In four years, I…
published 150 posts (100,000+ words!)
visited over 35 museums and historic sites
pretended I was living a Wes Anderson movie (at least) once
recorded my experiences with five different internships & jobs
corresponded with dozens of potential Cornell students
and received delightfully incomprehensible messages from twice as many spambots
Seventeen-year-old me applied to the Life on the Hill program on a whim, and I never could have predicted how much the program would affect my undergraduate life. It’s made me a stronger writer, a better photographer, and a more observant museum visitor, to name just a few, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
In any case, I’ll keep it short and simple: a hui hou, Life on the Hill. Until we meet again.
(A brief, introductory note: please forgive the sudden theme change! It breaks my heart that the WordPress theme I’ve been using for the past four years is apparently “retiring,” forcing me to switch to some weird replacement to accompany my blog for the rest of its digital life. O beautiful theme of my youth, how I miss you!)
(& one more note: this is the second in a series of Orphan Black-esque post titles that feature vaguely relevant museum lingo. Fun facts!)
The trees are blooming, the veritable Alps of Massachusetts from this winter are but a distant memory, and the release of the newest Of Monsters and Men album is inching steadily closer–it’s almost summer!
Naturally, this means that classes have just finished at the college where I work. Even after spending two semesters in that strange no-longer-a-student state of existence, I still can’t help entering into “finals week” with a kind of automatic nervous anticipation. As the semester closes, classes end, and students start packing up, I’ve been conditioned to expect something to happen: like endless papers, exams, final presentations, and so forth (or, in my case particularly, hiding somewhere near Beebe Lake with a book to avoid the anarchy of Slope Day). Yet, for me, the conclusion of the 2014-2015 school year happened so quickly and quietly–one day college classes are popping in and out of the museum, examining everything from Nasca pots to European prints…and then they’re not. It’s that simple.
As you may or may not know, this is my penultimate Sarr Above the Busy Humming post for the foreseeable future. My one-year mission as an alumna blogger was to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no Keely had gone before while reporting back about the transition from collegiate to professional life. It’s been an amazing, meaningful, challenging, frustrating, and stunning experience–but man, it’s hard to believe that it’s all gone by so quickly!
Today, two days after classes ended, I went to Mass MOCA (for the uninitiated, it’s a phenomenal contemporary art museum in North Adams, MA) for the second time since I moved to the area. When I first visited (and blogged about my trip!), I went along as one of the leaders of an orientation program for incoming students sponsored by my museum, and it was a little bit of a bizarre experience (and not just because of the wild variety of nontraditional installations).
On the one hand, I felt accomplished for helping my colleagues plan the program (my first real one at the museum!), and proud of myself for successfully keeping tabs on the whereabouts of thirty first-years; on the other, Orientation meant that the school year was about to begin, and I wasn’t sure what expect for the months ahead. My job has so much to do with student engagement–but what if I couldn’t, for whatever reason, make a good impression on the students? What if I mysteriously forgot everything about art ever during my first student educator training session and was forced to stare at the ceiling while trying to remember what line and color were?
I wanted to go back to Mass MOCA to check out new shows and re-experience my old favorites (the Sol Lewitt retrospective and Mark Dion’s The Octagon Room, naturally)–and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I was inconsolable when I saw that Darren Waterston’s thrillingly ruined, re-interpreted Whistler room Filthy Lucre was gone, but Lee Boroson’s alien otherworld of Plastic Fantastic comforted me immensely.
Still, when I went back upstairs and let myself get lost in the spectrums and curves of the LeWitt murals, I kept looking around the corner, hoping some kind of impossible time-slip would let me catch a glimpse of my past-self anxiously counting freshmen while snapping iPhone photos of the colors around her. This spring, I didn’t have a big exam or a final paper or anything to definitively say Your first year is over!, but I did get a second pilgrimage to one of the first, strange places I visited before my job began in earnest, so I think I’m good on the closure front.
And, seriously, that’s so much more enjoyable than an exam.
P.S. I was serious about that “penultimate post” comment: there’s really only one more instalment of this blog left (before I move on, perhaps, to other pockets of the web…)!
