Class at the University of Pennsylvania: Intro to Museum Studies

7 Jan

Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, 19th century Korea. Private Collection.

In the spring semester of 2014 I took another art history class, but this one was at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Due to an agreement between Swarthmore and UPenn, students from either school can take classes at the other institution, with an equal transfer of credits and travel expenses reimbursed. I was very curious to take a class at a university completely different from Swarthmore in almost every way one could imagine, and so I took advantage of the opportunity when I found UPenn offering this Museum studies class last spring.

The class was excellent, and took an approach unlike the one I’m used to at Swarthmore. Whereas at my school the classes have pretty much always been theoretical and philosophical in nature, focused on conceptual knowledge of a subject rather than practical, this class at UPenn was incredibly practical and literal. I am so glad that I took the class because it gave me the chance to understand museums from the perspective of those whose job it is to make museums the best they can be and to generate the most visitors. We got to meet with curators and directors from museums and galleries all over Philadelphia given our convenient location in the city, including from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, UPenn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, UPenn’s Penn Museum of Art and Archaeology, and a couple more. The class was taught by a married couple who had curatorial experience themselves, which also made the experience enriching.

One of my favorite parts of the class were the papers we were assigned to write. The more art history classes I take at Swarthmore, the more I realize how much I love research papers, and the process of research and learning so much about a topic so that one can write an argument about it at considerable length. For this class, we had to write a 6 page paper reviewing a current exhibition in Philadelphia of our choice out of a selection of 4 or 5, and then a 10-15 page final paper discussing how a museum dealt with a major issue in relatively modern times. For the review paper, I wrote about the PMA’s Spring 2014 exhibition “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910.” The paper has no images unfortunately, and they are hard to find unless you have the exhibition catalogue, but the image above is one of the screens that were in the exhibition. I did enjoy the exhibition very much, although I found some flaws in the organization of the themes. The paper is here: Treasures from Korea review.

For the final paper, which was to discuss how a museum dealt with a major issue in at least somewhat recent times, I was very excited because I knew immediately what my topic would be. When I sat in on Swarthmore’s Contemporary Art History class as a prospective student way back in 2011, they were discussing the Brooklyn Museum of Art controversy in 1999 over their exhibit “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.” While the exhibition had been controversial for a different artwork when it was first shown at the Royal Academy in London, in Brooklyn it was controversial for it painting The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili. Considered religiously offensive by then-mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani, he tried to withdraw the museum’s city funding for showing something that might be offensive to a portion of the taxpayers who were forced to financially support it. From that moment when I had learned about it, I found the controversy fascinating in the questions it brought up about freedom of speech, and how this changes when that speech is publicly funded. Do artists still have the right to full artistic freedom even if their funding comes from the public, who do not get to decide who they fund? What should be the extent of the relationship between the arts and the state? And what is the art museum’s purpose when it comes to what kind of art it displays?

I never believed this controversy to be as black and white as it sounds on the surface, and I realized how complicated it was the more I got to learn about it. While the assignment was not to take a position in the paper, if I were to take a position about it, I would say that it simply becomes too dangerous to strike down funding for a museum based on artwork it displays that is perceived to be offensive. This kind of reasoning allows cities to prevent artists who call attention to a leader’s corruption or a government system’s dysfunction from ever showing their work in a publicly funded museum, which can include many major museums. I believe that funding art museums is a worthy use of a city budget, and I think that if a government agrees with this, then they should be prepared for whatever the museum will do with that funding, in terms of what kind of art they choose to show. I certainly do not enjoy art that is anti-Christian, anti-America, or any spectrum of art that mocks the values and principles I personally hold dear. But if I want to make sure the art I like is always allowed to be displayed, then it is only fair to support the perpetual freedom of display of the art I hate. Now it is true that controversial artists could stick to private institutions who have no sort of restrictions if they want no problems displaying their art. And furthermore, while a museum has every right to display whatever art they choose, artists do not have the right to get their art displayed wherever they want because that is the museum’s prerogative. But since government funding is often essential for museums to stay open given the dwindling donor pool and the lack of the general public’s interest in paying for something educational as entertainment, I do not think it is ok for governments to restrict funding based on what a museum shows.

But anyway, here is my final paper which is a comprehensive analysis of a variety of perspectives on the controversy, including the museum, Giuliani, legal scholars, art critics, and surveys of the public:

Final Paper

One Response to “Class at the University of Pennsylvania: Intro to Museum Studies”


  1. Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano PMA Exhibition Review | Aesthetic Apperceptions - March 13, 2015

    […] enriching than the Kano school exhibition, although I did find faults with it which I discussed in my review of the exhibition that I wrote for my UPenn class on Museum Studies last […]

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