Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Reviews (page 1 of 4)

Reykjavik in 4 Museums

Today’s post comes to you from Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis, current Tufts Museum Studies Certificate candidate and Director of Education for the Old North Church & Historic Site.

On a recent trip to Iceland, my husband Chris and I visited several different museums in Reykjavik over the course of three days. While museums constituted only a portion of our overall schedule in Iceland, they gave us the grounding we needed to understand such an incredible culture. I offer this light-hearted review partially written as a personal reflective exercise and partially written as a short summary for other travelers by someone in the museum industry.

We started with Reykjavik 871: The Settlement Exhibition, a new archaeological exhibit located underneath a building. In 2001, the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavik were discovered, including a hall (longhouse) from the 10th century preserved in its original location as the focal point of the exhibition. We learned so much about early life in Viking Age Iceland, a land so ancient it’s hard to fathom. One interesting fact is that Iceland used to be much warmer than it is now, so farming would not have been as bitter and god-awful as one might imagine nowadays. The climate was much more temperate. The exhibit featured incredible digital technology, which helped tell the story and complete the scene set by the ancient stones. The experience at Reykjavik 871 only requires about an hour, so it’s easy to squeeze in any number of travel plans.

We decided to continue our afternoon at the Saga Museum, a place high on my list of priorities because it recreates Viking life. Chris was not too impressed with the experience, but I enjoyed it mostly because I learned a great deal about Icelandic history (and I’m a sucker for history dioramas). The Saga Museum essentially consists of eighteen vignettes of life-like Vikings in different scenarios that tell the stories of the Icelandic sagas. You walk through a path to each vignette and listen to an audio guide that highlights each saga. We got to “meet” the famous heroes and infamous villains in Viking stories that include Leif’s discovery of America, the founding of the world’s oldest parliament, and epic clan feuds. Afterwards, we watched a video on how the museum created the silicone figures, weapons, and clothing. THEN we got to dress up like Vikings! I was totally in my element, and Chris even got a chuckle out of wearing the extremely heavy helmets and holding the huge swords. How could anyone fight wearing all that metal?? This participatory experience at the end cemented our understanding of Viking life and offered some good ole dress-up fun. This museum requires a bit more time to get the full effect, so plan for at least two hours.

The next day we visited the National Museum of Iceland, a jewel of a museum: well-organized, extremely clean and navigable, extensive in its history but manageable to accomplish in an afternoon. The museum preserves the national heritage of Iceland, housing some 300,000 historic and cultural artifacts that date back to the 9th century. The first floor features the museum shop and cafe, a changing photo gallery, and a lecture hall. The second and third floors consist of the permanent exhibition, tracing Iceland’s roots from 800 – present day (the second floor also contains a temporary art exhibit space). Because Iceland’s history is long and complicated, we found this museum extremely helpful in piecing together the larger picture. We developed a greater understanding of the “history periods” of Iceland: dawn of Icelandic society (Viking Age), reign of the Christian Chieftains, Norwegian rule, Danish rule, Absolutism, nation state and development, and “modern world” Iceland. The current building was constructed in 1950 not long after Iceland achieved its independence, but major renovations to the museum and its exhibitions took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the “new” National Museum opening in 2004. The exhibitions blended digital technology with impressive display cases and interesting layouts, resulting in a rich and meaningful museum experience. Plan for a full half day at this museum if you’re one to read exhibit text; if not, a few hours should suffice.

Our third day, we headed to the Einar Jonsson Museum, located conveniently across the street from the apartment where we stayed! We’d seen the building but had not ventured inside yet. As we only had about an hour before the museum closed, we zipped our way through the small museum in a mere 40 minutes. Einar Jonsson was Iceland’s first sculptor and a delightfully peculiar artist. He built the museum himself to house many of his works and then built living quarters for himself and his wife on the top floor. His work is dark and existential. He rejected naturalistic depiction and classical art tradition, instead using mythological and religious motifs believing that artists should forge their own creative paths. His paintings feature bright colors and interesting figures, providing a fabulous contrast to the monochrome of his sculptures. Johnson’s efficient living quarters gave us a unique glimpse into his personality. Chris and I both greatly enjoyed our foray into Icelandic art as well as the opportunity to discuss the artwork after several days of focusing purely on history. Do not let the imposing exterior fool you – it does not give a true sense of the exquisite beauty on the inside!

