Erika Rodriguez: 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Intern on Opening the Museum: Access, Entry, and Unanticipated Apertures

Leading a tour for students in the Washington University Campus Y Youth University program.

Leading a tour of the Museum’s sculpture plaza for students in the Washington University Campus Y Youth University program.

My interest in museum education began earlier this year when I took part in the Teaching in the Galleries student docent program, led by Amy Miller. Although I have enjoyed art museums from a young age, it had not occurred to me until my docent work that my educational background in comparative literature could lead to a career in the museum field.  In providing the opportunity to work with the curatorial, publications, marketing, education, art on campus, and registrar departments, the Internship to Promote and Encourage Diversity in the Museum Profession has opened new possibilities in my career and enabled me to gain a well-rounded understanding of the diverse and interconnected aspects of museum life.

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Working with the installation team to plan a salon-style hang for the Museum’s 10th anniversary exhibition.

As a doctorate student and teaching assistant in comparative literature, representation, reception, and the rise of cultural institutions have been subjects of ongoing discussion throughout my academic career. As a result I came to this internship with an interest in the purposes that a museum serves within its community and in the competing perspectives that shape both its collection and the social interactions it facilitates. In my weekly discussions with associate curator Allison Unruh, I came to better appreciate the negotiations and efforts put in practice by museum departments to increase public access and create multiple points of potential engagement.

Complementary to these theoretical discussions, I worked on several assignments that contributed to my professional development and afforded me the opportunity to familiarize myself with the day-to-day organizations of museum work.  Through writing blurbs for FYI, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum newsletter, I learned about the history of Women and the Kemper, current projects in Art on Campus, and the upcoming Kemper expansion—each of which serves to involve a stronger diversity of audience members and provide more ways to engage with art socially. I also collaborated with the education and curatorial departments, to put together program ideas and educator guides for upcoming exhibitions. These conversations illustrated the ways in which museum departments encourage academic, casual, curious, enthusiastic forms of engagement, in which an art object is transmuted from text, to context, to spectacle and invites unexpected associations. I believe this, above all, continues to be the thrill of museums in an age of infinite digital reproduction.

The project about which I have been most passionate is the education program’s incipient development of a program to make the Kemper Art Museum more accessible to visitors who are blind or visually impaired. In working with Allison Taylor, the director of the education program, I researched art museum programs that were using tactile graphics and other sensory tours and began to develop a plan for the didactic materials and professional development models that we could implement at the Kemper to establish the first program of this kind in Missouri.  Although our primary focus with this program would be to engage museum visitors with visual impairments, the museum education department could use the materials and skills developed through this program in helping other populations build a connection with art, for instance visitors with cognitive or developmental impairments or neuroatypical visitors who prefer kinetic learning.

Student collages from an educational program for the Forsyth School Summer Discovery Camp.

Student collages from an educational program for the Forsyth School Summer Discovery Camp.

I would like to extend my gratitude to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum staff, who welcomed me into their departments, encouraged me to ask questions, and made me feel at home at an institution that is in many ways still new to me. As I progress into the fourth year of my doctoral studies, I look forward to working with the education department to continue to cultivate an art community in which all visitors feel welcome to the aesthetic encounters the museum facilitates and to the exchange of ideas it inspires.

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