Picture this: a mobile and colorful feast for the eyes, ears and imagination winding its…
Michelle Stewart changed her major eight times before discovering her passion.
She began her adventure at Harper College, eventually traveling south to study marine biology at Broward College in Florida. When she soon came home to Illinois, the Buffalo Grove native enrolled at Roosevelt University for elementary education – until finding “that elementary ed wasn’t for me” either.
On her return to Harper, she chose art.
“I’ve been making art ever since I can remember,” Stewart says. “I’ve always been drawing, sketching and painting, creating these cool things for school projects. My mom would always help me.”
Stewart’s sculpture professor at Harper held a degree from NIU. So did her drawing professor. Both encouraged her to become a Huskie and, in 2012, Stewart came to DeKalb.
Last May, she completed her BFA in sculpture – but her eight-year journey of higher education wasn’t done.
“I know how hard it is to be a working artist,” Stewart says. “I wanted to complete the Museum Studies program as well.”
NIU’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate Program in Museum Studies beautifully delivers President Doug Baker’s “triangle” strategy of students, academics and “the real world.”
Certificate students undertake a hands-on, best-practices learning experience guided by NIU faculty. They help to determine parts of the curriculum; study under alums and working professionals; and complete off-campus internships.
Most come with backgrounds in art history, studio art, anthropology and history, but some hold bachelor’s degrees in English or even the hard sciences.
“Our students engage with the profession and with museums in the area, and through the engagement, they really get a very strong sense of both their abilities and how they will fit into the field,” Van Ael says, “and the field is very aware of the caliber of our students who complete the program. We’re seeing our grads finding employment at more-prestigious places.”
Museums withstood the economic downturn better than other cultural entities, he says, and “people looking to find employment will do so.”
“Ultimately, the goal of the program remains to prepare students for productive careers in the museum field,” he adds, “and we train our students not for their first jobs but their last jobs. Museums are an evolving field. What were best practices 15 years ago no longer are. Working in a museum is for one who is a lifelong learner.”
LAUNCHED IN 2002, NIU’s Museum Studies graduate certificate launches careers in public and private museums and related historical societies, archives and other agencies or institutions that work with artistic, cultural and historical materials.
The 21-semester-hour certificate, operated jointly by three NIU colleges, includes five core courses, a focused elective, a practicum and an internship. Enrollment can stand alone or in addition to a graduate degree program.
During the fall semester course in curatorial practice, students must conceptualize, introduce and pitch ideas for the fall exhibition. The proposal that wins the class vote will eventually become a traveling exhibition.
Some of the past “winners” have examined graffiti, tattoos, cultural property conflicts, the impact of the “green” environmental movement and, most recently, the art of craft beer.
“Brewing Identity: The Art of Craft Beer,” traveling this August to the Geneva History Museum, was Stewart’s idea.
“I led the project, and it was one of the first times I was in a leadership role. I was able to use what I had learned from the NIU Women’s Leadership Forum 2014. I’m really happy with the outcome of the exhibition,” Stewart says.
“It was fun research. We focused on the different images – the labels on beer bottles and cans – and how the artists come to those ideas. We interviewed artists, owners and marketing staff at 17 breweries from eight Midwest states.”
During the spring, students typically create an exhibition assigned by – and for – the NIU Art Museum.
Their work involves research into the topic, developing the “story,” writing and editing. At the same time, the students begin thinking about the physical design of the exhibition.
“What will the environment be? How will it be visually generated? What is the balance between textual and visual components?” Van Ael says. “Are there handouts? Takeaways? Additional programming? Workshops? Lectures?”
After those questions are answered, and plans are finalized, “then we start to look at whether any specific exhibition furniture needs to be built – we generally build those in the workshop of the School of Art and Design – and then we start to install the exhibition,” Van Ael says.
“Once it’s up, we bring back one of our grads from the program to do an initial walk-through and give feedback,” he adds. “We give ourselves another week to make revisions and make improvements. Then we open.”
Sophia Varcados, a supervisor in the Graphic Design unit of Creative Services (housed in the NIU Division of Marketing and Communications), advises Van Ael’s students on the creation of visual aspects for their spring semester exhibitions.
Varcados fields questions on everything from budgeting, choosing and acquiring supplies and scheduling production work to discerning good and bad fonts, arranging text with photos and selecting the best material for mounting exhibits.
“Many of the students are new to the design/production aspect of museum work. It’s great working with them, because it’s an opportunity to encourage best practices. Peter takes the time to have them meet me, and then I give them my spiel. They hear me describe design and production methods to follow or consider, and they see the different materials and our workplace,” Varcados says.
“I feel that if I pass on little elements of layout wisdom, and explain why we care about how it looks, then that trickle-down is well worth it,” she adds. “The students who are really considering museum work take note, and are soon practicing it and more sensitive to it.”
Later, “as the show develops, the students come by with files, USB drives with images, changes to layouts and an array of production concerns,” she says. “I visit the installation site at least once.”
Varcados considers browsing through the final exhibition “a gift.”
“My father was an historian, and he took us on touring sabbaticals every seven years,” she says. “I’ve been to many museums.”
