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Students meet shut-down challenge with virtual senior show

April 14th, 2020

Emma Girton and Elizabeth Friesen Birky

As seniors across the country scramble to complete final projects under extraordinary circumstances, Emma Girton and Elizabeth Friesen Birky face one of the bigger challenges.

[Note: To see the complete Q&A with the student curators, scroll down.]

As college seniors across the country scramble to complete final projects under extraordinary circumstances, two from Bethel College face one of the bigger challenges.

What do you do when your project, by definition, is meant for people to visit and look at – and everything is closed?

Elizabeth Friesen Birky, Denver, and Emma Girton, Wichita, are both completing Individualized Majors at Bethel in art history. In addition, Friesen Birky has an additional major in communication arts.

Almost literally at the same hour as the two finished their co-curated senior exhibit “Meta: An Exhibition about Exhibitions,” the staff of Bethel’s Kauffman Museum, where the exhibit is mounted, decided to close the museum to the public.

“We were working on getting the exhibit put together basically until the last possible moment,” Girton says. “When it became clear that we were likely not going to be able to have all of the celebrations and exciting pieces that come along with opening an exhibit, we were for sure pretty bummed out.”

However, she says, “We were committed to maintaining our opening deadlines whether people would be able to actually come into the museum or not. Luckily, the team at Kauffman Museum, especially [2019] Bethel graduate Rebecca Schrag, really had a vision and a goal to make sure that what we had been working on would still be seen.”

“I think it’s fair to say we are both still disappointed that this could not happen [as we had envisioned],” Friesen Birky adds, “but we are so very thankful for the creative and quick-thinking museum staff, who helped us figure out ways to show off our hard work virtually.

“Rebecca Schrag worked hard to create a quality virtual exhibition experience [using] Google Tour Creator.”

“It's open-source software that turns Google Earth photos or your own 180- or 360-degree photos into virtual reality,” Schrag explains. “Without … a 360-degree camera or expensive software, we were able to import iPhone panorama photos into Google Tour Creator and create a virtual space.

“Elizabeth and Emma's narration in the exhibit is the best part of the virtual exhibit,” she says. “I really enjoy ‘hearing’ from the curators in this way. All their [text] from the exhibit is [presented] as audio commentary to the virtual museum visitor as you look at the exhibit space with ambient music in the background.”

The virtual tour for “Meta: An Exhibition about Exhibitions” is at https://tinyurl.com/metavirtualexhibit

The curators’ statement for the exhibit explains the thinking behind “Meta.” 

“Museums are public spaces that reflect societal standards and aesthetic preferences of a given cultural society. Within museums, exhibition styles communicate insight into this as well.

“‘Meta’ offers a glimpse into four of the most influential and creative exhibition styles from years past: Cabinet of Curiosities, Salon Style, Partial Context and White Cube. Within these four particular design styles, we seek to show how styles and expectations of museum displays have changed, remained and morphed over time to communicate different messages to the public.”

“Both Emma and I have found ourselves interested in museum display and the idea of how artifacts are arranged, chosen – or not chosen – and the reasoning behind these intentional choices,” Friesen Birky says.

“Exhibitions so often deal with understanding artifacts and works of art, but this is the first I have seen that goes in a different direction, to better understand how and why artifacts and works of art are typically displayed for the public. It’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes look into the world of museum curating.”

“This is a topic that I’m not sure has ever been delved into before,” says Girton. “I think it has been really rewarding, and hopefully [will be] meaningful to the greater audience.”

Girton and Friesen Birky already had experience working together, and collaborating with the staff at Kauffman Museum, to create an exhibit.

As members of the Curatorial Studies class taught by Rachel Epp Buller, Ph.D., Bethel associate professor of visual arts and design, they helped develop the award-winning “Campaign for a New China: Looking Back on Posters from the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976,” last spring.

“Whereas we were on a curatorial team for ‘Campaign for a New China,’ Emma and I were given free range on ‘Meta,’” Friesen Birky notes. “We came up with the concept, we went into [the museum’s] back storage and chose artifacts, and we were the ones who communicated our vision to the museum staff.

“As senior undergraduate students, we were given a lot of freedom as well as responsibility to pull off a well-executed exhibition. I am so thankful to our professor, Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, as well as to the entire staff at Kauffman, for believing in our capabilities as students and for pushing us to take on this new challenge and experience.”

