Collections Management

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.

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Behold the fruits of modern-day curatorial practice! (No offence intended, of course, to Cool Dachshund Stuff, which is probably among the top five sites I visit most frequently…)

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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_2671Alternative 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…

Days of Future Passed

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 Presentmy 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…)

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Also, last week we literally had a magical flying horse appear on campus with no explanation. Just saying.

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Adaptive Strategies

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.

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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.

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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 voice until 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.)

This blog goes ever on and on!

“So what are you going to do for a living?”

A quick read through Sarr Above the Busy Humming’s archives will prove that this question–the words of well-meaning acquaintances and small-talking strangers–has been tormenting me since my freshman year. As graduation grew closer and closer and I remained unsure of my future, I was forced to develop a kind of generic elevator speech to appease the masses.

“Well, my ideal career would involve museum education,” I’d tell the dentist, the hairdresser at MasterCuts, or the strangely talkative weirdo sitting next to me on my flight back to the Islands, “but I’m also exploring the broader field of arts education and outreach until I find the perfect match.” As post-grad career blurbs go, it served its purpose well, and saved me from tired jokes about teachers’ woeful salaries and the way in which art history majors are doomed to work only at fast food restaurants.

About a month ago, however, everything changed. After years of hearing about the dismal job prospects in the art world and the impossibility of supporting one’s self on an educator’s salary, I was finally able to look the bellhop, the airport taxi driver, or the distant relative in the eye, smile, and boast that I’d accepted the job of my dreams.

Trust me, I was about as shocked as "Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard" here.

Trust me, I was about as shocked as “Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard” here.

For the next few years, I will be working as an educator at the on-campus museum of a small liberal arts college–in other words, the non-Ithaca equivalent of my beloved Johnson Museum. Just like I did during my Johnson internship, in fact, I’ll get to give tours, help coordinate class visits, and brainstorm new ways to reach out to the nearby community: and I’ll be able to do it all full time!

Of course, perhaps you’re reading this and thinking to yourself something along the lines of “Nice humble-brag, Keely, but why bother posting it? DIDN’T YOU GRADUATE? Hasn’t Sarr Above the Busy Humming faded quietly into the west already?” 

Well, friend, I’m afraid this blog has a little more staying power than that.

(In other words: from the ashes a fire shall totally be woken.)

I’ve been invited to continue blogging as I transition from college student to college employee, allowing alumni, prospective students, and those Facebook “friends” who never speak to me (but still click on all the blog links I post?!?) to follow along on this particular Cornellian’s journey into the workforce. I’ll probably post monthly recaps of such adventures as adapting to life on a comparatively tiny campus (you mean there’s only one library?), navigating the hazards of driving in the snow for the first time (not everywhere’s as walkable as Ithaca!), and discovering how well Cornell’s curriculum prepared me for a museum career.

(Also, I get my own office, which I miiiight mention proudly from time to time.)

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I realized recently that I neglected to post about graduation–in all honesty, the experience is such an indescribable whirlwind of crowds and noise and family happiness that I probably couldn’t really capture it in a few hundred words.

I will say this: in that moment when you enter Schoellkopf with your bizarre cap and borrowed, sweaty bat-robes, surrounded by a handful of friends and veritable thousands of people you’ve never met, it’s tempting to feel utterly inconsequential. Looking out at the genuine masses of people in the bleachers might make a graduate feel like the tiny “You are here!” dot on one of those maps of the universe that every curious kid had on his or her bedroom wall in the 90s.

 Yet even if universe maps often lead me into states of existential angst, it’s ultimately amazing to get a sense of the scale of the world (or galaxy, or college community) around you (a sentiment that my ol’ buddies Fleet Foxes express even more eloquently in the first verse of one of my favorite songs of all time).

That drivel above is really supposed to suggest that while this blog is about my story, there’s a veritable cosmos of Cornellians out there who are embarking on their own different postgrad quests at the same time–and there’s something kind of fantastic about that. So to any ’14ers out there who might happen upon this blog, you’re in my thoughts: and please chime in if you wish!

To everyone else: stop by again in July to hear about my first day of not school!