Varcados, and countless others like her, offer a critical outsider’s perspective with a nurturing touch.
“The program gives you an idea of the real people who are actually doing these jobs in the museum field,” Stewart says. “You get to hear their stories, and almost all of them had a real roundabout way of getting in to the field. I think that’s really interesting: You don’t have to do your studies in the museums field, but you can get there later in life. A couple had retail backgrounds. One had worked for Macy’s, creating these large, intricate window displays.”
THE ARRIVAL OF SUMMER moves the hands-on component even further in the “real world.”
Sara Fitzpatrick is a collections intern at the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum in Union, Ill.
Since May 18, the Naperville native has been restoring and cataloguing much of the women’s clothing contained in the museum’s textiles and garments bases.
“Something that I love when I work in all museums is that I’m physically able to hold history, which is very important to me,” Fitzpatrick says. “You can learn a lot about something by physically seeing it and holding it in your hands.”
A graduate of the University of Iowa, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and ancient civilizations, Fitzpatrick already holds a certificate in museum studies from her alma mater.
But the NIU graduate student in anthropology found no downside in earning a second one in DeKalb.
“It’s been fantastic. It’s just enhanced my knowledge,” she says. “Through the program, you have the ability to experience every single aspect of working in a museum, whether it’s collections, exhibitions or administration.”
Fitzpatrick grew up dreaming of a job at the Field Museum in Chicago, but her experiences during the last nine months have adjusted her direction. “When you’re in a big museum, you’re stuck in one area all the time,” she says. “I want the ability to grow. I currently would love to be a director in a small museum.”
Her current boss, McHenry County Historical Society Administrator Kurt Begalka, knows what that job entails.
Begalka also realizes the quality of preparation Fitzpatrick is receiving: Kira Halvey, exhibit/collection curator at the McHenry County Historical Society, graduated from NIU in 2007 with a degree in anthropology and holds the museum studies certificate as well.
“I am extremely proud of work that we do here at the society and the county history museum. For a small institution, with just three full-time staff, we have been able to achieve a lot – thanks to a dedicated board and a cadre of volunteers who embrace our mission and our unwavering desire to preserve local history for future generations,” Begalka says.
“I would like nothing better than to create a pipeline from NIU’s Museum Studies program to the McHenry County Historical Society – a mutually beneficial relationship in which graduates can gain some hands-on experience working in a fun and dynamic environment,” he adds. “And we also can tap into students’ creativity and expertise to move our nonprofit organization forward.”
Michelle Stewart is spending an entire year someplace far from home: Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, Ct. Weir Farm is one of only two sites within the National Park Service that focus primarily on the visual arts.
“Next year is the centennial of the National Park Service, so they created this position to help engage with the community and to bring in more volunteers to work at the parks,” Stewart says, adding that she expects to plan some events related to the 100th anniversary and around other holidays.
The next 12 months will provide what she considers the final brick in her educational foundation.
“I feel like I could enter the workforce now, but I want more experience before I start my first real job,” she says. “Being away from campus in the ‘real world’ – you can get that experience with a summer-long internship, but you can get a lot more in a year. When you have a three-month internship, by the time you really get rolling, it’s over. I’m excited for the experiences I will have this year.”
Engagement “is one of the aspects I haven’t had as much experience in,” she adds, “and when I go to find a real job, I don’t know which area of museum work I’d like to end up in. I enjoy collections work, but depending on the museum, you may be working in a basement. You don’t get to interact with the public – and I like those interactions.”
HER WORDS ARE AFFIRMATION to Van Ael’s ears.
Part of the NIU Museum Studies program since 2005 and coordinator since 2010, he already knows that it works.
Among the faculty are Stanley Arnold, Alex Aubry, Sinclair Bell, Bob Carter, Jennifer Kirker-Priest, Amy Levin, Dave Oberg, Peter Olson, Catherine Raymond, Brian Reis and Pamela Rohleder.
Winner of several awards from the Illinois Association of Museums, the program boasts alums working everywhere from the Ellwood House Museum, the Flagg Township Museum and the Elk Grove Village Historical Museum to the Field Museum and the Mark Twain House and Museum.
Students also have provided consulting services to the Boone County Historical Museum on facilities use and collections interpretation; that collaboration led directly to one student landing a job to reinterpret the museum’s permanent military exhibition galleries.
Meanwhile, every autumn’s unexpected exhibitions keep it fresh for Van Ael and relevant for the students.
“Our program really prepares students for what they are going to face in a museum, although museums don’t have the constraint of an academic calendar. For what might take three to six months at a museum, we have about nine to 10 weeks,” Van Ael says.
On the other hand, he says, “museum work requires flexibility. You never really know ahead of time at most institutions what you’ll be working on. Museum Studies is really about developing a broad and responsible skillset to tackle any kind of situation that might come your way – to not have any preconceived notions; to have a willingness to try and fail, and to do it better next time.”
Fitzpatrick is ready.
“Working in museums, you experience so many things. You might be putting up an exhibition one week, and the day before, you could have a leak that could ruin everything,” she says. “You just have to take the punches, go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff.”