My Experience as a Student Curator
Note: This was originally published on my old blog in May 2017.
For my last semester of college, I had the wonderful experience of curating an exhibit with my African Art class.
First, I want to acknowledge how much I enjoyed the class itself. African art is completely unlike anything else I've ever studied in art history. It's rich and fascinating and there's still so much room for exploration. I really appreciated my experience in the class. It opened my mind to a broader definition of art (aesthetics vs. functionality) and the complications of European involvement in the production and consumerism of African art.
At the beginning of the semester, we got to check out my college's vast permanent collection and choose pieces we wanted to research for the exhibition. Somehow, I became in charge of six objects (though one was dropped, since it was too similar to another.)
Opening night of Leadership Arts in Africa at the College of Wooster Art Museum. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
The first thing we did was write a three-page paper on our object (just one or two objects, if we had multiple.) Then our professor went over those papers with us individually and helped us correct them. Then we returned to our papers a few weeks later and cut them down to roughly 200 words. After going over those, we further cut them down to 150-100 words. We were told that our class was particularly good at that--do you know how hard it is to prioritize a ton of info about the history of your object and the culture it belonged to?
After that came line edits to smooth out grammatical errors and make the text panels sound coherent and easy to read. We went through a few rounds of this. We read our own, we read each others', our professor and the museum curator read them--and then we did it all over again. Even on the day of the exhibition opening, we read through them one last time to make sure there weren't any typos we somehow missed before.
We didn't specifically choose where each of our objects went in the gallery space, though we were allowed input and looked over the display to see how we liked it. For opening night, we were each given the opportunity to give a gallery talk on one of our objects. Since I was presenting on my senior research a couple days after, I figured this would be a good opportunity to get some extra public speaking practice. (Plus, I'm considering going into museum work, so this would be good experience.)
Me standing in front of the Akan crown and headband I covered. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
I didn't write on all of the objects I'm standing by here. I covered the Akan crown and headband in this photo--and just spoke on the crown for my three-minute talk--and also covered a Cameroon stool and pipes.
I get nervous speaking or performing in front of groups of people. (I suffered through more than one invisible panic attack in my choir and band days.) But that saying "fake it till you make it" does work. Once I got started on my gallery talk, I became more confident and enjoyed showing off my research to the people standing there.
I'm still writing on this Akan crown for a seven-page research paper. I enjoyed this incredible opportunity to curate a show and study objects in person. It was truly a rewarding experience.
And, in case you're interested, here is the official press release! https://www.wooster.edu/news/releases/2017/april/student-curated-exhibition/