“While our previous exhibit was focused around us learning the process of writing labels and selection of artifact groups, we did not have a great deal of say on the subject matter,” Girton adds. “I would say that working as student curators on ‘Campaign for a New China’ really helped us gain confidence and start the groundwork in preparing us to work in a museum format of creating an entire exhibit as we did for ‘Meta.’

“Additionally, all of the objects in the exhibition were pulled from Kauffman Museum storage, and this was a really good way for us to finally display a lot of the fascinating artifacts they don’t get to [show] very frequently.

“Some of these artifacts even go back to the original museum of Charles Kauffman, so this is a really good look into all the treasures that we got to go through in the creation of this exhibit.” 

Says Friesen Birky, “This process of student curating has never been a partnership that has been explored previously, so I’m glad we have been able to test the waters for future students.”

Andi Schmidt Andres, interim director of Kauffman Museum, agrees.

“Providing hands-on, real-life experience for students fits perfectly with Kauffman Museum’s mission,” she says. “We are eager to collaborate with area organizations, whether that is the school district, local businesses or our parent institution Bethel College.”

Epp Buller says, “It’s been exciting to see [Friesen Birky and Girton] leverage that learning into this new project. Both projects have helped them develop skills vital to their eventual museum careers.

“Schools and museums around the country are figuring out creative ways to showcase exhibitions and student work in the midst of widespread closure. Ultimately, this [virtual tour] will help ‘Meta’ have a longer shelf life and make it accessible to future online visitors.”

Schrag adds, “My goal is that their hard work from the semester can be showcased and hopefully their exhibition can reach new audiences it hadn’t been able to before.” 

“This has been a bit frustrating [for us as curators],” Friesen Birky says, “and I still feel like virtual visitors will not get the full effect they would viewing the exhibit in person at the museum. Ideally, a virtual experience would have been developed over more time.

“Despite this, I am thankful for the available technology we do have. This experience has been a fascinating learning experiment in virtual collaboration, communication, and in learning about another type of exhibition style: virtual exhibitions.”

Both Girton and Friesen Birky have a career goal of continuing in museum work. Girton looks forward to her fourth summer at the Wichita Art Museum, while Friesen Birky will be spending the fall at the Washington Community Scholars’ Center with a museum internship (she hopes for the Smithsonian).

“I’ve so enjoyed having Elizabeth and Emma in classes and conducting directed studies with them on specialized topics,” Epp Buller says, “and I look forward to seeing where their paths lead.”

Kauffman Museum is closed to the public until further notice, but staff continue to work remotely and to answer calls via 316-283-1612 and e-mail. See the Kauffman Museum website (www.bethelks.edu/kauffman/) and follow Kauffman Museum on Facebook and Instagram.

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel is the highest ranked Kansas private college, at #12, in Washington Monthly, Top 200 Bachelor’s Colleges; ranks at #23 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest; is Zippia.com’s highest ranked Kansas small college with the highest earning graduates; stands at #57 among 829 U.S. colleges and universities listed by lendEDU as “Best for Financial Aid”; has the #10 RN-to-BSN program in Kansas according to RNtoBSN.com; and earned its second-straight NAIA Champions of Character Five-Star gold award, based on student service and academic achievement, all for 2019-20. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu Melanie Zuercher

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Q&A with student curators Elizabeth Friesen Birky and Emma Girton

Q. How do you describe “Meta” in your curators’ statement?

A. “Museums are public spaces that reflect societal standards and aesthetic preferences of a given cultural society. Within museums, exhibition styles communicate insight into this as well. ‘Meta’ offers a glimpse into four of the most influential and creative exhibition styles from years past: Cabinet of Curiosities; Salon Style; Partial Context; and White Cube. Within these four particular design styles, we seek to show how styles and expectations of museum display have changed, remained and morphed over time to communicate different messages to the public.

“In demonstrating these different formats, it becomes clear why one form might be more appropriate in some displays than in others. We can thus look into these differing museum forms to understand how the design and curating of exhibitions communicate different but important messages to the viewer, and how the viewer responds, shapes and plays an active role in interpreting and dissecting the received messages. ‘Meta: An Exhibition about Exhibitions’ invites viewers into the process of arranging an exhibition, to see how and why these decisions are made.

