“Change, resilience, adaptability and creativity.” These are the ideas expressed in the geometrically elegant ideogram called nkyinkyin, originating from the Akhan people of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program website. The symbol depicts a meandering line that winds horizontally toward the icon’s top edge, then suddenly splits into five short lines that beg to expand like tributaries past the character’s boundaries.
Generally translated to mean “twistings,” the nkyinkyin marking has traveled from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to Ann Arbor via Professor of Art History and Afroamerican and African Studies Ray Silverman, who has worked with the Akhan people for 30 years.
Silverman, who is also the director of the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program, chose nkyinkyin for the UMMSP’s logo because he believes the Akhan ideogram embodies the philosophy of the program, which includes the Rackham School of Graduate Studies certificate program in Museum Studies and the brand new undergraduate minor.
“We don’t want to create a discipline of Museum Studies,” Silverman said. “We want to create an open space where a lot of different disciplines can meet to discuss a whole range of issues related to museums, but also issues that have relevance to other cultural contexts.”
Making of the minor
The Museum Studies Minor, launched last semester, is a direct result of the graduate certificate program’s success. Since its creation in 2003, the graduate certificate program has garnered great interest among undergraduates.
“It was largely the result of a lot of undergraduates coming to me and saying, ‘Hey it’s really nice that you have a graduate program in Museum Studies, but what about us?’ ” Silverman said.
“(Silverman) and I would each be approached by undergraduate students over the course of a term who would want to know where the (museum) courses were for undergraduates, and we could point them to courses in different departments, but there wasn’t any one structured curriculum in place for undergrad,” added Associate Director of UMMSP Brad Taylor.
Like the graduate certificate program, the new minor consists of 18 credits, and it’s structured around the same general curriculum, including a focus on museums as institutions, the objects and collections within museums and how museums interact with society. Both programs are intended to promote museum literacy and complement other fields of study, not to act as a vocational track for those interested in a museum career.
“It’s not that we’re preparing students for a career in museums, it’s that we’re preparing students to think critically about museums, about their role in society, about how they work, how they function,” Silverman said.
“We don’t offer classes on how to become a curator or how to organize collections,” Taylor added. “For those students who want that training, it’s available out there, but we’ve made an intentional decision to offer something different. And while it’s really too early to tell in the undergraduate program, the graduate program has really set itself apart from other programs in the field by taking that approach.”
Out of the 70 students who took the minor’s introductory course last semester, 30 have already declared the minor. Of these students, Silverman said he thinks “most are interested in pursuing museum careers.”
However, according to Rackham student Jolande Henrike Florusbosch and graduate student instructor for Museums 301, there was a lot of diversity among the minor’s first crop of students.
“There were students who had always known that they wanted to work in museums (and) people that really didn’t know that there was really a course on museums,” she said. “There was a whole range of people, and that’s what we were hoping (for).”
Students who took the introductory course included those from the expected areas of interest within the College of LSA (namely history, art history, anthropology and classical studies), but also from the School of Art & Design, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the Ross School of Business and the College of Engineering. According to Florusbosch, this mishmash of students created a welcoming interdisciplinary community.
Because there were 20 different concentrations represented, the course faced a unique difficulty. Taylor remarked that “it makes it a bit of a challenge to figure out how to respond to such broad disciplinary bases.”
But he happily concluded that, to his surprise, “one of the students who did the best at the end of the term was an engineering student.”
A holistic approach
Luckily, the minor is able to handle diverse interests, as the curriculum was intended to mirror the broadness of the museum field. According to Silverman, the field includes not only history and art museums, but other institutions, like theme parks, zoos, arboreta and casinos, that compete for the public’s leisure time and seek to “design an experience.”
“We were ambitious,” added Florusbosch. “We had weekly readings (and) a weekly film that we thought would be a nice change of pace. Then we had outside events that people needed to attend on their own. And then of course we had lecture and discussion, which is normal. And then they had a digital curation program. And that’s six different kinds of learning experiences. There was a lot of different kinds of things that people had to do.”
In addition to these class components listed above, students were given the opportunity to listen to guest speakers from different areas within the museum field.
“One of my favorites was the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, who spoke about the issues he faced in trying to make the DIA more open to people who didn’t have a background in art,” said LSA senior Katie Munn.
Munn and her classmates in Museums 301 didn’t just listen to curators and museum directors. They were also expected to create their own “digital curation” projects. Assigned on the first day of class, the individual, web-based exhibits were to be composed of photographed objects framed within a personal story. At the end of the term, the class had a “gallery opening” where students could browse their peers’ exhibits, which covered topics ranging from South Dakota to Boy Scouts to Michigan game day culture.
Through the digital curation project, students learned to appreciate the challenge of website building and archive creation. According to LSA junior Nick Malzahn, “putting (the exhibit) online was half the battle.”