This is a little early, but if you’ve been following Sarr Above for quite some time, I’m so grateful that you took the time to read my eccentric ramblings– and please check back next month for the official ‘reflecting-on-all-of-my-time-at-Cornell-and-also-this-blog’ essay that you may (or may not) have been waiting for!
Shockingly, it’s April already–which is not only National Letter-Writing Month (my favorite thing ever!), but also an exciting time to be a Cornellian. Late April (as most of my readers already know!) marks Cornell’s 2015 Charter Day, a date that’s particularly important during the current sesquicentennial celebration.
(I mean, there’s a hashtag and everything–so it must be a big deal!)
I’ve also recently become obsessed with the making & reading of “zines,” a genre of D.I.Y. publication that’s been critical to subcultures, fandoms, and all-around creative types for the past few decades. Last week I hosted a student event at my museum that featured zine-making as one of its craft activities, and I’ve been hooked ever since!
Consequently, instead of giving you my typical blog post this month, I thought I’d create something a little more unusual. After all, Cornell is turning 150–doesn’t that merit a weird handmade mini-book? So this post includes a present for you, readers: a zine called Six Fun Facts I Learned at Cornell that you can download, read, and/or print and cut out for your own collection.
Why the title and subject?
A month or so ago, I asked one of the college’s fellows to give a talk at the museum, and spent a few enjoyable meetings planning her presentation and learning more about her (very interesting!) background. In particular, I loved the way in which she approached lectures on a basic level–regardless of the audience’s background or interests, she wanted each person present to take away some little fact or bit of information that they might find fascinating enough to share with their friends.
Of course, as someone who’s very invested in the accessibility of “academic” subjects like art and history, it’s no surprise that I identified strongly with this method!
Consequently, this little zine includes six short, memorable facts that I learned during my four years at Cornell that have stuck with me ever since. It’s not to say that all I remembered from my college education can be summed up in six infobites, but these are the things that I find myself mentioning most frequently whenever I want to offer someone a fun bit of trivia.
I’ve included a JPEG preview above, but you can download the PDF for easy printing here! After you print it out, you can follow these incredibly helpful instructions to figure out how to transform this into a proper zine. Happy crafting!
(P.S. If you do end up making my weird little zine, leave me a picture of the finished product in the comments, would you?)
There are a lot of semi-challenging adjustments you may need to make when you start working full-time. Eight-hour days are exhausting and having to do desk chair yoga in your office to avoid getting deep-vein thrombosis can be awkward: but the strangest and most fascinating aspect of workplace life has to be the never-ending stream of business emails.
College gives you a little taste of this curious world of verbal ritual–by my freshman year, I was already well initiated into formal salutations, self-promoting signatures, and the act of finding that perfect generic-but-not-impersonal sign-off. (Hey, in Hawai’i, most people just use “Aloha” or “Mahalo” as their closing words: but Mainlanders are unsurprisingly less keen on that!).
Still, while I could receive perhaps ten or fifteen non-commerical/spam emails per day at Cornell, that daily number has increased more than trifold since I started working full-time. It’s not that I mind it too much–stuff has to be said, after all! At the same time, it’s made me realize one key thing:
I find it really relaxing to write letters.
For whatever reason, I never quite got into a permanent habit of writing letters in college. Sure, there were some people with whom I corresponded on a regular basis, but not so much that I would consider it a hobby. These days, though, letter-writing is as much of a pastime for me as anything else: and nothing makes me happier than making up dorky little handmade envelopes, collecting vintage postcards, and pretending to be some early modern heroine from an epistolatory novel.
One of the things I love most about my job is that I don’t always have to be sitting at my desk–nothing makes me happier than being out in the galleries teaching or spending time with my students and visiting school groups. Still, the fact remains that I spend lots of time at the computer every day. And (bizarre though it may be to confess such thoughts in a blog post!) that means that when I get home, if I have a chance to cut down on my screen time, I’m going to take it.
After a day of endlessly typing “All the best” or determining whether or not I’m close enough to a certain individual to get away with using multiple exclamation points, there is something incredibly soothing about putting together a physical object that will–thanks to the magic of the post!–travel sometimes thousands of miles to its destination.
“So why should I, a college student (or Other Person Reading Keely’s Blog) take up the good old-fashioned art of letter writing?”