“As senior art history and communication arts students, we have co-curated ‘Meta: An Exhibition about Exhibitions’ for our senior seminar project. Given that we are both interested in pursuing careers in the museum world, it has been a fabulous opportunity, working closely with the design team and staff at Kauffman Museum to curate a relevant and well-done exhibition.”

 

Q. What was your original plan behind doing your senior exhibit this way? How did you have the idea to do the exhibit at Kauffman Museum? Why did you decide to do “an exhibit about exhibits”?

EFB: As an art history and communication arts double major, it has been an adventure figuring out how to navigate senior seminar requirements. After many meetings and chats with my three wonderful advisers – Dr. Christine Crouse-Dick, Dr. Rachel Epp Buller and Dr. Mark Jantzen – we figured it would work well if I co-curated an exhibition alongside my art history peer, Emma Girton. In addition, I am writing a more traditional senior seminar research paper.

We decided to do the exhibit at Kauffman Museum for a number of reasons. After successfully co-curating “Campaign for a New China” at the museum last year, we built very valuable relationships with the museum staff.  We were offered a chance to create our own exhibition in the same temporary space that was used for “Campaign for a New China” for our senior exhibit this spring. Emma and I both excitedly accepted this offer and couldn’t wait to take on the challenge of curating our own exhibition as students.

We decided to do “an exhibit about exhibits” because both Emma and I have found ourselves interested in museum display and the idea of how artifacts are arranged, chosen (or not chosen), and the reasoning behind these intentional choices. Exhibitions so often deal with understanding artifacts and works of art, but this is the first exhibition I have seen that goes in a different direction, to better understand how and why artifacts and works of art are typically displayed for the public. It’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes look into the world of museum curation.

EG: As an art history major, there have been a lot of pieces that have been put together in the hopes of coming out the other end with something meaningful and coherent. I think that the art and the history departments have worked together beautifully to help me create an important and really impressive degree. You get the best of both worlds!

This show fulfills a portion of my senior seminar requirements, along with the substantial paper about how these design styles change through time and the audiences that they are meant to cater to.

Kauffman Museum seemed like an amazing opportunity for us to work in. Last year, we got the chance to work there on curating “Campaign for a New China” exhibition, featuring posters from the Cultural Revolution. While we were there, we were offered the chance to fill the space for this spring as well, and because we are not art majors, this seemed like a great alternative to displaying work in the [Regier Art Gallery in Luyken Fine Arts Center] and showcase all that we have been learning.

The concept for “Meta” came about because we were simply really overwhelmed by the range of exhibition styles and where we wanted to go with this display. We decided to just incorporate a full range of exhibition styles, allowing us to both take it a different way for our senior seminar papers, and frankly, this is a topic that I'm not sure has ever been delved into before. I think it has been really rewarding, and hopefully meaningful to the greater audience.

 

Q. When you realized you were not going to be able to do the exhibit “live,” how did you go about deciding the alternative? Who helped with that, and how?

EG: We were working on getting the exhibit put together basically until the last possible moment. When it became clear that we were likely not going to be able to have all of the celebrations and exciting pieces that come along with opening an exhibit, we were for sure pretty bummed out.

We were committed to maintaining our opening deadlines whether people would be able to actually come into the museum or not. Luckily, the team at Kauffman Museum, especially a recent Bethel graduate, Rebecca Schrag, really had a vision and a goal to make sure that what we had been working on would still be seen. She especially has been working tirelessly to create the virtual tour with us so that people can still experience the exhibition even without coming to the museum. 

EFB: As Emma expressed, we were initially quite disappointed with the fact that we would not be able to open “Meta” live to the community and public. I think it’s fair to say we are both still disappointed that this could not happen, but we are so very thankful for the creative and quick-thinking museum staff, who helped us figure out ways to show off our hard work virtually. Kauffman Museum staff, in particular recent Bethel College graphic design graduate Rebecca Schrag, worked hard to create a quality virtual exhibition experience using Google Tour Creator, a free software.

 

Q. What else would you like people to know about this exhibit?

EG: What I want people to know about this exhibit is that this was a really amazing opportunity, and Elizabeth and I are so grateful to have been given the chance and the freedom to really pull this together.

