Sell Us Your Major: Museum Studies

Throughout the world, people conglomerate images, artifacts, the written word and countless other means of communications within the walls of museums. These buildings represent a culture’s past, present and future. The work that goes into curating, maintaining and understanding museums is as vast as the materials that they showcase. That is why Lawrence offers Museum Studies as an Interdisciplinary Area. This unique area of study offers an enriching perspective on the art of museums here at Lawrence University.

The area of Museum Studies sets out to give students the tools to understand the principles of museums and other similar institutions. With these principles in mind, students specializing in an array of other majors like art history and natural sciences can go out and start working in museums themselves, understanding the skills and know-how that go along with working in a museum.

Director and Curator of the Wriston Art Center Galleries, Museum Studies Interdisciplinary Area Program and Adjunct Assistant Beth A. Zinsli defined Museum Studies as, “The study of the museum and its collections and exhibitions as an object of critical inquiry. You might study a text in English class, or a painting in Art History, in Museum Studies you’re looking at the entire collection and institution that’s the object of study.”

Museum Studies works well into the idea of a liberal arts education. It covers a large amount of information and tries to fit all that information together. As Zinsli stated, “Some very small percentage of any given museum’s collection are on display at any given time, so you have to wonder how they decide what gets shown.” Since a museum is home to many different objects and paintings, studying the museums requires students to see how those objects connect in order to envision cohesive curations.

In order to fulfill a Museum Studies Interdisciplinary Area Major, students must take courses on Historic Preservation and Intro to Art Museums. From there, the area becomes widely flexible. Students can fulfill independent studies working in the Wriston Art Gallery or the University Galleries. Students also have the opportunity to intern at museums or historic sites around the state.

“What I enjoy most is the museum as a place where you don’t really realize how you’re being lead through or given particular knowledge about works of art, historical objects or natural history,” Zinsli stated. “The museum seems to be a really neutral space and, in fact, it’s quite subjective.”

Museum Studies upholds a wide number of means to get students engaged in their area of study. One of the facets of the Museum Studies program is its growing Anthropology collections. Whether you’re a student interested in the preservation of art, specimens, textiles or pieces of history from the surrounding Wisconsin area, the Museum Studies houses these and more materials in the Wriston Art Center for students to examine.

Students need to be able to understand a broad amount of information in preserving these objects. In this understanding, they can best be prepared for going out to find jobs in museums that curate a broad amount of stories and ideas. Museums are vast labyrinths of a culture and students need to be aware of this vastness in order to do it justice in their own work environments.

As Zinsli stated, “You need to be able to take very big pictures about the social implications of this exhibition and assess how it changes the way we think about the subject of the exhibition. I always think about the Primitivism in the 20th century exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art and what a huge controversy it was to have the curators draw certain conclusions between Modern Art and African Art. It sort of changed how we understand both.

Zinsli’s wish for her students is that “they are more compelled to go to museums and that they understand what’s going on behind the scenes. I hope they can understand the interpretations of the objects on display no matter what they are and I hope they get a better understanding of museums as an integral institution to our society.”

The interdisciplinary area of Museum Studies offers a special chance for students to learn more about how museums affect the way we interpret an object or artwork. Moreover, it gives students the chance to wonder why it was set up to be interpreted that way. The department is full of faculty who are skilled at asking big questions and compiling their expertise to best help students prepare for the tasks that go into curating a museum. Walking down the hall of any museum, the spotlight is not just the object on display but on how that object was chosen, why it was chosen and what that choice communicates.