- Lots of people will want to hear from you. Seriously. You can write to your parents, your siblings, random friends that you only speak with through Facebook these days–even if they’re not as keen on correspondence as some of us, the gesture will undoubtedly be appreciated! Or, if you’d like to write to someone different altogether, you can try joining a snail mail club to find a pen pal–the Letter Writers’ Alliance is a popular example of such an organization.
- It can help with social anxiety and loneliness. If you’ve just moved to a new place (you’ve graduated, you transferred, you’re studying abroad, etc…) it can be extremely comforting to have something to look forward to in your mailbox. To be completely honest, I’ve found it very challenging to connect with many like-minded people quickly in the post-college world: but letter-writing has helped me a lot! During the initial period in which you don’t have too many friends in your area, sending missives to someone who cares from afar is extremely rewarding, I promise.
- The postal service is a delightful puzzle to unravel. Okay, maybe it’s just me, but once I started writing letters on a regular basis, I found that I just couldn’t get enough of random mail-related facts. Did you know that you can’t send secondhand “bee supplies” to Canada? Or that “weights and measures not of the decimal system” are forbidden in mailings to New Caledonia? Of course, such info will probably never apply to me–but on a more practical note, if you’ve ever wondered what happens if you don’t put enough stamps on or how many sheets of paper it takes to make your letter over 1 oz., get ready to learn a lot!
(Cornell students should also remember that you’re lucky enough to have your own “post market” on campus–so writing letters (and becoming a philatelist…) couldn’t be easier!)
My thoughts have turned northward of late. With two major winter storms bearing down on the East Coast barely within the span of a week, it’s no wonder that my mind keeps replaying images of polar landscapes. It lingers on Frankenstein Iditarod-ing his way to the North Pole in search of his lost creation, the icy settings of Norwegian folklore, and Philip Pullman’s kingdom of great bears (the invocation of which has become an annual tradition for this blog, apparently).
But at least I don’t have to drive to work in all this snow!
Since I started my new job (and, most relevantly, became a car owner for the first time in my life), I’ve been quietly dreading the arrival of black ice in the parking lots, slush on the freeways, and feet of snow on the tiny backstreets so commonplace in this small college town. I know that most Mainlanders grudgingly accept the realities of winter driving, but it’s not like I ever had to crawl down the H-1 with inches of snow falling by the hour when I first learned how to handle a car in Honolulu.
Back when I was in Edinburgh, a few inches of snow would stop the city in its tracks. My experience at Cornell, however, taught me that daily operations are rarely cancelled due to snow–even when it’s coming down in thick, swirling flakes and you can see the TCAT struggling to drag itself up University like an elderly dragon. With this in mind, I’d resigned myself to producing an unintended 21st-century remake of Balto and getting an unloved wolf/dog hybrid to tug me to the museum on a sled on days when snowstorms loomed but my place of employment remained open.
Before I could start keeping an eye out for inspirational white ghost-wolves, though, my worries were assuaged: because work was cancelled! Twice!
When Juno hit the East Coast last week, the entire college closed: an excellent choice, considering how extremely hazardous travel would have been. In response to today’s snowstorm, non-essential staff were encouraged to stay home, while students were told that classes might be in session–at the discretion of the professor. At a college or university where nearly all students live on campus–and where all of “campus” could probably occupy the same space as Cornell’s freshman dorms–this is a safe and fair choice. No student will have to drive in to attend class, and professors who live far away won’t feel guilty about being unable to complete a dangerous commute.
During my time at Cornell, there was quite a bit (by which I mean a lot) of frustration and anxiety amongst the students about Cornell’s seeming inability to close down, even for a declared weather emergency. For those who live relatively close to the main academic buildings in the Cornell college of their choice, this is more of a nuisance than a danger: but students who hail from Collegetown and beyond (which you have to do at a university that doesn’t guarantee housing after sophomore year!), those notorious Ithacan hills can get deadly really fast.
So, in closing, I would encourage any current Cornellians to use sound judgment when it comes to traveling during treacherous winter weather. Live in a dorm? Bundle up and try your best to walk on top of the snow like Legolas! If you live off-campus, though, don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors or employers if you think driving or otherwise voyaging to Cornell for class or work might put you in danger. Even if the university remains operational, you shouldn’t be penalized for keeping yourself safe.