These four museums encapsulate Iceland and its story, and I highly recommend visiting any of them the next time you want to take a short four hour and 45 minute flight to a unique destination!


Erin is the Director of Education for the Old North Church & Historic Site, serves on the planning committee for the Greater Boston Museum Educators Roundtable, and gives Art + Medicine gallery talks at the MFA with her husband when they can find the time. She is taking her sweet time finishing the museum education certificate program amidst having babies and working. Drop her a line at

NEMA Conference 2016 Review: Where Do We Go from Here?

In the wake of this year’s presidential election, the 2016 New England Museum Association Conference was “the best cure for a political hangover,” as NEMA Executive Director Dan Yaeger put it. This year’s theme, “Plug In: Museums and Social Action,” seemed even more pertinent than we had perhaps realized, as Wednesday morning saw many conference-goers overwhelmed with emotion about our country’s political state. I could have cut through the thick tension in the air with the butter knife on my table at lunch that day. Yet poignant keynote performances by Bated Breath Theatre Company and Annawon Weeden that focused on social justice and knowing our country’s full history seemed to inspire us to come together both as a profession and as a community. Instead of fixating on our political differences, we were challenged to channel that intensity and put our thinking caps on to have constructive conversations over the next three days. Sessions like “Encouraging Civic Engagement,” “Engaging Visitors in Conversation Forums About Societal Issues,” and “Museums at the Intersections: Strategies for Community and Justice Issues” were just a few of the many that asked the critical question of what our social responsibility is to our communities and how we as museums can do more for them than just provide a fun day out on a Saturday. While the conference started out on a shaky and uncertain note, that note soon blossomed into a chorus of voices talking and communicating about potential answers to these questions and how they could play out in our museums. Now, it’s time to put these ideas into motion. Our country is at a crossroads and more than ever our museums need to ask themselves those same critical questions and determine whether or not they will act on these conversations or stay silent.

If you attended all or part of this year’s NEMA Conference and would like to contribute a post about any part of it (a specific session, a conversation you had, the conference as a whole, etc.), please use the “Contact Us” box at the bottom of this page or send us an email at

Exhibition Review: “Overgrowth” at the deCordova

Today’s exhibition review comes to you from Kathryn Sodaitis, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. Check out more of Kathryn’s posts here

I recently went to see Overgrowth at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.  Overgrowth is a collection of drawings, paintings, photography and sculpture from the permanent collection in the galleries that are on display through September 18, 2016. The show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, to explore “how artists represent prolific growth, expansion, and transformation in the natural world and built environment.”

I visited this exhibition because I wanted to investigate how deCordova represents their permanent collection of contemporary artists.  Seeing work from a permanent collection can be overwhelming in that a wide range of objects from the collection may not be as cohesive as a show by a single artist.  At deCordova, the objects from the collection are grouped together by a unifying theme and are removed after a few months.  Much like a temporary special exhibition, this show received curation, interpretation, marketing and programming.  This type of exhibition allows the public to see more of the objects from the collection through periodic rotations, keeping the galleries more up-to-date and current.  This model likely aims to increase museum visitation and boost membership because visitors can see different work more frequently.  But does such an exhibit have the wow power of a show with a singular vision–one that is most relevant to the issues of our time?  My recent experience at Overgrowth helped me evaluate whether this approach engages visitors and creates personally meaningful experiences.

