Allen Memorial Art Museum curatorial assistants Ava Prince ’18 and Emma Laube ’17 may have just graduated, but they bring a breadth of experience to their positions.
Just months after graduating, Ava Prince ’18 and Emma Laube ’17 began working as curatorial assistants at the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM). While Prince and Laube work in different capacities at the museum—in the Education Department and in the Office of Academic Programs, respectively—their eagerness and approach to engaging students is something they share.
Prince, who studied history and East Asian studies, comes to her position with extensive experience in community outreach and arts education. When she was home from Oberlin in the summers, Prince interned at the Bronx Documentary Center, working closely with middle school and high school students at the Bronx Junior Photo League and conducting research for upcoming exhibitions. Reflecting on this experience, she says, “It’s just so important having these resources available to young people and knowing that there is value in close looking, being critical of how things are represented, and telling their own stories.” Most recently, Prince worked as the education and outreach coordinator for the Courage and Compassion Exhibit last spring, a position which dovetailed with her duties as a docent at the AMAM and her capstone research on historical memory and Japanese American internment.
As undergrads, both Prince and Laube participated in the AMAM’s annual Practicum in Museum Education course during winter term, which allowed them to work as student docents in the museum. Soon after completing the practicum course her junior year, Laube began working at the AMAM as curatorial assistant for modern and contemporary art under Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Andrea Gyorody. She also held a position at the Clarence Ward Art Library for several years and, as an art history major, was frequently in and out of the museum.
Whereas Prince primarily coordinates public programming and events, including tours of the AMAM for K-12 students, teachers, and outside groups within Lorain County, Laube engages directly with Oberlin College faculty and staff. Although Prince and Laube work with different age groups, demographics, and people of differing educational backgrounds, they engage students similarly, using teaching approaches integral to the AMAM’s ethos. Both assistants use a variety of teaching modes, including Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), an engagement method that involves asking viewers—from kindergarteners to older learners—to share their immediate observations about works of art based on what they can see. This approach privileges individuals’ knowledge and encourages critical thinking, as opposed to solely imparting information.
As an academic museum, the AMAM is in many ways a cornerstone of a liberal arts education. Teaching strategies such as VTS not only make arts education more accessible to a wider body of learners, but give credence to all viewers’ experiences of art, not just those of aficionados.
“I think this method of object-based learning is a really effective way of engaging people who don’t necessarily think they’re experts. VTS-based tours of the museum make things more of a conversation, rather than me talking at them. In addition, I’m also able to learn something new every time I lead a tour,” Prince says.
Laube, reflecting on the techniques she uses to engage faculty and staff from varying academic and disciplinary backgrounds, evinces the AMAM’s commitment to serving first and foremost as a teaching institution.
“When we talk with a professor about the possibility of bringing a class in, we start collaboratively brainstorming. What do we have in the collection that immediately comes to mind that could be construed as relevant in a constructive and meaningful way? We think about what kind of training we can utilize in terms of visual literacy and VTS so that students feel comfortable using the work,” she says.
Prince also maintains that art education and visual literacy are important for everyone. “That’s what I believe my job is, to help kids read a painting, understand its context, how it connects to their lives and their classes, and find something they enjoy from it. You don’t necessarily need to have a certain background or education level to be fully moved by an artwork,” she says.
Prince says there are the routine “in-betweens” of her job, such as taking care to ensure that students don’t touch the artwork, and going over museum rules. But, she says, “It’s all about once you sit down and actually engage with an artwork and watch that connection light up in students’ eyes. That’s what makes it worth it.”
Laube’s and Prince’s positions are far from what one may imagine as the stereotypical entry-level museum jobs. “You get so much hands-on experience, your research skills become amazingly well-sharpened, you learn about handling art, database management, and other special skills, and you have a special mentor/mentee relationship with the person that you work for,” Laube says. “I can’t speak highly enough of the experience. The Allen is kind of a unicorn in terms of what it can provide to student employees.”
Long-term, Prince wants to earn a master’s in art history and go into museum education. Laube hopes to become an arts editor or otherwise work in a more writing-based, but still arts-centric position.