Additionally, all of the objects in the exhibition were pulled from Kauffman Museum storage and this was a really good way for us to finally display a lot of the fascinating artifacts that they don't get to pull out very frequently. Some of these artifacts even go back to the original museum of Charles Kauffman, so this is a really good look into all the treasures that we got to go through in the creation of this exhibit. 

EFB: Exactly what Emma said!

 

Q. What are your plans post-graduation?

EFB: I will be doing an internship in Washington, D.C., through the Washington Community Scholars’ Center in fall 2020. I hope to be placed in a museum (possibly a Smithsonian museum!) but I am not sure exactly where I will be placed yet.

Growing up in a city – Denver – I am so excited to explore a different urban environment and all that D.C. has to offer. I’m interested in learning more about how communication and culture play important roles in museum settings, and I’m confident that my internship will help expand this knowledge.

EG: I have been working with the Wichita Art Museum post-graduation. I have had the chance to work with them for the last three summers so I am happy to be welcomed back once again for my fourth.

 

Q. What would you say you’ve learned from the process of putting this exhibit together (that might be different from working on “Campaign for a New China”), and from having to come up with an alternative? How do you think this will serve you in the future?

EFB: Whereas we were on a curatorial team for “Campaign for a New China,” Emma and I were given free range on “Meta.” We came up with the concept, we went into back storage and chose artifacts, and we were the ones who communicated our vision to the museum staff. As senior undergraduate students, we were given a lot of freedom as well as responsibility to pull off a well-executed exhibition.

I am so thankful to our art history professor, Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, as well as to the entire staff at Kauffman for believing in our capabilities as students, and for pushing us to take on this new challenge and experience. This process of student curating has never been a partnership that has been explored previously, so I’m glad that we have been able to test the waters for future students.

As for the virtual aspect of “Meta,” I have had to be reminded that it is important to remember that there will always be certain disadvantages and flaws using any software in general. You are limited to their rules.

Google Tour has a few flaws, including its photo quality and character limit. This has been a bit frustrating for me as a curator, and I still feel like virtual visitors will not get the full effect that they would viewing the exhibit in person at the museum.

Of course, the quick turnaround time in which we have wanted to get this out to the public in a new way all happened extremely quickly due to our current situation with COVID-19 and the museum closing to visitors. Ideally, a virtual experience would have been developed over more time. Despite this, I am thankful for the available technology we do have. This experience has been a fascinating learning experiment in virtual collaboration, communication, and in learning about another type of exhibition style: virtual exhibitions.

EG: A difference from the work that we did on “Campaign for a New China” was that we really got to hand-pick everything that went into this exhibition. We created this exhibit every step of the way – concept ideas, layout, picking and arranging artifacts, putting everything together within the space. Kauffman Museum really allowed us to push ourselves and create something that was genuinely ours with “Meta.”

While our previous exhibit was focused around us learning the process of writing labels and selection of artifact groups, we did not have a great deal of say on the subject matter. I would say that working as student curators on “Campaign for a New China” really helped us gain confidence and start the groundwork in preparing us to work in a museum format of creating an entire exhibit as we did for “Meta.”

 

Q. What's it like to be finishing a semester online?

EFB: As a senior, I am absolutely devastated by the abrupt ending to my college career. I know other seniors would agree that this is less than ideal and not what we ever dreamed about happening in our last few months of college. Experiences such as this exhibition and senior seminar presentations, etc., were big things that I was looking forward to celebrating and presenting with the support of my professors, peers, friends and family.

In looking for the positive, I have enjoyed being home and spending time outdoors and being together with my family. It’s certainly interesting trying to regain motivation to forge forward with classes, especially after such a chaotic last few weeks. I absolutely understand, though, that this is a historical time for our world, in which we must all do our part to look out for one another and get through this together.

EG: Finishing up our last semester of college online has been a really difficult idea to come to terms with. While I am really impressed at how the college and the museum have both pulled things together so quickly to make the transition to online as seamless as possible, I have to admit it is hard to stay focused.

While it is nice to be around family, I find myself getting a bit stir-crazy sitting in front of a computer all day and trying to work. There is definitely something to be said for face-to-face interaction in learning! All I can do is try to stay positive and finish up the year strong.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.