Overgrowth utilizes some effective strategies to create a comfortable, logical, and meaningful exhibition.  While the exhibit succeeds in some areas, I also felt that it could promote more meaningful engagement from its visitors.  Here are some of the highlights of my visit:

  • The aesthetic strengths of this show drew me in immediately. White walls and the modern, vine-like font create the backdrop for an exhibition on contemporary art.  The artwork provides the eye-candy and is arranged to draw attention to the colors, textures, and sensory appeal of the works themselves.  The three bulbous blue ceramic sculptures by Makoto Yabe enticed me to enter the exhibition.  These amorphous, celeste blue forms introduce the philosophy of “Wabi sabi”, explained in the label as “a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection.”  This sub-theme reappears in many of the works throughout the galleries, in which beauty is paired with mutation, destruction and decay.
  • On the third floor, the brilliant green of the cast aluminum sculpture Glo Baby Glo by Gary Webb greets you first, set against the more distant backdrop of several paintings and photographs featuring the same springtime color. The use of color here is an effective way to invite the visitor into the space.  Plenty of breathing room around this sculpture, and the rest of the work in the gallery, does not overwhelm the visitor.
  • In the third floor exhibition space, human impact on nature is directly addressed, and as one would predict, the relationship is largely negative. Photographs of styrofoam take-out containers, powerlines, aerial shots of cars and sprawl, and the before and after image of a demolition of a condemned building are some of the imagery documented by artists, which depict some of the drawbacks associated with progress. However, the most meaningful moment for me came in the section titled, “Organic Abundance.”  Late Summer, a photograph by Boston-based photographer Laura McPhee offers a different vantage–the idea that nature is not as fragile as we might think.  The image of the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho after a wildfire tells a story of growth and renewal, hope and possibility.  It’s a message that resonated with me the most–in times when destruction and despair are prevalent, look for a message of strength and renewal.
  • The theme of this show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, a theme which strongly corresponds to the outdoor Sculpture Park. Outdoor space offers opportunities for institutions to relinquish some control over interpretation and behavior, which can be fairly limited inside a museum’s walls.  Outside, the rules of behavior are different, and parents of small children especially welcome opportunities to take breaks outdoors and allow little feet to run, fingers to touch, and voices to rise after a more controlled indoor experience.  In fact, after visiting the exhibition, I couldn’t resist going outside to consider my own relationship to the natural world while walking along the grounds.  The deCordova is right to highlight this strength through an exhibition that encourages us to visit its outdoor space.

The deCordova has the ability to offer unique experiences both inside and outside, and can provide a model for how an institution might not only coexist with its environment, but also provide a range of opportunities for participation from its community.   It seems to me that the deCordova could continue to explore options of sharing some of its institutional control over the content of its exhibitions and invite more participatory experiences from its community inside the galleries.  Overall, this “permanent collection-temporary exhibition” is successful in that the big idea correlates with the Sculpture Park, and it enticed me to go outside and explore.  However, the deCordova should consider ways to engage more visitors in dialogue with each other within the conventional exhibition format.

Read the full review on Exhibit Files.


The Art of Schmoozing Workshop Review

Last week, a number of current and former Museum Studies students took part in a workshop put on by the Museum Studies Department and led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President and CEO of the Abbe Museum. “The Art of Schmoozing” discussed networking beyond trying to get a job or making a conference more bearable. Networking helps you talk to potential (and current) donors, volunteers, and community members. Knowing how to speak intelligently and politely is important both professionally and personally (picture sitting at a dinner party and not knowing how to talk to the people around you).

Museum Studies Alum Jennifer Clifford practicing her networking with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko. (Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Robinson)

Museum Studies Alum Jennifer Clifford (middle) practicing her networking with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko (right). (Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Robinson)

While many of us panic at the sight of a crowded conference happy hour, and the prospect of talking to billionaires (should we be so lucky) can evoke anxiety, there are several small tricks that can help ease the nerves. Cinnamon imparted some of her own first-hand experiences with some of the following tips:

