Changing the Conversation
Collaboration across the museums and the community is shaping the future of Carnegie Museums.
By Julie Hannon
Just two weeks on the job and Edith Doron’s desk is covered in Post-it notes. When an intriguing topic comes to mind or is tossed around in a meeting, she jots it down. “Art on the Brain, Memory and Perception” and “Totipotency, Plants and Poetics” are two among many. From this sea of paper accumulating to the right of her computer screen, the change agent is mapping ideas—waiting, she says, for a pattern to show itself.
Erin Peters and Edith Doron are charged with helping Carnegie Museums take interdisciplinary thinking to a new level.
Photo: Jim Judkis
“I have to be all over the place right now, I think I’ll listen better that way,” says Doron, senior program manager for nexus projects, a two-year fellowship awarded to Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh through the prestigious American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows Program.
In this new strategic role, Doron, who holds bachelor’s degrees in biology and comparative literature and a doctorate in modern thought and museum studies, is charged with discovering new ways of integrating the arts and science disciplines that define Carnegie Museums. Her challenge: foster a new level of interdisciplinary thinking across the four museums to better leverage assets and provide even more meaningful experiences for audiences.
“We are uniquely situated to show our audiences how the arts and sciences speak to today’s issues, and how they speak to each other.”
- Jo Ellen Parker, Carnegie Museums President
In the short term, this means developing new cross-disciplinary ventures—two to be driven by Doron, and a third to be cultivated as part of a new and robust partnership with the University of Pittsburgh. In the long run, it means changing the way the museums do business.
“Aside from the Smithsonian, few other organizations enjoy the range of disciplines, collections, and expertise that our four Carnegie Museums represent,” says Carnegie Museums President and CEO Jo Ellen Parker. “Together, we engage audiences of all ages and broad interests. We need to capitalize on these strategic assets. We are uniquely situated to show our audiences how the arts and sciences speak to today’s issues, and how they speak to each other.”
Doron, who has spent much of her career building collaborations in children’s museums, acknowledges that she arrived at the museums to find many irons already in the fire. “The question is, how do we do this work better internally and then really make it matter for the visitor?” asks the longtime New Yorker who lived in Scotland for a decade before moving to Pittsburgh this past August. Hers is one of three new positions Parker defines as “catalysts.”
She joins Cecile Shellman, who for the past year has been working to further advance Carnegie Museums’ commitment to diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (and was profiled in the summer 2015 magazine); and Erin Peters, who arrived in late August to a first-of-its-kind, four-year joint position between Carnegie Museums and Pitt.
Peters’ role as assistant curator of science and research and curatorial studies lecturer, respectively, is part of a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Pitt’s department of history of art and architecture. Anchoring what Pitt has coined the Pittsburgh Constellation Consortium, the funding is designed to spur collaborative research and public engagement among the city’s rich collections of art and artifacts, starting with Carnegie Museums.
For Peters, who specializes in Roman Egypt and recently received her doctorate in art history from the University of Iowa, the challenge is to think more broadly about how Pitt’s art history program and the museums can work together to achieve mutually beneficial goals. “The humanities and museums are both moving in new and really exciting directions,” says Peters.“Thinking about their futures together, bringing people together and talking about ideas—not necessarily knowing they have some of the same ideas—and building on that, can be really powerful.”
It’s a natural fit for the longtime Oakland neighbors, says Barbara McCloskey, chair of Pitt’s department of history of art and architecture. “This partnership is a congruence of both interests,” she says. “There are really vast opportunities, and that’s what we’re going after, the untapped potential.”
Carnegie Museums is interested in working across its collections—22 million scientific specimens and 40,000 art objects strong— to build tomorrow’s audiences. Pitt wants its museum studies students to have a practical leg up in navigating the changing landscape of the museum world, and Carnegie Museums, McCloskey says, is the ideal place to learn.
“As the museums know, making collections more accessible is how you bring the public into your institutions and also how you generate new knowledge,” says McCloskey. “The museums have extraordinary collections, and we’ve got students who are ready, able, and willing to pursue research.”
Those same students, guided by Peters, can also help the museums see their future through the fresh eyes of the next generation of museum visitors and supporters. Starting in the spring, Peters will teach an introduction to museums course at Pitt, using the four Carnegie Museums as a living laboratory. She’ll also supervise a small team of student interns working across the museums.
“Because Carnegie Museums includes four distinct museums with different holdings and ways of operating, it’s the perfect model,” says Peters. “We’ll explore what is typically an art museum and how does Carnegie Museum of Art navigate that; and what is typically a natural history museum and how does Carnegie Museum of Natural History navigate that, and so on. How do we work together in this sort of older model of classification and separation and move beyond it to connection?”
Consider, for example, Egyptian art and artifacts. Even though the objects are from the same location and same time period, notes Peters, Carnegie Museums houses the ancient treasures in two different museums—which share a building—and they’re displayed in completely different ways.
“We’ll talk about what this tells us about museums and how they communicate messages,” says Peters. “How display lighting, what museums call objects, and how much information you put around objects creates an idea of what those objects are.”
It’s likely the students will even help the museum prototype elements of exhibitions, bringing the visitor into the process from the start, says Peters.
As these kinds of relationships continue to build—among the museums and between the museums and other organizations, such as Pitt—it’s all about changing the conversation, Parker says. “These catalyst positions haven’t been created so much to do something for us as to influence and shape the way we do most things we do.”