbles that I think will be good reading for grand discussions.
This afternoon my work on the syllabus turned to expectations for the course. This is always difficult. What must students do and what must they achieve to get grades, especially good grades in a course. Unlike my classes on plant science, I will not give exams in this course. I will have the students write and create.
The plan—at least at the time I left my office at 5.30—was to have the students write 12 brief essays of 300-500 words that address ideas, the readings, and the museum visits in the course. I plan to have the students construct weblogs, on which they will post their essays. I like this approach because I think it helps students recognize that they are writing not just for me but also for a broader audience. I will expect the students to comment on each other’s essays.
There will also be two projects in the course. In the first half of the course, the students will design museum displays, and they will present their designs at the last class before the midterm break. In the second half of the course they will have a larger project that I will expect each student to design in consultation with me. For these larger projects, I anticipate encouraging gallery redesigns, developing exhibits, developing virtual displays, creating educational programs, formulating fund-raising or marketing strategies, or other projects that are centered in campus museums to give students practical experiences.
At least that’s what I was thinking today.