Museums and Academia

What compels us to collect? What objects do institutions value and what do their collections say about them (and us)? If you could create your own exhibition or museum, what would it be? These are no small questions, yet they are considered daily by students and teachers in the courses offered in the Program in Museums and Society.

Directed by Elizabeth Rodini, the program, which began offering a minor in 2007, is a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. Classes are taught by faculty from a broad range of departments, including history of science and technology, anthropology, and history, as well as by museum staff from both campus and off-campus institutions. Students from at least 20 different majors have taken courses in the program. What connects them all, says Rodini, is the “shared interest in the institutions that collect, display, and interpret material culture.”

Courses take advantage of Hopkins’ strong roots in the history of collecting and in the rich array of museums in Baltimore. In Museum Matters, students visit Baltimore’s museums as a kind of “introduction to how museums think,” says Catherine Rogers Arthur, director and curator of Homewood Museum, a showcase of fine and decorative arts representing early 19th-century Baltimore. Arthur, who co-teaches the class with Rodini, says that “museums are a relevant and engaging way to present research results.”

Case in point is a recent student-curated exhibition exploring the life and work of Zelda Fitzgerald. Junior Laura Somenzi, a history of art major, worked through every angle of the curatorial process from research to loan requests, resulting in an exhibition called Zelda Fitzgerald: Choreography in Color, which was on display at Homewood Museum earlier this year.

“I really wanted to present Zelda as an independent, artistic entity, distinct from her husband,” says Somenzi.

It is research that is exciting as well as important. Through course work and museum internships, students are entering into “discussions about the institutions that preserve, interpret, and thus construct broader understandings of the past,” says Rodini.