By: Emma Cieslik
Emma Cieslik is a student at Ball State University studying public history, biology and anthropology. Over the past three years, Emma has worked in museums of different sizes and subject matter, including the McHenry County History Society and Museum, the Midway Village Museum, the Field Museum, the David Owsley Museum of Art, the Dr. Samuel Dr. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, and the National Museum of Natural History. Utilizing her previous training in collections management at the Field Museum, Emma is eager to explore and advance cultural heritage object care and research in museum settings. This experience highlights her efforts to learn more about object care, specifically related to ethnographic objects that mirror her interest in anthropological research.
The Honors College and the David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA) at Ball State University are deeply intertwined in my experience of college. Amid the confusion of freshman year, my first Honors course, HONR 201, asked me to visit DOMA, to select a work of art to research. I spent a quiet Thursday afternoon wandering the galleries, amazed by the hidden gem in the Fine Arts Building. One floor full of ancient and ethnographic objects turned into two floors with Renaissance, Baroque, and Contemporary art. At 4:30 pm, when the museum trundled to a close, I remember not wanting to leave. Little did I know that my first encounter with that museum would spark a college career of engagement with the collection.
One year later, in August 2018, I received an email about an upcoming docent training program meeting at DOMA. Tania Said, the Director of Education at DOMA, explained how the Museum was seeking out new docents, or gallery teachers that led tours for the public. At the very bottom of the email, along with the Communication Center email disclaimers, was the note that the training program could be taken as an Honors colloquium course credit. Curious to learn more, I reached out to Ms. Said about the program, and she offered to develop and lead an Honors colloquium course just for me, focused on the docent training program and a curatorial independent study. With the support of Honors College Dean Dr. Emert, I embarked on a personally tailored Honors colloquium focused on museum education programs, art history research, and gallery teaching.
During my first week of the docent training program, I apprehensively arrived at the museum on fortuitously another Thursday. When I arrived, I was greeted by a compadre of Ball State students and Muncie community members, all eager to learn more and engage with art. Some had worked as docents for years, others, like me, were just beginning. As we took our seats, Ms. Said and Cathy Bretz, the PT Education Program Coordinator at DOMA, projected an image of John Ottis Adam’s painting Poppyland (1901) on the screen. She invited us to take a deep breath, and then posed three simple questions: What do you see? What do you think? What makes you say that?
We began the class with Exercises for the Quiet Eye, which are guided looking activities that ask viewers to look deeply and critically at a work of art. At the time, I felt like I was going through the motions. Of course, I could see red, pink, and orange-hued flowers, but responses from other docents about warmth, rustling grass, and the sound of bees baffled me. Something about the questions they were asking seemed to draw out radically imaginative and engaging thinking, making connections to things beyond the explicitly visible.
The docent training program at the David Owsley Museum of Art taught me to think critically, not only to see and observe but to do so quizzically. This mindset became especially important in my Honors College courses. My HONR 200 sequence with Professor Beth Dalton consistently engaged with ancient and contemporary art in the classroom, asking students those same questions in an implied way. As part of her course, I undertook an art history research project related to Portrait of a Lady (about 1520), by Domenico Puligo. Professor Dalton challenged my peers and I to spend time at the museum sitting in front of the sculpture or painting. She asked us to create space for those questions. To my surprise, as I sat in front of Puligo’s portrait painting, I started to notice the strange positioning of the woman’s hands, the weather outside her window, and her distracted gaze. I found myself moving around the gallery, trying to figure out where she was looking, in fact engaging like I had never done before with canvas and paint.
This critical thinking, however, did not stop after leaving the museum doors. The skills that I learned as part of the docent training program to look critically at visual material further informed my research in and out of the classroom. In my HONR 201 class discussions, I felt myself compelled to ask those same questions when we were discussing literature related to the Ancient Greece or Rome. What do you see in the text that makes you say that? This question compelled me to seek out evidence to support my ideas, to challenge myself on how I had come to my own ideas and how those ideas were being supported by external and internal evidence that I held.
This worldview to question the sources I was encountering was especially helpful in anthropological research, where I looked critically not at art but rather at a city space, Muncie, in order to investigate the realities of Jewish individuals in the Ball State and Muncie communities. In biology and history, I also felt compelled to think critically whenever I approached a source document. What was this reference telling me? What do I see in the text, graph, or chart that makes me say that?
