Oberlin Blogs

The Allen Memorial Art Museum Reopens!

September 27, 2011

Prof. Erik Inglis ’89

It's a cliché, but no less true for that: you don't know what you have until it's gone. For me the most vivid recent example was the closure of the Allen, the College's art museum. As an art historian, my office is steps (fourteen--I just counted) away from the museum's door, and most days (except Mondays) of the academic year find me in it for one reason or another--from a class session to a quick look at something, from a conversation about a piece with a student to a meeting with a colleague. The great thing about repeated short visits to a good museum is that, no matter the main reason you're there, you're bound to get a bonus, to see something you didn't plan on seeing. Works you'd overlooked before will jump out at you, announcing themselves as worth looking at, even if they've seemed silent before. When this happens often enough, you get used to it, take it for granted, assume that that's the way it is always and everywhere.

Which of course is not true; very few folks get to live this close to so much good stuff. The museum's closure brought that home to me in countless ways. Some of these ways were predictable: I missed seeing favorite works, missed learning about new ones, and missed teaching from original objects (though the heroic efforts of the Allen's staff, and particularly Liliana Milkova, its Curator of Academic Programs, made it possible to study some works in a temporary space in the main library).

But the museum's absence taught me that there were other ways the Allen helped me that I hadn't recognized. Perhaps most notably, I learned that teaching from original objects in the museum is not just a good way to teach art history; it's also a great way to get to know students. Standing around a Rubens or a Monet with a small group of students is more informal than lecturing from a podium in a classroom; the conversation is more freewheeling--it goes in directions you might not predict, and brings out different strengths from students. You return from the museum to the classroom refreshed, with everyone knowing a bit more about the subject and each other.

I was an unknowing beneficiary of that effect before the museum closed, and didn't appreciate it the way I do now. For me, then, having the museum open again is like breathing clearly after recovering from a bad cold, when you recognize that even the simple act of breathing easily is a marvelous gift that can't be taken for granted.

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