Students also spoke highly of the minor’s mandatory internship requirement.
Teplyn Fournier, an LSA senior, has two internships this semester, including one at the University’s Map Library. As part of her internship, Fournier works with several other students to curate a show about the cohesiveness of the Mediterranean region.
“I’m not just learning about something I love, but I’m having my mind blown by some of the things we learn about what’s going on in museums and behind the scenes,” she said.
Munn similarly experienced the correlation between theory and application in her internship at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
“We talked about museum’s role in society, and I’m watching UMMA trying to become a center for the arts,” Munn said. “So we have this museum really serve as a place where people can come to many free performances and readings and lectures. That definitely relates back to topics we discussed in class.”
Though Fournier and Munn have unbridled enthusiasm for the undergraduate program, they faced a major challenge for its maiden voyage: How to accommodate graduating seniors who only have one year to complete the minor.
“One of the challenges we had in this surge with the number of students taking the intro class was that many of them were seniors who needed to finish the requirements, including an internship,” Taylor explained. “So, in October, I started visiting the museums on campus and the collecting institutions, trying to set up as many internships as I could. We ended up with a total of 55 different internship opportunities on campus and in greater Ann Arbor.”
The results of this internship scramble show how well the new minor and the existing museums on and near campus complement each other.
“(The museum staffs are) really excited for the undergraduate students,” said Taylor. “Since most graduate students go abroad for their internships, there’s been interest in interns for a long time — they want interns, we’ve got interns. It works out.”
“It’s a love-fest,” Silverman added.
A banner year
The new minor program has also found camaraderie with the museums on campus, as both were honored by the LSA theme semester “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy,” which officially turned into a theme year due to continued interest in museum-themed programs.
The theme was originally created to celebrate the re-opening of UMMA and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, in addition to the launching of the Museum Studies minor.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this museum theme year is to draw attention to the really rich museum sources we have here,” Silverman said. “It’s not only institutions that have ‘museum’ in the name — there’s lots of units on campus that have spectacular collections of all sorts of things.”
“Many of these collecting institutions students aren’t aware of at all,” Taylor said.
“Not only the students, but the faculty,” Silverman added.
According to UMMSP Student Services Specialist Heather Piezga, a University alum, the University is the ideal institution for students to pursue a Museum Studies minor, because the opportunities on campus and in Ann Arbor are abundant and among the best in the country.
“(The internship opportunities are) comparable to (those at) the Smithsonian because of the collections the University has. Not just in natural history or in art, but … if you know anything about manuscript collections, the papyrus collections are among some of the best in the world, and the fact that students are able to work on these things is amazing,” Piegza said.
“And the thing is, when you say ‘I worked in the Maps Library at the University of Michigan,’ maybe someone on the street won’t think that’s important as something done at the Smithsonian, but people in the field know how important it is,” she added. “Some of our collections, like the rare book collection, are just unparalleled.”
A promising future
As for the future of the Museum Studies minor, there are no current plans to expand the program into a concentration. Silverman believes that as “soon as you start forming a major, you start building walls around it,” as only certain students with specific aims will take the courses.
However, Silverman and Taylor both agree that if a significant student interest in a Museum Studies concentration should form, they would consider creating a program. But until then, Taylor assures interested students that they “have plans for further developing the minor.”
Piegza, who also feels it should remain a minor, elaborated on what some of these developments may be.
“I hope that maybe in the future we’ll be able to offer more classes, but it’s all based on interest and that’s something that you can’t necessarily predict,” she said. “But I’m extremely optimistic.”
Despite the overwhelming response from the student body, Silverman and Taylor don’t plan to cut down the program to fit their original projections. Only 25 students were expected to take Museums 301 last semester, but 70 enrolled. Thirty declarations for the minor were expected in a five year trajectory, but this goal was reached in the first year.
Nor do Silverman and Taylor intend to mirror the competitiveness of the graduate certificate program, which only admits 13 to 15 students per year.
“The only thing that will limit the number of students we can admit would be our resources,” Silverman said. “And so far, the college has been quite generous in supporting the unanticipated interest.”
But one thing is certain — the program will remain as fluid as its field of focus. The minor will accommodate the kaleidoscopic viewpoints that students and professionals have concerning the museum world:
“This is a great time to study museums and work in museums. It makes you think, ‘What could I do to change the field?’ because it’s so open,” Malzahn said. “It makes me feel like I can actually do something because there’s so much going on.”
“I think (museums are) a way to promote intellectual curiosity, which is something very important and that maybe gets overlooked in formal education,” said LSA sophomore Laura Mason.
“(Museums’) relevancy to society is not only based on their collections and their physicality and their preservation, but also acting as a cultural touchstone where you can get a sense of your identity,” Fournier said. “But, in the end I think we’re all just huge museum dorks.”