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By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, alumna, UMass Public History

Almost ten years ago now, I heard Linda Friedlander from the Yale Center for British Art talk about the museum’s innovative program for first-year medical students. Using visual thinking strategies well-known to art historians, this class aimed to help future physicians hone their ability to correctly assess patients and clinical situations. Museums as labs for medical students? Or training grounds for police officers? Sign me up. The idea remained lodged in the back of my mind – I, too, wanted to take on the challenge of collapsing disciplinary boundaries in the museum setting.

The opportunity finally presented itself while I was working at the Taubman Museum of Art, developing programs for college students and adults. The Taubman is located in Roanoke, Virginia, where Carilion Clinic is big business. This network of hospitals and providers stretches across rural southwestern Virginia, providing care to over one million Virginians and acting as one of the largest employers in the region. The museum had recently formed a young professionals group to help us organize events and encourage membership; several people in the group had ties to Carilion.

After a few meetings, I learned that one group member directed the Roanoke Brain Study at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; the project focuses on human decision-making and the ways in which cultural messages affect our decisions. Her research examines the ways our brain assigns value to abstract concepts, and how, for example, these valuations – monetary, social, etc. – might influence our interpretation of art (among other things). A collaboration was born. Not only did this seem like an ideal entry point to explore the connections between visual thinking, medical practice, and neuroscience, but our development office found the possibility of attracting a whole new audience to the museum quite appealing.

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– A functional MRI shows increased brain activity in certain areas while volunteers make decisions about certain works of art. (Roanoke Brain Study)

We called our first event “This Is Your Brain on Art.” It was part of a series of programs entitled “Conversations,” designed to bring together people from different backgrounds to share their unique perspective on a particular exhibition. Up to this point, we paired experts in different fields – maybe photography and history, say – but not different disciplines entirely. For this event, Dr. Harvey provided the scientific narrative; our education staff and audience served as the counterfoil, by participating in an interactive exercise assigning value to paintings in galleries. The program got rave reviews from the audience, although the balance of the conversation skewed towards the neuroscience.

Our next step was to develop a more focused set of programs, which we referred to as the Science Café. Admittedly, our project was much smaller in scope than those that served as my initial inspiration. There are so many ways in which the visual arts and biological sciences overlap, and although our constituency included a sizable population of people in both fields, they weren’t talking to each other – and certainly not within the walls of the museum. Our modest goal was to create a space where they could have a regular dialogue, thereby influencing each other’s thinking and methodology. (Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this model shares some similarities with medical humanities programs. These new initiatives teach medical students to employ narrative or historical context, for example, to enrich their training.) We were concerned about a number of things that could impede the success of the Science Café, but mostly, I wanted our choice of topics and presenters to be very precise. The most crucial component, in my mind, was that we select issues for discussion that were neither squarely in the field of neuroscience (like our first event) nor purely art historical in nature. Our initial slate of topics included an examination of color theory (central in both fields, but conceived of differently) and a discussion about the varied meanings of elegance (elegant design, elegant solutions, etc.).

The Science Café didn’t quite get off the ground. Financial considerations and a changing executive structure meant certain initiatives were benched for a bit. And yet, our initial program had some legs. This spring, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine turned the Science Café on its head and created a mini medical school targeted towards non-professionals, called “Anatomy for Artists and Other Curious Sorts.” The opening seminar for the program was drawn from our very first event, proving that both communities continue to be interested in finding opportunities to bridge the disciplinary divide.

Later this month, the New England Museum Association will be highlighting these kinds of programs (and many, many others) during their annual conference; the theme is “Picture of Health: Museums, Wellness, and Healthy Communities.” In addition to the presentations from the MFA and other art museums about medical-museum collaborations, I plan to attend a few of the talks that speak even more directly to public historians. I am eager to hear about the myriad creative ways in which museums across the region are meeting new and interdisciplinary goals and serving as a laboratory for students in a variety of professions. Two sessions focus on reading objects; bringing historical analysis to bear with visual thinking skills is an important piece of the puzzle for museums with object-based collections. I am also looking forward to hearing about issues-based exhibitions and programs, like those at the Culinary Arts Museum, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Yale Peabody Museum, as I am convinced history museums are poised to develop partnerships with medical schools that could simultaneously benefit both medical students and the museum’s own audiences. (Think explorations of historical foodways paired with dietician training or pop-up object analysis on a medical school campus.) Lots of food for thought – I hope to see you there.

