In January 2021, the Middlebury College Art Museum embarked on a major overhaul – installing a new organization concept that displays art from the permanent collection by theme rather than region and timeline, as is typical of most European and American museums. With this redesign, along with the implementation of related initiatives, museum organizers hoped to increase the accessibility and inclusiveness of the museum to reach a wider audience and showcase a more diverse range of artists.
Jason Vrooman ’03 is both chief curator and director of engagement for the museum, roles that are separated into two separate positions in most museums. His experience in linking the responsibilities of each role has helped him plan and conceptualize the redevelopment project. His role as Director of Engagement challenges him to think about how people connect to the works on display while he accomplishes tasks related to acquiring and organizing exhibitions in his role as curator. .
“It’s very unusual to have a dual curator and educator, but we like it because both [roles] inform each other. As curator, I try to keep in mind how the works will support the educational goals of the museum as a resource for Middlebury classrooms, local schools and adult members of the community, ”said Vrooman.
Starting in late 2019, Vrooman worked closely with museum director Richard Saunders, associate curator of ancient art Pieter Broucke, museum registrar Meg Wallace and museum designer Ken Pohlman to rethink the way whose permanent collection could be used to tell new stories. Sabarsky Graduate Fellow Sarah Briggs ’14 .5 and Sarah Laursen – who was the museum’s Asian art curator before leaving museum staff in the summer of 2020 – were also closely involved in the early stages of the process.
The committee also frequently solicited student feedback from participants in the 2020 summer internship program and conducted a survey of faculty who had historically used the museum in their classes to ensure that the changes would not disrupt teaching. existing.
For about a year, the group has met weekly to discuss how chronological and geographic approaches to the art exhibit contribute to Eurocentric biases and to develop strategies to address this narrow lens at the Middlebury Museum. .
“Our museum has brought together a wide range of artists for decades, but the permanent collection has a particular focus on Mediterranean, American and European art, while other stories have been told in modest ways,” said Vrooman. “We focused on collecting more work from women, queer artists and artists of color long before the redevelopment project started, and we wanted to find a way to highlight that diversity by having themes . ”
Vrooman also mentioned that the museum plans to add other works by Indigenous and disabled artists.
The group finally chose 12 themes to juxtapose works from all eras and all cultures. Some of the themes include art and activism, portraiture, people and the planet, ritual and devotion, death and remembrance, cross cultures and the art of storytelling. Under Death and Remembrance, for example, the funeral art of the Han Dynasty shares space with pieces from ancient Egyptian funeral practice.
“We really hope people look for similarities, but we also want to respect the difference between these works,” Vrooman said. “We want these spaces to open up dialogue and invite conversation about important social issues, as well as ask people to think about how the past influences the way we engage with each other in the present.”
To complete the redesign, the committee enlisted museum ambassadors and other students to help write new labels and modify existing text to enhance inclusiveness. Claire Darrow ’22, museum ambassador since fall 2019, described how the language used in museums can often maintain stereotypes and reify certain cultural prejudices.
“We used terms that might be easier to understand if you don’t have specific art history training. I hope something as small as a label or inclusive language can make people more comfortable in a museum and allow them to see their stories and perspectives reflected in art, ”said Darrow .
One example that Darrow cited as a common misleading use of language in museums is the use of the past to describe the art of the indigenous cultures of the Americas, which may imply that they no longer exist. “These cultures are still very active,” said Darrow.
In addition to descriptive labels, the museum has also instituted what it calls its “Label Talk Initiative”. Through this project, three participants respond to each work selected from a personal, professional or academic point of view. Vrooman hopes that presenting three distinct perspectives will show that there are multiple ways of seeing art and help make the museum a space where many voices are welcome.
“Part of our process was to question the expectations of those who interpret art in a museum,” said Vrooman. “In most museums you don’t know who wrote the labels, but you can assume that they have had a very particular educational path.”
Pearl Akoto ’24, who grew up in Ghana before moving to New York, got involved in the Label Talk Initiative by writing a personal response to an article titled “Untitled (with red)“ by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. “I had never seen any form of representation of my culture, especially in Vermont,” she said.
Although the play is a commentary on the transatlantic slave trade, Akoto hopes his response will help visitors focus on modern aspects of the work and its evocation of current issues related to environmental justice.
“In fact, I tried to avoid referring to the transatlantic slave trade. Of course, the struggles and pains of slavery are part of our history and our culture, but we are much more than that and no longer allow it to define us, ”she said. “We go out of there and create a new narrative for the present. ”
Museum visitors can continue the conversation by scanning a QR code next to the artwork and adding their own response to a virtual blog.
In addition to the thematic reorganization, the new design instituted other components to increase accessibility. These changes included lowering the suspension height of most works by about two inches, which can make a substantial difference for visitors in wheelchairs, children, or anyone who chooses to sit down to watch. an artwork. Staff also increased the font size on the labels and opted to use black sans serif text against a white wall after researching the readability of different typefaces.
There are fewer works on display in the new organization to open up more space for tour groups and classes to visit without getting too close to the rooms. However, around fifteen works from the permanent collection will be rotated at the end of each semester because they are sensitive to light. The rotating pieces will specifically include works by various artists.
Vrooman hopes the redevelopment was a positive step towards inclusiveness, but also acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We are open to responses that can reshape the way we think and invite members of the community to provide feedback directly or on bit.ly/MuseumComments,” said Vrooman.
Currently, the museum is only open to students, faculty and staff by appointment due to Covid-19 precautions. In addition to the galleries of the permanent collection, visitors can enjoy the special exhibitions “A New Lens: Contemporary Video & Animation” and “Art & Protest: Artists as Agents of Social Change”, both on display until December 12.