(Or, you know, you can try out that whole dogsledding thing instead. And, hey, if you do, let me know–I’ll keep you in mind in case I ever need medicine delivered to a remote Alaskan town.)
The year is 2009. “David After Dentist” is taking over the internet, people make “Imma let you finish” jokes without a hint of irony, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, the undisputed best movie ever, wins the hearts of stop-motion-loving hipsters everywhere.
Back then (in the year before we make contact), sixteen-year-old Keely could not have imagined that her future self would be writing monthly blog posts as a Cornell alumna. Around Thanksgiving ’09, I’d just finished a lovingly crafted application to Yale, in which I proudly professed my desire to have tea with Arthur C. Clarke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Yuri Gagarin, and Diana Wynne Jones. In space.
Still, curiously enough, I’d visited Cornell over the summer, and had actually found my experience there to be more enjoyable than the equivalent tour and interview at Yale. (Infamously, our student tour guide at Yale gushed about a visiting guest lecturer known as “Indiana Jones of insects”—and then referred to him as an “etymologist.”). I’d even started working on my Cornell essay—a piece about “what makes [me] a lifelong learner” that opened with the insipid anecdote of how reading the unabridged Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea at age seven that led to both my utter terror of our sun’s inevitable death and a burgeoning interest in astronomy).
But this post isn’t about the insufferably quirky responses I drafted for my Common App. I only invoke the image of myself in November 2009—complete with my bizarre Beatles haircut, neon braces, and tendency to wear my pi-shaped earrings as much as possible—because the last time I spent Thanksgiving with my family was indeed five years ago.
Cornell offers an excellently long winter break, but the trade-off is that Thanksgiving is painfully short. Classes end Wednesday afternoon and start back up as usual the following Monday, making it challenging for West Coasters (and, of course, impossible for islanders like myself) to even consider braving jet lag and long flights just for two days back at home.
Though considering that this was what my current campus looked like this Thanksgiving, Hawai’i is sounding pretty alluring…
Now, I’m not saying that my “new” college is any better: although students get the whole week off, staff members (hey, that’s me!) still officially finish work at noon on Thanksgiving Eve. It just happened that my family was able to visit me at Thanksgiving for the first time this year—and although I’ve never been one to hold deep emotional value in my annual pie-eating-fest, having them around made me realize how much I’d missed spending that holiday with them in college.
So this post goes out to all the international students, the basically-international-in-
(Alternatively, I could send you all pi earrings. As long as you don’t run into 2009-Keely at a dinner party while she’s wearing the same ones, it should be cool.)
To the freshmen participating in the section I led for my museum’s orientation program this year (who rather alarmed me by looking so very young), I argued that everyone is a curator in the digital age. Acts of curation are the very backbone, for example, of social media–our decisions to “collect” images, ideas, or articles on tumblr, Facebook, and so forth make us all curators in our own right.
And yet even with all these “curatorial” activities accessible to everyone, experiencing the actual process of real-world, traditional curating is perhaps one of the most exciting–though unexpected!–activities I’ve completed during my (now multi-month) tenure as a museum professional.
Second only to visiting Storm King Art Center over fall break. (Did I mention that I went to Storm King? BECAUSE I DID.)
Now, I’m an educator at heart (or an educator FOR LIFE, as I would get custom-printed on a hoodie if an education department’s budget could afford such luxuries!), and I never set my sights on a career on the curatorial side of the museum world. In my experience, however, such a preference is a bit bizarre to the general public. The “non-museum” acquaintances who have criticized my educational aspirations in the past view curatorial jobs as glamorous, exciting, exotic–certainly more thrilling than trying to get wriggling kindergarteners to look closely at the cuneiform inscription on Assyrian reliefs or gathering hundreds of specimen jars for a cabinets of curiosities-themed craft activity.
Though I will admit that the finished specimen jars did end up looking pretty legit at the community open house day I organized last weekend.
Still, even though I know nothing brings me quite as much satisfaction as educating people and sharing my love of the arts with them, I’ve been surprisingly delighted by my recent foray into curating!