By Debbie Kallman, M.A. Student, Department of History

Little did I know that the UMass Public History Program trip to the Berskshires last autumn would lead to a rewarding internship this summer at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. The Mount, designed and built in 1902, is the onetime home of Edith Wharton (1862-1937), the celebrated novelist and the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This Gilded Age mansion now operates as a historic house museum. In addition to tours of the house and gardens, the site offers a wide range of public programming. The Mount’s on-site school programs were particularly attractive to me. These programs, designed for grades 7-12, in the fields of social studies, language arts, and art and design, provided an opportunity to link the public historian’s important role as an educator with my personal love of literature.

Debbie Kallman in Mrs. Wharton's Library

Debbie Kallman in Mrs. Wharton’s Library

The Mount’s on-site school programs explore Wharton’s life and work, the significance of her Berkshire writer’s retreat, and Gilded Age America.   These programs attract approximately 600 students per year, and while most are drawn from Massachusetts schools, The Mount also attracts students from New York school districts. Sixty to seventy percent of students attend private schools while the remaining thirty to forty percent are drawn from public schools. My supervisor, Kelsey Mullen, was quick to explain that attending a private school is not necessarily an indicator that a student comes from a privileged background. It became essential for me to link Edith Wharton and her world to students from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds and who may have different academic interests other than literature.

Three projects comprised my internship. The first two involved writing educational units for two of The Mount’s current on-site offerings. I selected two social studies programs. For each program, I wrote three pre-visit lesson plans, a step-by-step program for the on-site visit, and two post-visit lesson plans. Each lesson plan included source documents, key vocabulary terms, and activities. I adapted learning objectives and activities for each age group. It was essential that the field experience be integral to the learning outcomes of the unit and tie to the Common Core standards. As many of these students may not know who Edith Wharton was or may not be familiar with her work, these units offer an opportunity to introduce students to Wharton, to the time and place in which she lived, and to draw connections from Wharton and her world to the present day. The issues of wealth disparity, labor relations, working conditions, and class and cultural differences explored in both of these educational units still exist in the present day. Finally, what local connections could I make for the students?

In the first unit, entitled “My Dear Governess: A Portrait of Anna Bahlmann, ” I introduce students to the art of biography but also to issues of class and gender during the period beginning with the Gilded Age and ending midway through World War I when Bahlmann died. Anna Bahlmann worked with Wharton for over forty years–first as her governess and later as her secretary. Irene Goldman-Price recently published the edited letters from Wharton to Bahlmann. These letters offer students a glimpse into the world these two women shared. The primary learning objective for students is to closely read excerpts of these published letters and other sources, visit The Mount to learn more about the day-to-day life of each woman, and then to extract key pieces of information from these sources and their site visit in order to write a biographical sketch of Bahlmann.

A second unit, “Making the Picture Prettier: Edith Wharton and the Fictional Lens,” explores Wharton’s 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree, juxtaposed against the child labor photographs of Lewis Hine (1874-1940). Wharton’s novel and Hine’s photographs critically depict early twentieth-century mill life in New England. Hine traveled throughout the country photographing child laborers at work in an effort to influence state and federal child labor legislative reform. Wharton’s complex novel addressed early twentieth-century social issues including labor and working conditions at a fictional New England Mill. The purpose of this unit is to explore how these artists framed their work. What did they omit? What did they include? Who were their intended audiences? What may have been the purpose of their work? Were they attempting to influence political action or were these artists simply drawing attention to important social issues of their time? Finally, students are asked to consider how these social issues resonate in the twenty-first century.

The third project is still in progress. As summer ends, I am adapting the current physical exhibit Edith Wharton and World War I to an online format. The exhibit focuses on Edith Wharton’s humanitarian work during World War I. Wharton founded a number of charities and relief organizations during the war and made numerous trips to the front to deliver medical supplies. The current exhibit has been on display for several years and will be taken down in the coming year. Adapting this exhibit to an online format provides future patrons with an opportunity to learn more about Wharton’s often overlooked activities during the war and how the war impacted Wharton both personally and professionally. Mullen helped me to understand that patrons typically visit an online exhibit for less than five minutes. Therefore it is critical that the exhibit capture and hold the audience’s interest so that they experience most if not all of the exhibit. My task will be to edit the images and text in the current exhibit, write a script for the online exhibit, conduct additional research, potentially incorporate new materials, and determine navigation for the exhibit. This promises to be a challenging project for this future public historian, but more importantly it will insure that the scholarship manifested in the current exhibit lives on to be enjoyed by others in future years.

