Oberlin Blogs

A Look into the Allen Memorial Art Museum

February 21, 2022

Biba Duffy-Boscagli ’23

The Allen Memorial Art Museum is an invaluable resource for students and the general public. The museum, lovingly nicknamed the Allen, is a stately building and a physical connector to Oberlin’s Venturi Art Building and the art history building. Poised at the corner of Tappan Square, the Allen Memorial Art Museum is an architectural icon decorated to imitate a Florentine palace. Blue and gold mosaic tiles glitter in the front entrance just past carefully carved columns. A fountain topped with a small cherub just in front of the museum contributes to the traditional Italian architecture while emphasizing the welcoming nature of the space. Beyond the large wooden doors, the King Sculpture Court beckons museum visitors into the space. The galleries are divided by chronology and geographic location, and form a share around the sculpture court. Ambulatories are lined with objects, and the museum space, though exciting and filled with breathtaking artwork, has always felt like a serene space. The Allen Memorial Art Museum is impressive in terms of architecture and collection, but is also extremely remarkable as a resource available to Oberlin students. Though the Allen is not a university museum, the museum staff offer incredible opportunities to Oberlin students and the greater public. 

As an art history student, I am thrilled to be involved in museum work as an undergraduate. I can only outline my own experiences with the Allen Memorial Art Museum in this blog, but I hope that the work and programming I have taken part in at the Allen can offer some valuable insight into both potential student involvement in the institution and the important role the museum takes in Oberlin. In the past three years I have visited the museum on class trips, researched artwork in the museum with the assistance of object files, and taken part in the Allen Memorial Art museum winter term practicum. As a more recent employee of the museum I have worked as a museum attendant at the front desk, taken part in an internship centered around museum accessibility, and worked as a gallery guide. I hope my experiences with the Allen Memorial Art Museum can begin to offer insight into the many resources the museum has to offer to all students. 

To begin most generally, almost all the courses I have taken at Oberlin have included a field trip to the Allen Memorial Art Museum in the syllabus. From a French class mostly focused on grammar to a philosophy of art course, the Allen’s collection encompasses most, if not all disciplines. During my French course, for instance, we spent time in the modern and contemporary galleries observing the artworks and discussing our observations using French vocabulary we had recently learned. Then, after taking notes and brainstorming as a group we each selected one piece to write an art criticism on it in French. In other courses, the artworks that are most applicable to the course may not be one shown in the museum galleries. In these instances, the print study room is opened up to the class and students have a chance to view prints, paintings, objects, and sculptures in a much more personal way. When I took Professor Cheng’s Politics and Protest course (an art history course on modern and contemporary Chinese art) we discussed cultural revolution propaganda posters extensively. The course not only covered formal analysis of the artistic style, but the production method and the cultural and societal implications of the works and their place in art history today. When we arrived in the print study room, the space was filled with lino prints from the time period we had been discussing only days ago. My reaction to seeing artwork in person after researching and discussing similar works in class is always sheer excitement. To discuss a set of images and then have the chance to see them in person is an extremely specific, special, and informative experience that I would argue is incomparable to many others. Because of the print study room, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum staff’s efforts to bridge the Oberlin curriculum with the museum’s collection, the excitement that comes from seeing artwork that was previously only available online or in a text is one that most Oberlin students get to share with their class. 

The print study room is also available as a space for individual object file viewing. As an art history major I have the chance to research objects that exist in the museum only a few hundred feet away from the classrooms. The object files have given me a deep insight into the inner workings of museums, especially smaller institutions where object files are readily available. Before conducting art historical research at Oberlin, I had never seen the letters from gallery owners, memos from art dealers, or hand-written notes from museum directors that often accompany an object when it is acquired by a museum. Everything that is connected to the object is included in the file so that research on the piece can be continually added and the tracing of the artwork’s origin can progress. At times, student research papers are included in object files as pieces of evidence that contribute to an artwork. Most recently, in a seminar I took last semester, I wrote a paper on a Seated Bodhisattva that has been in the Allen’s collection since the mid 1940s. The research I conducted focused primarily on the object file that accompanied the piece, and I used each piece of evidence as a clue that could lead me towards a more in-depth understanding of the exact physical origins of the object. Object files often reveal a new history of each artwork. The notes and texts included in each file tell the story of the artwork after it was created and the journey the artwork took to arrive in the Allen’s collection. If not for research purposes, requesting and viewing an object file can give an extremely interesting introspective look into an artwork and the acquisition process a museum must follow to gain a new work of art. 

Beyond the general resources that are open to all students at all times, the Allen Memorial Art Museum staff welcome deeper student involvement in museum jobs and responsibilities. For instance, during the winter term of my freshman year, I took part in the Museum Education Practicum led by Jill Greenwood, the curator of education at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The practicum spanned January, the month of winter term, and was made up of about fifteen people. The program was led almost like a class, with consistent readings assigned as homework and group discussions on education in museums both historically and today. The practicum gave me an introduction to museum education and the many careers that exist in a museum space. Moreover, discussions often opened into broader considerations of the future of museums and shifts in art education. The difference between the practicum and a traditional academic setting was the focus on museum careers. Through the lens of education we were able to meet and learn about the career of every staff member at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. We took a tour through the Allen to see the inner workings of the museum and had a chance to learn more about how far the Allen Memorial Art Museum has come as an institution and educational space since it was opened. Some of my most memorable experiences during the practicum occurred during the weekly field trips we took as a group to major museums in surrounding towns. Each trip allotted time for a tour, a meeting with a curator to learn about personal career paths and pose questions on each museum, and time to explore the museum personally. Though I had not heard of some of the museums we visited, the collections astounded me. The Toledo Museum of Art, especially, is now a museum that I recommend to everyone I cross paths with. Though we had a chance to delve deeply into behind-the-scenes responsibilities of so many staff members of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, the trips to other museums revealed the differences each staff member takes on in each museum based on the size of the institution, the museum’s collection, and the general schedule of changing galleries. As a freshman, taking part in the practicum created a strong foundation on which I could further explore different aspects of museum work. Before that winter term, I was focused on curation, but the discovery of museum education and the vast possibilities in museums that fall under the general term “curation” lead me to become more involved in projects and art spaces that did not directly relate to curation. 

