Sunday, October 16, 2011

University Art Museums and Galleries - a Student Perspective

No matter where you are in Virginia, you’re only as far away from an art museum or gallery as you are from a college or university. Around 30 college or university art museums / galleries are scattered across the state, and that number doesn’t even include independent university collections, historic houses or other specialized museums. During the Spring 2011 semester, I was a part of an undergraduate museum studies class at VCU took an entire semester to look at the phenomenon of university art museums and galleries, visiting a small handful. From the museums’ functions within the university to collections, cite visits showed that each institution was unique and a great asset to the Commonwealth. But while museum professionals know where to find them, does the public? Or––maybe an even more important question––do students know where to find them? While many students will search for internships in DC, New York and other museum hubs, they only need to look outside their dorms.

University and college art museums and galleries already provide invaluable resources to students, and now we need them now more than ever. All students are more than aware of the job market that awaits them after graduation. Many are looking to fill their CVs and resumes with experience related to their fields, and university museums are in a unique position to prepare students academically and professionally.  

Most students are looking for internships. While formal internship programs are time-consuming to organize, having some kind of structure really helps utilize the work interns do. For example, long-term projects allow students to invest in the work they do––plus, interns that come to work (because that’s really how we look at it) and can pick up where they left off spend less time hovering around the office doors of staff, waiting to be assigned a task. The University of Virginia Art Museum and the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary list formal internship programs on their web pages. The Muscarelle even requires students to have already volunteered before applying for internships. On the job training is really the only way to acquire the skills needed to work in a museum, so students are looking for opportunities to gain the necessary experience in proximity to where they live and study.  

An internship may even help a student decide if he or she really wants to work in a museum. If students are considering graduate school or an academic career, they are most likely looking for opportunities to conduct research. Sure, students can contact university museum directors and curators directly about gaining special access to the collection, but does the wider university community know that a collection is available for research? This past spring, one exhibit at Randolph College’s Maier Museum of Art, Nature Perfected: The Art of Botanical Illustration, was curated by a pre-med student. Reaching across departments and disciplines is one unique opportunity that museums have when operating under a university umbrella. Partnering with professors to create courses that relate a particular field of study to the museum would also offer more university-wide exposure. And regardless of academic background, students are looking for opportunities to learn new skills.

So university museums, keep offering and expanding programs, internships and research opportunities for your students!

And, students, don’t pass up those internships and other opportunities that your university museums offer—especially while you’re still on a meal plan!

Sharayah Cochran
M.A. Student, Museum Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University
Department of Art History, School of the Arts