A month or so ago, a colleague and I were recruited to re-install several major cases in our museum’s “global cultures” (read: all the “non-Western” stuff that I can’t live without) gallery. Together, we came up with a theme, hunted down works of art on the database, visited the actual objects in storage and adjusted our selection accordingly (nothing like a trip to the basement to show you that the Chinese cup you so carefully selected is actually a lamp), and are now working to write labels and wall text for what has since turned into a mini-exhibition. Among our objects is a stunning gold vessel from the north coast of Peru with which I’ve absolutely fallen in love: and I can’t imagine how exciting it will be to finally see it glowing under the display lights for all to see instead of hiding away in the Decorative Arts storage room.
Surprisingly, of course, I didn’t write this entire curatorial-themed blog post with the intention of bragging about our Chimu vessel (although it’s certainly worth the boasting!). As usual, I’m also struck by the broader (and more maudlin) connections that can be drawn between museum practices and the post-collegiate experience.
Alternative topic for this post: comparing the oddness and seeming incomprehensibility of the postgrad lifestyle to the variety of modern and contemporary abstract sculptures on display at Storm King (a topic abandoned because it is literally impossible to compare the wonders of Storm King to anything else (disclaimer: Storm King did not reimburse me for making this post; I JUST REALLY LOVE IT, OKAY?)).
Here’s a small secret: during fall break, I stopped in Ithaca very briefly. I was barely in the area for a handful of hours, just passing through on my way to pick up my sister from her university.
The weirdest part, though? Because I was visiting someone in Lansing–and, again, wasn’t even going to be around for a full day–I didn’t go back to campus.
I walked around Cayuga Heights a bit, I saw the lake from above, and we drove down Route 13 past my old beloved Wegmans on our way down to our next destination, but I didn’t have enough time to gaze up at the clock tower, visit the Johnson, walk around Beebe Lake or even just march through Goldwin Smith with the unnecessary swagger of an art history major who actually got a museum job after college.
I really couldn’t spare the time, but in retrospect, I’m rather glad that I didn’t return to my alma mater like a semi-prodigal daughter quite yet. College life, like so many other things, is also extensively curated: after a few mad weeks of signing up for every single club and enrolling in three courses too many as a freshman, you slowly begin to study, select, and specialize. Like a curator deciding to leave this Athenian amphora or that Moche portrait pot in storage because it’s cracked or poorly restored or doesn’t fit with the rest of the collection, you examine all of your options and make educated, calculated refinements–and by the end of your senior year, you’ve got quite a comfortably familiar and well-moderated “exhibition” on your hands.
One of the hardest parts of graduating, then, is learning to let go of all those things I had so carefully arranged and cultivated over the years. My Cornell routine, from my a cappella group to the delightfully engaging structure of 4000-level art history seminars (seriously, I should’ve gotten special Frequent Enroller privileges for those) to the work I did at the Johnson, was so essential to my life that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that it’s no longer my entire world. Coming back to Cornell and returning to my old haunts would have been nice, but it’s just a little too soon: spending some more time away from the Hill will make my eventual return (and inevitable recognition of how much I’ve achieved thanks to my time there) all the more rewarding.
Or, alternatively, I could scrap this whole college/professional life dichotomy and make the two worlds one. I’d love nothing more than to share the Johnson’s collection with my students–so if you’ve got a extra grants sitting around just waiting to be invested in travel expenses (including ALL MEALS CATERED BY ALADDIN’S) for me and a group of college docents, please feel free to get in touch…
Important clarification: this title references the seminal Moody Blues 1967 album, and is NOT a mistyped X-Men title. The more you know!
There’s a pair of pendant paintings–both landscapes by Thomas Cole–at my museum that are always singled out as the gems of our collection. They’re beautifully installed in our central gallery, directly facing the entrance from the lobby: as soon as you cross over from mini-cafe to museum, you’re instantly greeted by two monumental paintings in glowing gold Rococo-revival frames.
Completed shortly after the success of Cole’s series The Course of Empire, these two paintings also follow the series’ same basic mission: in other words, being about as subtle about their ultimate moral as The Chronicles of Narnia. The first, The Past, presents a romanticized vision of the medieval world–a grand tournament, complete with a jousting match taking place in front of an audience of hundreds. Its partner, The Present, shows The Past’s same medieval castle centuries later, after the walls have begun to crumble and the forces of nature have claimed this once-thriving structure.