  • Always introduce someone new to the whole group. It seems straightforward, but often someone joins a group conversation in the middle of a conversation. Rarely do people stop in the middle to say, “Oh by the way, this is my friend Colleen…” before continuing on. It’s awkward to halt the conversation, but it’s also awkward to be chatting with an unknown, unnamed stranger.
  • To get out of a conversation, either make something up (“Oh you’ll have to excuse me, I need to check on the caterer”) or be straightforward but put the onus on you (“I’m sure there are lots of people you’d like to talk to tonight. I’m sorry for monopolizing your time. It was great to meet you. Thank you!”)
  • To break into a group conversation, you can watch body language and wait for an opening (as long as you’re not lurking!), or you can interrupt very briefly and say, “I’m so sorry for interrupting, I just wanted to introduce myself and tell you that I loved your talk at NEMA. Would it be alright if I follow up with you later? I have some questions I’d like to ask you.” With any luck, you’ll get that person’s card and you can email them later.

Cinnamon’s presentation was frank and funny, and included tips on knowing how to work with people with different personality types (check out DiSC if you’re interested). Afterwards, participants were able to practice their new skills over wine and snacks.

Keep your eye out here and in the Museum Studies newsletter for further fun workshops!

Tour Review: The Art of Europe Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts

Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. Here, Christina analyzes a tour at the MFA for the Tufts course Teaching and Learning in the Museum.

In November, I took a docent-led tour of the Art of Europe wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The tour was aimed at providing the participants with a broad range of examples of European art, from medieval to early 20th century. While the experience was not wholly unsuccessful, there were two major issues with the tour. There was a clear lack of engagement between the tour guide and the visitors and, because of that, the tour did not necessarily live up to the MFA’s “ultimate aim” of their mission statement: to “encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation of the visual world.”

The first thing I noticed about my tour was that, because we were never asked about ourselves, we were (presumably unintentionally) being told that although we were not important, what was important was our guide asserting her authority by telling us how long she had worked there and how much she knew about the art. By the way our guide described the works of art and the fact that she never welcomed questions, the tour felt as if it was made for people who already knew about European art or at least had a very strong interest in it. This may have felt exclusionary for some people, and in fact one visitor dropped off the tour a few stops in. Our tour guide also walked quickly between works of art that sometimes spanned long and confusing stretches of the museum without once looking back to make sure that her tour was keeping up with her or even that we were all with her when she began speaking about the next piece. Because our guide did not take into consideration all the different aspects of our experiences and because we as learners were not finding new ideas or constructing knowledge on our own, I would argue that making any meaning at all out of this experience would have been very difficult. And while the MFA’s mission statement states that “the Museum’s ultimate aim is to encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation of the visual world,” I believe that because she never checked in with us to see how her efforts were paying off, it would be hard to tell whether she was successful.

While reflecting on my tour experience at the MFA, I thought of the Visitor’s Bill of Rights written by Judy Rand, director of Rand and Associates. There appeared to me to be a few rights that could have been addressed more clearly to yield an improved experience. The first was the right to feel welcomed. Our tour guide could have made us feel more welcome asking us at the very least who we were, but more importantly by engaging in dialogue with us along the way and also making sure that we were keeping up with her physically and intellectually as well. The second right was the right to communication. Communication is a key part of learning and meaning making in museums, so our guide could have made us more comfortable by making sure that we understood what she was saying and why it was relevant, as well as welcoming questions from the start of the tour. The third right the right to choice and control. A certain amount of control could have been ceded to us by our tour guide engaging us with more open-ended questions to facilitate an organic discussion between us.

Although I do not think I learned as much as I could have through the didactic model of teaching, it does work for some learners and I did not walk away having learned nothing from the Art of Europe tour at the MFA. If I was to summarize all of my thoughts, I would do so by quoting Rika Burnham, who at one time was in a very similar situation as our tour guide while conducting one of her run-of-the-mill tours at the Met. Burnham realized that, because visitors were not able to engage with the art through the didactic style of teaching she had employed, she needed to “stop lecturing and begin listening” to her visitors while at the same creating a safe space for them to “question, search, challenge, be moved by, and ultimately bring the work into the context of their own lives without being intimidated or made to feel inadequate.”

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