Debbie Kallman with Andrew Hitzhusen portraying Wharton's butler Alfred White and Anne Schuyler portraying Wharton's secretary Anna Bahlmann

Debbie Kallman with Andrew Hitzhusen portraying Wharton’s butler Alfred White and Anne Schuyler portraying Wharton’s secretary Anna Bahlmann

This internship introduced me to the complexities of educational program delivery in a museum setting. While developing school programs that conform to educational standards is indeed important, the public historian grapples with larger issues in terms of how best to tailor programs to the interests of the intended audience yet also fit into the museum’s overall mission and values. How can we link past and present through educational programs? How do we navigate sensitive issues including class, ethnicity, and gender? What activities would be relevant to the learning objectives but also interesting and engaging to students? Similarly, when adapting a physical exhibit to an online format, it is not simply a matter or replicating material on the museum’s internet pages, but rather it is vital to consider the viewer’s needs and perspectives. What would our “typical” patron want to learn? How do we best structure the exhibit and navigation for ease of use? What should be the ratio of images to text? Should there be audio bites? Does the material better lend itself to a chronological or thematic format? These are a few of the many larger issues that the public historian must consider when developing programs–yet contemplating these and other issues are also what lends appeal to the work of the public historian.

I would encourage any public history student pondering a career in museum and site interpretation to consider the program and educational aspects of the field as these roles are rewarding and truly make a difference and a summer internship is a great way to learn and experiment with program delivery.

By Kate Preissler, Digital Media Marketing Manager at the Berkshire Museum and Alumna, Department of History

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.


–President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013

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In Kindergarten was distributed to all new kindergartners in Berkshire County

There is currently a movement amongst some museums to become involved in the development of our very youngest citizens. Spending significant resources to create opportunities for toddlers used to be the exclusive realm of children’s and maybe science museums, but now many more institutions — historical, arts, music — are getting into the game. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1903 by Zenas Crane to be the Berkshires’ version of a Metropolitan Museum of Art or Smithsonian, is one of them. Finding ways to integrate early learners into a setting designed for adults presents many challenges but also makes for some very innovative programming. As a part of this initiative, titled WeeMuse, the Museum has added an Early Childhood Specialist staff position in the Education Department, started a series of programs and activities in the Museum for kids 18 months to 3 years, increased networking and direct outreach to early childhood education and care providers, and become a partner in the Pittsfield Transition Team — a group of educators, school administrators and organizational representatives who meet to address the needs of young children, especially as they transition from home or daycare to the public school system.

Out of the Museum’s participation in the Transition Team came the newest WeeMuse offering: In Kindergarten, a book for parents and children that addresses many of the things that kids will experience when starting school for the first time. It’s not a manual, but appears in the style of a storybook with engaging graphic images, activity pages, and even stickers. Read More

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Left to right: Public history students Mirjam Pultar, Trent Masiki, Emily Hunter, and Emily Pipes.

On Wednesday, graduate students from Jon Olsen’s Introduction to Public History course proudly presented their findings from semester-long projects to a lively crowd of faculty, students, and community partners. The student groups worked on diverse projects with three institutions in Western Massachusetts: the Amherst Historical Commission, the Hadley Museum, and the Springfield Museums. Read on to learn more about these projects and see our Public History Program at work! Read More

By Rob Weir, Visiting Professor of History

This post is one of Weir’s daily entires from his blog on culture, music, and politics. The John Singer Sargent Watercolors show will be at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through January 20, 2014.

I know someone who teaches at a private school because it supports his folk music career, a yoga teacher who used to pay the bills through editing, and a landscape painter whose paychecks come from illustration work. As songwriter Charlie King once put it, “Our lives are more than our work/And our work is more than our jobs.” Keep that in mind when you venture to Boston to see John Singer Sargent’s watercolors.

And venture forth you should. There are nearly 100 works he produced between 1902-11 and there’s not a dud in the lot. These images are John Singer Sargent as few of us think of him. Sargent (1856-1925) was renowned as the portrait artist of choice for the Gilded Age elite, and small wonder — few artists of his day matched his eye or technique in oil and few in all of art history had his mastery of painting white on white or black on black. So good was Sargent that our mental images of late nineteenth-century upper crust Boston are largely conjured from paintings hung upon the walls of the city’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Read More