This is the moment, of course, when you might think I’d draw some obvious connection between my past and present–but, let’s be real, as much as I’d love to stand in front of ruins as they’re perfectly illuminated by the dying sunlight just as the shepherd does in Cole’s The Present, my present isn’t nearly so calm or contemplative. No indeed: as I’ve discovered, working at a college once school’s begun is basically a gigantic medieval party all the time.
Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Although I could’ve really used a suit of armour a few weeks ago when the nearby massive university’s Important Sports Game swarmed the town with more overexcited, red-shirted people than an episode of Star Trek…)
Being a college staff member is, in a few ways, a lot like being a student–it doesn’t take long for you to fall into the routine of academia. I expected September to last forever, but it ended so quickly that (as my slightly belated blog post suggests!) I barely even realized October had begun until just now. (Apologies go out to the poor students in the ambassador program I run at our museum who had to endure me saying things like “And we’ll meet to work on the video project on September 12…” today!)
Although I sometimes miss the flexibility of my college schedule, I’ve come to cherish the little enjoyable moments of my new routine: regularly stopping by a free yoga class offered by the college; brainstorming new curriculum ideas with my interns; checking out my billionth book from our library system; and, of course, taking long leaf-peeping walks around our gorgeous campus during my lunch break…
As I tend to reiterate every blog post, I continue to marvel at how amazing my job is–I get to interact with college students, K-12 kids, and community members; plan events; and work in a place filled with phenomenal artistic treasures (with a collection of over 19,000 objects, most of which can be pulled from storage at a moment’s notice, there’s something for everyone!).
The biggest challenge I’ve encountered so far as a postgrad, then, is the issue of finding “extracurriculars” through which to meet like-minded, friend-type individuals. (My fondness for the phrase “friend-type individuals” surely is a great way for me to obtain more of them, no?) There’s no Club Fair after college: people aren’t constantly quarter-carding you and begging you to join the quirky organization of their choice.
I’ve got yoga and fitness classes to turn to already, and I’ve made efforts to go to various community events–a poetry festival held a few weeks ago was particularly exciting!–but I still find myself with a hole in my social experience.
And let’s be real, it’s an enormous music-shaped hole.
In addition to being the first time I’ve been out of school for sixteen years, this is also the first time I’ve gone without a singing group in my life for over a decade. From my six years of “hippie choir” to a surprisingly legit high school choral career (Hey, did you know I did all-state honor choir and a NATS competition? I’D FORGOTTEN UNTIL TODAY!) to a brief stint in Cornell’s Chorus followed by three incredibly fun years of geekapella, I’m not used to a reality that doesn’t involve cathartic rehearsals a few times per week.
Is there a solution? I’m not quite sure. I don’t think community choir is my thing–especially if it’s too “serious–and a cappella groups on campus are probably not interested in an old staff member like me.
Maybe I’ll make like the indie-swoonworthy star of my new favorite movie of all time God Help the Girl and join a band: if I could sing with a group again and look as hipster-chic as Emily Browning, I would ask for nothing more.
Plus, these minor woes can be immediately chased away when I remind myself how lucky I am to work on such a beautiful campus. I’ve recently discovered that the college owns a large tract of hiking trails, which are basically the answer to all my forest-fairy dreams. If I can’t run circles around Beebe Lake in the midst of autumn anymore, this will have to suffice for now.
Also, last week we literally had a magical flying horse appear on campus with no explanation. Just saying.
When last we spoke, o mysterious readers, I was but a few weeks into a new job in a town where there’s not a gorge to be found, Ithaca College Radio (THE STATION FOR INNOVATION) is replaced by strange Springfield-based pop stations, and Wegmans is most decidedly not a thing.
In the month since, however, I’ve managed to give my first public gallery talk (complete with obligatory references to linguistics, cartography, and THE NATURAL HISTORY OF CATS), coordinate my first “family fun day” community outreach event (which taught me that the expert’s knowledge of panpipes that I gained for one of my final Cornell art history seminars did have a real-world application), and co-organize a new orientation program designed to introduce thirty-five first-years to the glories of the university art world.
