Newswise — Part of the CSU’s mission is “to advance and extend knowledge, learning and culture, especially throughout California.” And, as a statewide institution, its campus museums, galleries and library collections have a unique ability to fulfill this mission by both preserving the state’s shared legacy and introducing the community to cultures, history and people from around the world.
Take a look at how a few of the CSU’s varied cultural institutions are doing that.
“We are a museum that wants to enhance the awareness of the diversity of the human condition,” says William Nitzky, Ph.D., co-director of California State University, Chico’s Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology. “So, that could be anything from our relationship with each other [to] our relationship with the environment [to] our relationship with the past, present and prospective future.”
One way the museum does this is by highlighting the various traditions of its on- and off-campus community. “The mission of serving diverse audiences and telling diverse stories permeates throughout [the museum], from collecting to the exhibition itself and then to the educational programming, so that all of those center around connecting with our community,” the museum’s curator Adrienne Scott says.
It helps the museum elevate local conversations surrounding diversity, especially when a visit to the museum may be the first time many students or community members see their heritage celebrated.
“We've had teachers be very moved by the students in their classroom—who maybe felt like they didn't really have anything to contribute and then suddenly they see their culture on display—and by the pride they feel and the sense of respect and importance that gets conveyed by having [their culture] on display …” Scott says. “When [the students] see it elevated like this, it really changes their perspective and their sense of themselves.”
Its current exhibition—which is now a virtual experience in light of the COVID-19 pandemic—focuses on a local indigenous people group, showcasing basketry from four generations of Mountain Maidu basket weavers.
“We want to integrate as many diverse perspectives as possible into understanding an object, understanding its past, understanding its relationship with us,” Dr. Nitzky says. “That was exactly what was taking place with the Unbroken Traditions exhibit, where we had a handful of basket weavers from the local tribes work collaboratively with us to not only select the baskets that were going to be put on display, but also understand what they are, that they have a life and that they're sacred objects.”
Celebrating people’s different backgrounds also remains central for directors and curators at other CSU museum and galleries, like Mika Cho, Ed.D., director of California State University, Los Angeles’s Ronald H. Silverman Fine Arts Gallery (RHS), which shows work from students as well as local, international and renowned artists.
For example, in 2017 when Dr. Cho first became the gallery’s director, she planned an exhibit of Chicano art and culture featuring work from master art printer Richard Duardo and the late artist Frank Romero (with comedian and actor Cheech Marin as speaker at the opening event). The event brought in an unprecedented number of visitors, and the audience was predominantly Latinx.
“We need to bring to our gallery various artists of diverse backgrounds,” Cho says. “So, slowly I'm adding not just to the student shows and professional exhibitions, but I’m engaging the community in every facet of our exhibitions.”
When educational institutions take on the responsibility of preserving and sharing history and heritage in this way, the decisions behind starting, expanding or displaying collections become vitally important.
“Anytime we're looking at a special collection, I like to think 100 years out,” says Jennifer Fabbi, Ph.D., dean of the University Library at California State University San Marcos. “… Is it something we think will be of value to the curriculum, will be of value to scholars 100 years in the future? Will it be of interest, will it speak to what was happening at the time?”
These are the questions Dr. Fabbi and her team asked as the University Library decided to launch its new Together/Apart: The COVID-19 Community Memory Archive to gather items such as lesson plans, essays, photos and videos documenting life during the pandemic in northern San Diego County.
Because ultimately, these collections aren’t just for the people currently on or around the campus.
“We are collecting information for future researchers, future scholars, future students to ask the archive,” she explains. “They're going to ask the archive the questions about what this was like.”
“It's basically a collection for the future,” says the Gerth Archives Director Greg Williams. “We're all living COVID-19 right now, and what I found is that a lot of people are doing a lot of similar things: staying at home, working at home, doing things at home, then going out for walks and taking photographs of boarded-up buildings and lines of people with masks on. Some people won't [ever] forget this, but other people will. And in 20 years, we'll want to look back.”
Preserving a library collection of primary sources intended for future research will look different from preserving a museum or gallery collection of artifacts or artwork. But, the mission stays the same: conserving shared history and humanity for the education of future generations.
Educate the Community
“You can look at the Smithsonian, you can look at the Getty, you can look at really large, well-endowed institutions, and you have an entire team devoted to PR, to digital content. Obviously as a smaller institution, as a university institution, we have a smaller team, but that doesn't mean our vision is smaller,” Nitzky says. “We're a university institution, so education is first and foremost in our minds.”
The Museum of Anthropology, in particular, has served as an applied learning environment for Chico State’s museum studies students since 1970. “We integrate students into all of our activities—we teach courses, students get training and they're our co-curators in the process,” explains museum co-director Georgia Fox, Ph.D. “In that process of being a teaching museum, we've worked … to practice industry standards for how we care for our collection, how we do community outreach and all the moving parts that museums have today.”
Beyond offering learning opportunities for museum students who intern with the curation team or art students who exhibit their work in the gallery space, CSU museums and galleries also serve as a hands-on educational experience for local K-12 students—whether through tours or classes.
Cal State LA hosts a Saturday Conservatory Program for Los Angeles Unified School District students, which culminates in the Annual Children’s Exhibition at the RHS Fine Arts Gallery that presents the participant’s work.
“I've experienced how important the gallery is as a part of the university and how we can use it as a spot to promote, engage and socialize with people,” Cho says.
But, this educational role proves particularly essential for campus museums located in areas with fewer cultural institutions, like California State University, San Bernardino’s Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art (RAFFMA), known for its collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts.
RAFFMA provides tours of its permanent Egyptian collection for many local sixth grade classes as well as a Kids Discover Egypt summer workshop. “There are very few art museums in the Inland Empire, so we're trying to fill the void,” RAFFMA Director Eva Kirsch says.
Adapt to Change
While the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic drove some institutions to close their spring exhibitions early, it also prompted them to take their exhibitions and educational resources online to continue pursuing their missions.
The Museum of Anthropology is planning to create an online exhibit dedicated to pandemics, their history and their effects on society as well as a 50th anniversary exhibit featuring unique items in its collection. It also introduced web-based activities for children and adults, from online scavenger hunts to essay questions for college students, and transitioned this year’s summer camp to a virtual format.
Similarly, RAFFMA featured an emerging artists exhibition on its website and social media accounts in addition to creating an online experience called RAFFMA@Home. The RAFFMA@Home series is split into four parts: a listen section with audio tours from past exhibitions, a watch section with videos from past events like panels and artist talks, a learn section with children’s activities like crafts and coloring pages and a browse section with a database of artifacts and 360-degree virtual tours of current exhibitions.
“This also gives us an opportunity to look for new ways [to connect with people] because it opens up additional avenues,” Kirsch says. “It's helping us to find new innovative ways to introduce art to people who are not used to it and maybe are even intimidated by it. …. We’re trying to bring in new stories and different angles to things, so people actually open up. You never know when somebody gets hooked on art.”