Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Campus Curates at Vanderbilt University Library

Wall Graphic for The Campus Curates; photo by Amy Bridgeman

Wall Graphic for The Campus Curates; photo by Amy Bridgeman

by Celia Walker, Director of Special Projects, Vanderbilt University Libraries

Vanderbilt University’s libraries revamped their exhibition program in 2010 in conjunction with a renovation to the 1941 Central Library. Inset exhibition cases were installed in the main lobby, replacing card catalogs that had not been updated for decades, along with pedestal cases in the lobby and second floor Gallery. Nine interactive touchscreens, an exterior LED exhibit and online website were also added to encourage discovery and engagement with the library’s collections. Librarians and a handful of faculty served as curators during the first five years of the program, giving our core exhibition team the opportunity to refine the workflow, improve the case design and develop our own exhibition skills.


Art of the Book, Central Lobby; photo by Jon Erickson

Last year, in conjunction with a new university academic strategic plan, the exhibits team began to discuss how to use the exhibits to support instruction. Yvonne Boyer, library liaison for art, French, and Italian, curated exhibitions in the past, and reached out to Professor Elizabeth Moodey, an expert on illuminated manuscripts, to discuss the possibility of connecting one of her classes with the exhibition program. Dr. Moodey responded enthusiastically, suggesting her History of Art 2288: Art of the Book class. Here’s the description from her syllabus:

“Illuminated manuscript (literally “hand written”) books are arguably the most characteristic objects of the European middle ages, but contemporary artists have also responded to the challenge of making a book by hand. This course will consider the changing material and visual make-up of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and through them questions of literacy and audience, the mutation and popularity of certain texts and illustrations, the various contributions of script and picture, and the concerns of patron and artist. We will explore how much the impact of a work depends on the arrangement of words on the page, looking at examples from medieval grid-poems and pictorial initials, the Arts and Crafts revival of the book arts, Dada and Futurist publications, and contemporary artists’ books.

“The course’s main goal will be to mount an exhibition, working with medieval and modern material in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections. Each student will choose and research works for the exhibition. Each will also work in greater depth on two shorter projects: 1) a catalogue entry on a medieval manuscript leaf from Special Collections that considers its historical context and 2) a catalogue entry on a modern work in Special Collections that considers it in relation to the tradition of handmade books.”

Our exhibits team used the fall semester to plan the new workflow for the class, working with Dr. Moodey to identify deadlines for exhibition components and opportunities for exhibit staff to share curatorial skills in the classroom. While the professor was very generous in sharing her class time, we were mindful of her pedagogical needs and tried to maximize the time we shared in the classroom. Library staff provided expertise on exhibit design (Charlotte Lew), writing labels for a broad audience (Mary Anne Caton), metadata and standards (Sara Sterkenburg), using Omeka and interactive technology (Carla Beals), and copyright (Cliff Anderson). We used one whole class to bring three curators from local museums to the library to talk about why we curate exhibitions. We also committed two full classes to layouts with the students, using mocked up areas of a spare room to help students visualize their space, and two classes for the installation. The exhibits team also included subject liaison Yvonne Boyer, a key figure who worked with the students on each step of the project.

Art of the Book Students Prepare Exhibit Layouts, Photo by Charlotte Lew

Art of the Book Students Prepare Exhibit Layouts, Photo by Charlotte Lew

In the fall, we asked Dr. Moodey to preselect a number of the items she felt would be used in the spring exhibition to allow us to scan, photograph and create metadata for those items before class began. The images of artists’ books and medieval texts from the library’s Special Collections were uploaded to Omeka and to Box so that students could see reproductions after Special Collections was closed. While we did have additional items to reproduce for the touchscreens and website, this initial work helped enormously.

Students learned how to identify and describe objects that tell a story and to present them in engaging ways.

Students learned how to identify and describe objects that tell a story and to present them in engaging ways.  The process led some to interview book artists whose works were on display.  At the semester’s end, students presented in front of their library cases during a reception. The students’ presentations were recorded and posted to the web and interactive touchscreens. The exhibition email announcement resulted in a high rate of emails opened and we were contacted by Nashville Arts Magazine who sent a reporter to write an article on the exhibition, broadening our audience. The exhibition was also promoted in the Vanderbilt Fall Family Weekend brochure and will be part of a panel discussion at the Southeastern Museums Conference in Charlotte and the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association in Pasadena this fall. We have also received positive and encouraging emails from fellow librarians who have seen the website.

Sharon Si Presents on Her Case for “Art of the Book”; photo by Charlotte Lew

Sharon Si Presents on Her Case for “Art of the Book”; photo by Charlotte Lew

Dr. Hanna Roman, Professor of French Literature, also expressed interest in curating an exhibition in her graduate seminar last spring for her French 8040: Eighteenth-Century Literature: Rethinking the Enlightenment Novel, thanks again to Yvonne Boyer. The graduate students worked with the Morris Wachs Collection from the Library’s W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies, along with loans from the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery and Special Collections to curate Sensuality and Textuality: Experiencing the 18th Century Book, exploring the connections between the physical forms of the books and the culture of the period. Dr. Roman’s group followed the same procedures as the undergraduate history of art class and presented at the combined exhibition opening reception.

Bonnie Griffith, Sensuality and Textuality; photo by Jon Erickson

Bonnie Griffith, Sensuality and Textuality; photo by Jon Erickson

We utilized the idea of student work in other library exhibitions that spring. Of the 49 cases we curate, 22 were focused on student projects. Signage was used to group the exhibits around a common theme, The Campus Curates.

The process was a learning experience for our team, and we were inspired by the positive responses from the students in their after class surveys. This summer, we met with the staff of the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, who lent expertise and objects to both projects while they were organizing their own classroom exhibition. We compared what worked and what did not and thought about ways to collaborate more broadly. For those planning to start such a program, we encourage you to plan ahead. While most faculty are aware of the value of experiential learning, they need a lot of time to work an exhibition into their syllabus as a culminating assignment. A number of my colleagues at Duke, California Polytechnic, the University of Florida, and in other universities are already working in this area. They have always been generous with their advice and support. I hope anyone interested in the idea will also feel free to contact me.

We plan to offer student-curated exhibitions again next year and are spreading the word to faculty about this opportunity. We also have plans to add a target to the cases to allow visitors to hear the students talk about their cases with the tap of a smart mobile device. With a wonderful team that is willing to change things up and supportive leadership, I feel confident that the library’s exhibition program will continue to be a positive part of the students’ academic life, enhancing the collaborative experience at Vanderbilt University.

The exhibition, composed of seven cases, two interactive touchscreens and a website, is on display until March 2017 at Vanderbilt University’s Central Library.

Additional Resources


celiaCelia Walker is the director of special projects at Vanderbilt University Libraries. Prior to becoming a librarian, Celia was the senior curator of American art at Nashville’s Cheekwood Museum. Her current research interests include the role of experiential learning in libraries and the history of art in Tennessee.

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