I also enjoyed an inaugural hiking trek in the Mount Holyoke Range, gathered the proper materials to start teaching myself Nahuatl (though my textbooks, borrowed from my on-campus library’s massive holdings, look almost as old as the Pyramid of the Sun itself), and enjoyed the opportunity to spend rare moments of free time writing (and reliving the vintage delights of the original Star Trek series from its very beginning).
Still, what remains most thrilling throughout all of this is that so much of my job continues to be based on the constant acquisition of knowledge. As my graduation neared last spring, I started to worry that I had made a huge mistake by deciding to wait a few years before applying to an MFA or PHD program: I have such a passion for learning that it seemed foolish to pass on further opportunities for education! Yet my new position frequently requires me to educate myself on a variety of subjects–and from studying Joseph Cornell’s oeuvre to memorizing the several different stages of Moche pottery styles, I’ve certainly broadened my horizons significantly thus far.
Nothing better captures the high points of my job, of course, than this past Friday’s field trip to two phenomenal museums as part of the afore-mentioned freshman orientation program. Though I was slightly nervous about the pressure of managing the logistics of such a trip, I kept reminding myself that I was, in the end, getting paid to visit museums–what more could an art nerd ask for? In any case, the outing went very smoothly, and I was able to enjoy both the collections and the delight of witnessing the many excited and thoughtful reactions our students had to the various artworks they encountered.
First up was the Clark Art institute, where the recent completion of a variety of renovations resulted in what may in fact be the most architecturally gorgeous museum space I have ever encountered. (All apologies to the Johnson & I.M. Pei; I hope you will someday forgive my betrayal!)
I could’ve happily stayed in rapt contemplation next to the reflecting pool for the entire duration of our visit, but there was art to see and freshmen to guide through it! My two main priorities for my visit were a Turner seascape (which was tragically temporarily off view!) and the incredible Pollock known as Lavender Mist, on loan to the Clark from the National Gallery.
You may remember that at this time last year, I had just started ARTH 3605: US Art from FDR to Reagan, a class in which abstract expressionism played a major role–but the difference between viewing a Pollock or a Johns on a Powerpoint slide in a Goldwin Smith classroom and actually experiencing it in person is indescribable.
The next stop on our itinerary was Mass MOCA, an appropriately massive contemporary art museum housed in a series of ex-factory buildings in the charming town of North Adams. Mass MOCA introduced me to an entirely different museum experience–one in which works of art were not confined to the walls, but rather actively invaded the viewer’s space, scrutinizing the people just as much as the visitors studied them.
In the stunning Sol LeWitt (a.k.a. my new favorite artist of all time) retrospective, art covers massive floor-to-ceiling walls with universes of color and carefully designed shapes…
…while Teresita Fernandez’s exhibition As Above So Below featured pieces literally hanging from a massive warehouse ceiling like a strange aerial continent.
(As a kid, I always wondered why sci-fi was so obsessed with humanoid aliens: incidentally, if I were to describe what I think extraterrestrials might look like, I might cite the Fernandez piece pictured below as an example!)
Still more exciting were the exhibitions in which a single work of art consisted of an entire room. During my final semester at Cornell, I became very familiar with the work of Mark Dion, an American artist whose Trichechus manatus latirostris dominated the Johnson’s lecture lobby in the New Wing all spring. Every time I shared that skeletal manatee with a group of elementary or middle school students, I marvelled at Dion’s imagination and admired his interest in kunstkammer, or cabinets of curiosities–especially since I had unknowingly visited his own installation of a period-accurate cabinet of curiosities at the Musee Oceanographique de Monaco during my semester abroad!
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that I spent what felt like hours in Dion’s The Octagon Room at Mass MOCA, an installation which basically encapsulates all my wildest dreams for my future home. In this full-size, contemporary kunstkammer, books on a variety of subjects lie precariously on slanted shelves, drawers overflow with shells and specimens and sketches of dinosaurs, and viewers are invited to open every door and touch every object as they explore the space.
Although the moral of this post appears to be something along the lines of “Wow, Keely is really obsessed with museums and bad at concision,” there’s something more significant I want to share that’s been on my mind constantly during most of August.