The Allen Memorial Art Museum Education Practicum is also the Allen's current training program for museum docents. Museum guides align directly with museum education, and we had the chance to apply what we were learning through the practicum and museum visits to the practical logistics of leading a tour though the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Moreover, elements of career preparation such as cover letters, resumes, and interviews are not only included but also demonstrated throughout the practicum, ultimately preparing each student to work at the Allen or apply to future positions in the art world with confidence and support from the Allen Memorial Art Museum staff. 

After taking part in the practicum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum became a larger part of my time at Oberlin. I began working as a docent and a museum attendant, and found myself generally spending much more time with the artwork at the Allen. I began the museum attendant position during a semester when COVID was peaking, so a large part of the job included recording names and ID numbers for potential contact tracing. Though welcoming visitors into the museum, answering questions, and lending directions was at the core of the job, I found that working at the front desk also gave me the opportunity to get to know everyone working at the Allen Memorial Art Museum and the daily routines and responsibilities of each museum staff member. When there was less traffic going through the galleries I had time to get to know the guards and the museum through their personal perspectives. I worked as a museum attendant again in the summer semester, when everyone had just received their first vaccine. Twice a week for three and a half hours I would leave behind the Ohio humidity and enter into the calm, quiet museum space. I spent hours striking conversations with the museum visitors as they came in the large front door. I checked vaccine cards, offered free masks, and offered recommendations regarding which gallery to start in and which pieces each visitor might enjoy most. When the summer days were slower I had some time to catch up on homework, and eventually also ran the small gift shop where the museum sells postcards, t-shirts, and art books, among other things. Spending time at the Allen Memorial Art Museum as a museum attendant gave me insight into the public’s perception of the museum. I began to see patterns in the kinds of questions asked and I learned to assist visitors with their access to Allen's recently launched app and virtual museum space. I loved having large blocks of time each week dedicated to spending time in the museum space, and I enjoyed learning about new exhibitions or pieces, cycling though the museum in order to relay the same information to future visitors. 

I worked as a docent after being trained through the Allen Memorial Art Museum Education Practicum and I lead tours to students and the public. Recently, the position has become paid and encompasses a larger range of responsibilities. I applied, and now work as a gallery guide. The new gallery guide position expands beyond docenting, giving students the opportunity to work at the front desk, take on personal projects in the museum, work with other students and museum staff on Allen Memorial Art Museum initiatives, and be paid for all your work. With a more scheduled position, I was able to dedicate time in my schedule to leading guided tours at the Allen. The process of leading a tour includes a preliminary meeting with all museum staff involved in museum education. Often, when groups of students visit the museum from the local high school or middle school they arrive with a theme or a lesson plan that we aim to center the tour around. My favorite part of the process is the group brainstorming to imagine new possibilities for artworks or programming that would align with a specific curriculum. I really love the experience of walking around the museum with other docents and museum staff in order to choose the artworks that will be included in the tour. Often, we are a group with many levels of expertise, and discussions range from which artworks would make the most sense for a class studying poetry in high school versus a group of elementary school students learning about color and contour lines for the first time. Sometimes I also work with other docents who will be giving a simultaneous tour to half of the same group of visitors. Then, part of the docenting process becomes a curatorial consideration of what order the paintings will be presented in and what the walking route between pieces will be. The next step of the process is general preparation for the tour and research on each piece of art. A powerpoint of general points is shared with each docent and the theme or lesson plan attached to the tour is always included. Each tour is specially planned with the group of visitors in mind, and there’s always space to offer creative ideas. For instance, an English class from the local high school came to visit the museum and part of their tour included a docent-led writing activity. Each student chose an artwork that was personally compelling and free-wrote a short paragraph. Then, from the paragraph they selected six words and began writing a poem that they would finish later in class. My job as a gallery guide has allowed me invaluable insight into the kinds of resources a museum can offer to people of all ages. Finally, the day of each tour is always an exciting one. No amount of planning can prepare you for the questions kids can come up with about any art piece, or the small painted details museum visitors find most interesting. The docenting tours often become a conversation filled with specific observations and broader questions about the artist, the historical implications of the artwork, and concepts such as value or art as it pertains to personal or cultural importance.

As I write about my time and experiences at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, I realize this blog is growing quite long and could grow infinitely longer. Though I have only outlined work experiences or academic resources in this blog, I should point out that one of the greatest resources the museum has to offer is a quiet Thursday afternoon in the King Sculpture court, or the excitement of bringing your friends to the museum to see the newly installed modern and contemporary art gallery. The space is free to all and a hub of art and community. Though I have detailed so many experiences at Allen, one of my most memorable was the internship I was part of last year. For fear of this blog becoming too long, I’ll bring it to a close and write a separate entry about the work I did as an Allen Memorial Art Museum intern. For a closer look at an introduction to practical work experience through the perspective of an intern, feel free to read my next blog.

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