The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 17, 2003
March 17, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 26


Stepping Into the Museum World

BMA director puts JHU undergrads through paces of curating an exhibition

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Minus his trademark moustache and scowl, the portrait of a smiling, bangs-a-blazing, teenage Edgar Allan Poe left several of the Johns Hopkins undergraduates gathered in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Maryland Room feeling duped. King of the macabre? More like the boy next door.

"That doesn't look anything like him," one student said.

"He's too happy looking," another chimed in.

Kristen Romano, the Enoch Pratt's special collections librarian, agreed with the assessment but assured the students the picture was authentic, as were the two dozen or so other objects from the library's extensive Poe holdings (some of which belong to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore) that she was displaying this recent morning: items such as a lock of the author's hair, first-edition Poe works, a fragment of his coffin and numerous prints.

Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and an adjunct professor, shares a laugh with her students on a field trip to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where Kristen Romano showed the group Edgar Allan Poe artifacts to consider for the exhibit they're curating. The course is called Recontextualizing Museum Objects.

"He looks like a sweet little guy here, doesn't he? Not the sinister guy we know," Romano said of the portrait of the youthful Poe.

As eager hands reached out for the image she was holding up, a consensus quickly formed--it appeared the class had found a piece for its growing collection of Poe artifacts.

Part field trip, part scavenger hunt, the exercise at the Baltimore library was another step toward final project completion for those enrolled in Recontextualizing Museum Objects, a new academic offering from the History of Art Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

The course, which meets twice a week, is intended to introduce undergraduates to the museum field and its various components by providing them with real-life experience in organizing an exhibition. Through in-class and outside assignments, the students get to wear the hats of museum curator, educator, designer, marketer and fund-raiser. Because the course is devised as a hands-on endeavor, in lieu of tests the dozen students are working collectively toward a single aim, co-curating Edgar Allan Poe and the Visual Arts, a two-room exhibition that will run from Sept. 14, 2003, to Jan. 4, 2004, in the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The course's instructor, and the driving force behind its creation, is Doreen Bolger, director of the BMA.

Bolger, a specialist in 19th-century American art who received her doctorate from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said her two major goals for the class are to encourage student participation at the BMA, which is located adjacent to the Homewood campus, and to increase their interest in and commitment to the community arts scene. While the class held its first session in a Homewood classroom, all subsequent sessions have taken place at the BMA or other Baltimore cultural institutions where Poe objects could be found, including the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Library, the Maryland Historical Society and the university's Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

Manet's 1875 etching of Edgar Allan Poe from the BMA's George A. Lucas Collection.

In her syllabus, Bolger divides the semester into three phases: conception, planning and development. The students, working mostly in groups, are given assignments that include writing a biography on a specific artist, developing educational programs, cataloging objects for the exhibit, submitting a funding proposal and creating a press release.

"I wanted to simulate for them what it would be like if they worked for a museum, so we are taking them through each step in the process of putting together an exhibition, just in an extremely condensed time," said Bolger. "This is a course where everyone works together, and the credit is for collaborating with others, the same as in the museum, where the whole staff has pride of ownership in the final exhibition. I think this class is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn about what a museum is and does, and maybe even consider it as a potential career option after they graduate."

The concept for Recontextualizing Museum Objects arose out of two years of ongoing discussions Bolger has had with Daniel Weiss, the James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and an arts historian. Bolger said she and Weiss have talked of ways the university and the BMA could collaborate more, and this class was one suggestion.

When she was director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, a post she held before coming to the BMA in 1998, Bolger created a program in which nearby Brown University students interned at the museum and Brown professors taught courses there. Bolger foresees that sort of relationship between JHU and the BMA in the near future.

"Right now we don't have anything that ambitious going on here, but we are experimenting with different ways that the university and the museum can work together more for the benefit of students, the faculty and the public," she said. "I think Dan [Weiss] realizes the museum's potential to be a kind of laboratory for students and faculty, and so he thought this course was a wonderful idea."

Weiss said he was "all for it," even before he knew the BMA's own director would sign on to teach the course.

"I was truly delighted to find out she was considering doing this for us," he said. "I feel many goals are being accomplished here with this class. Among them, students are being given a unique opportunity to work directly with rare materials and museum professionals for a project that will be entirely their own."

Bolger said she chose Edgar Allan Poe as a theme for several reasons, chiefly his international and local significance and the wealth of Poe-inspired items in the museum's collection, including Manet's 1895 illustration for Stephane Mallarme's translation of The Raven and works by Gauguin, Legros and Matisse.

"Another reason I chose this theme is that I knew at Johns Hopkins there were professors and scholars who had a vested interest in Poe, such as John Irwin, who has written a distinguished book on Poe and the detective story, and the actor John Astin, who has done so much about performing Poe," said Bolger, who anticipates that the two faculty will play some role in the final exhibition. "Not to mention the Eisenhower Library, which has many illustrated books on Poe that we could potentially borrow."

Perry Price, a senior, said he signed up for the class because he is interested in restoration and conservation. He said he was "pleasantly surprised" to discover that Bolger was teaching the class and that a public exhibition would result from their work.

"I couldn't pass up this opportunity. Everyone at the museum has been great," he said. "You might think we would be a burden on them because we're sort of fumbling around and trying to find our way, but everyone has been so enthusiastic in helping us."

Bolger said that just getting a few more students through the museum's front door has been a victory.

"One of my students told me it took her three years to know [the BMA] was here," she said. "That is one of the reasons for the public exhibition, so that students can see what their peers have done and perhaps encourage them to come in and take a look around."