While I have always loved visiting museums and enjoying art, the thought of majoring in art history hadn’t even occurred to me as I began my college search. Ultimately, it was my time at Cornell–specifically, my experiences as a docent and intern the Johnson–that set me on the path towards a career that is deeply satisfying and fulfilling for me in a way that I feared I would never experience in my professional life. As the semester begins and I start meeting my interns and the students participating in the docent program I’ll be coordinating this year, I can only hope to give back to the next generation of artsy college students by inspiring them in the same way that the Johnson’s education staff inspired me.
(And in the meantime, I am also considering giving back to the Johnson in other ways–the “Giving at Cornell” site suggests that the Johnson needs funds to secure better light bulbs, but I’m personally hoping for an endowment drive to give that poor museum an elevator that lacks the volatility of a supernova…)
As I begin my second official post as an post-grad blogger, I feel the need to make a very important confession. For the past three years, I’ve no doubt that all of my readers have been under the impression that I am, in fact, a normal, human college student–and I’d like to make it very clear to you that I’m actually a Tiktaalik, a Devonian era sort-of-fish-dude who rather embodies the evolutionary transition from marine to terrestrial life.
Or, at least, that’s how my first two weeks at my new job have made me feel!
You don’t intern at a museum for three years without getting extremely well acquainted with the quotidian goings-on of the average education office. During my time at the Johnson, I watched as my supervisors and co-workers planned outreach projects, coordinated massive public programs, and dealt with literal scores of visiting middle schoolers in a single day. Because of my internship, I was, of course, inevitably involved in all these events: but always as an eager assistant only.
Still, I didn’t expect starting my new career–as an educator at another university museum, in case you missed my most recent post–to involve so many moments of clarity and joyous astonishment. In the four years in which I played a role at the Johnson, I helped (in my own small way!) the staff members to implement programming and outreach that always had a positive impact on the community members it affected. When I received my first major event-planning assignment last week, I was surprised to find myself almost getting legitimate chills of excitement: I’m intern no more, and it’s amazing! Transforming from a student to a real educator who might just be able to effect some small but notable change in the museum world or local community is a feeling like nothing else in the world–with the exception, maybe, of sliding up on land for the first time and stretching out your soggy almost-tetrapod-leg fins.
Well, that really got away from me, didn’t it?
In the interest of preventing any more mawkish evolution metaphors, I’ll close with a few stray observations about the early stages of transitioning from big-college-student to small-college-staff-member:
- My greatest secret fear about starting work at a small liberal arts school was that I’d never see the inside of a “music library” again–yet I was delighted to discover that my new college does, in fact, boast a comprehensive collection of scores and recordings in addition to its more traditional library. (And if this music library can beat Cornell’s pitiful lack of panpipe scholarship, I may have to question my previously unshakeable loyalty to the Cox….)
- Unsurprisingly, everyone with whom I have the awkward small-talk duty of sharing my life’s story always reacts to my mention of Cornell with some stereotypical wailing about the weather: Ithaca’s legacy stretches far and wide, it seems.
- It takes approximately three or four minutes to walk from practically anywhere on campus into town–and although I appreciate the relative proximity of local restaurants, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing CTB and falafel from Aladdin’s like nobody’s business.
- Having a museum education job is like working as a university academic and a kindergarten teacher at the same time (and I wouldn’t have it any other way!)
- HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS WITHOUT THE CLOCK TOWER JUBILANTLY SOUNDING EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES?
- Library Update #2: Apparently, staff members like me can check out books for a year at a time. This, to me, is a privilege equivalent to earning a six-figure salary. I have already assembled a massive collection of fabulist novels, typography books, and catalogues of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art and can’t believe that I can keep reading them
, adoring them, and rearranging them on my shelf while speaking to them in a Gollum voiceuntil 2015.
Finally, no matter how many ridiculous blazers and strings of pearls I wear (or boring, un-youthful character traits I embody), I am inevitably mistaken for a college sophomore or junior.
I guess evolution really does take time.
(Yes, I’m terrible, but I promise next month’s post will be Tiktaalik-free! (Unlike TV’s Orphan Black, I do not intend on referencing Darwin with every update from here on out.) But in the spirit of delightful inhabitants of the Devonian, here’s a little song to play you off.)