This worldview developed through the docent training program also aided me in my future endeavors at the Museum. At the end of the docent training program, new docents have the opportunity to give their first tour. As the result of an open tour halfway through the first semester, Ms. Said asked if I would take on the challenge of researching, outlining, and delivering the tour several months in advance of the training program’s end. Nervously yet excitedly, I agreed, and I have remained as a DOMA docent ever since. The docent program helped me to realize how much I love museum spaces as places of curiosity, discovery, and open-mindedness. My first tour covered women and art, engaging with ideas of women as seen rather than engaged. My tours since have covered a wide range of topics, including nonverbal communication, ethnographic collections, love and marriage rites, Spanish language learning and more. Even this past May 2020, when DOMA and many other museums were closed due to COVID-19, I gave one of the first virtual docent tours for the Museum.
My eyes had just been opened to the wonders of museum work, and I reached out to Ms. Said about what more I could do to engage with the museum on campus. I am a public history student, so I am required to complete a capstone internship at a museum, cultural resource management institution, or cultural heritage center before graduation, and I found out that DOMA has a fall and spring internship program for Ball State students on campus. I immediately applied to the program and was very excited for the opportunity to learn more about collections management under the mentorship of Denise Mahoney, Registrar and Collections Manager at DOMA. The docent training program had briefly brought the new docents into the collections storage area to introduce the thousands of other objects not only display, but I now had the opportunity to work surrounded by historical, anthropological, and art objects every day.
As a Collections Intern at DOMA in spring 2020, I worked to gain a new skillset in collections management. Over the past two summers, largely as a result of my engagement in the docent program, I pursued internships at historical and natural history museums. In summer 2018, I worked as a Curatorial Intern at the Midway Village Museum in Rockford, Illinois and in summer 2019, I worked as an Anthropology Collections and Conservation Intern at the Field Museum in Chicago.
The experience of working in collections care at an art museum, however, brings its own joys and challenges. During my internship, which lasted January through March 2020, no two of my days were the same. I learned how to catalogue incoming art objects and helped to analyze object condition for incoming art related to the Mexican Modernity exhibition. I utilized Gallery Systems’ EmbARK Collection Management Software to update object files and create new ones. I supported long-term artifact care by measuring light levels for exhibitions, upheld best pest management practices by replacing insect traps through the museum, and prevented silver tarnish by exchanging charcoal strips in the collection cases. I also had the opportunity to conduct literature review related to objects, including an ere ibeji sculpture from southwestern Nigeria and a bone dagger from Papua New Guinea, incorporating my interest in anthropology related to ritual and religious objects. I looked forward to the new triumphs and challenges each day and am very grateful to have had the opportunity to gain new experiences.
My internship unfortunately came to end as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I was inspired to continue my path related to museum and anthropology research. In summer 2020, I reached out to Dr. Diana Marsh, a research anthropologist at the National Anthropological Archives, expressing my interest in collections research and engagement, and she offered me the opportunity to work as an Archival and Wikipedia Intern at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. As an intern, I engaged with increasing inclusion of Wikimedia in museum spaces to highlight collections, gained knowledge about open access and ethical research methods, and learned how Wikipedia can be used to promote greater museum access, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I created 12 new Wikipedia pages documenting the stories of female anthropologists and indigenous community scholars whose knowledge and research is represented in the National Anthropological Archives
At the end of the summer, I was very fortunate that Denise Mahoney offered me the position of Collections Assistant at DOMA for fall 2020, where I am currently working today. My days are still as varied and exciting as the first day of my Collections Internship. Any day, I can be found dusting the museum, recording humidity and temperature levels in the galleries, identifying crates for future loans, creating new portfolios and object records on EmbARK, and more. I am a peer mentor, and every year, I host my peer mentees at the museum to engage with this wonderful gem on campus and to pass on the experience that the Honors College provided to me. My work in museums would not have been possible without that first push by the Honors College to engage with DOMA, and I am very grateful that it has opened my eyes to the wonderful, welcoming world of museum work and anthropological object research.
If you would like to learn more about Emma’s professional experiences, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.