In the first few days of my sophomore year at Brown, I sat down for a meeting with Matthew Gutmann, then the undergraduate advisor for the department of Anthropology, to review my coursework plans as a newly-declared concentrator. We discussed my interests and the fact that I was also concentrating in the History of Art and Architecture, and Professor Gutmann told me that there was a class I needed to take. He warned me that the professors might not seem inclined to give me a spot, since I was young and it was a graduate seminar, but that I should talk my way into the room no matter what.
I returned to the department a few days later and nervously boarded a van to Bristol, unsure of exactly what to expect. Shepard Krech and Kevin Smith, then director and still deputy director (respectively) of the Haffenreffer, did not hesitate over my sophomore (although hopefully never sophomoric) status, but welcomed my eager presence along with my more senior classmates in the tandem seminars Museums and Material Culture and Exhibitions in Museums.
I called my parents the evening after our first meeting, filled with joy in the discovery that some people actually got to work in museums and that I could be one of them. As ridiculous as it now seems, given my lifelong love of museums, it had truly never crossed my mind that such an option existed. My mother laughed until she cried that none of us had foreseen such an obvious conclusion. I’m sure that, then and there, she augured the next decade of my life in the delight in my voice. Over the course of the year, we learned what museum work looked like, as Shep, Kevin, and the curatorial and design staff of the museum guided our education both on the subject itself—the diversity of African spiritual beliefs—and on the selection and staging of the collection objects we worked with. The resulting exhibition, Believing Africa, opened in May 2006 and was the second held in Manning Hall, then the Haffenreffer’s satellite location on campus.
That year set the course for my life. I spent the summer after my junior year interning at the Museum of Modern Art in the photography department (even then the area I knew would be my focus), and returned to the Haffenreffer my senior year for an unorthodox thesis that coupled the traditional paper with an exhibition on the same subject. Featuring 18th- to 20th-century masks from Mexico and Guatemala, Dancing Tradition, Masking Change, which opened in April of 2008, explored masked dance traditions rooted in Pre-Columbian ritual but veiled within Western traditions.
The department told me it was the first time an undergraduate student had curated an exhibition in fulfillment of their degree requirements. I’m not sure whether or not that was true, perhaps in recent years it was, but I will be forever grateful for the incredible, hands-on experience. Shep, Kevin, Thierry Gentis, and Rip Gerry guided me through the process of constructing an exhibition, from research and material development to exhibition design and installation, to education and communications. I was privy to literally every detail and decision, with a degree of transparency that has been practically unparalleled in subsequent experience at museums large and small.
After graduating from Brown, I went on to get a Master’s degree in the History of Art from Williams College, and have continued to work in curatorial departments at the Williams College Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and, finally, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where I was Assistant Curator of Photography. This fall I have come back to Brown as a doctoral student in the History of Art and Architecture department. My decision to return rested in part on my understanding of the breadth and generosity of the museum community at Brown. Even then, I think we all knew that I would ultimately be moving towards the art history side of my double-concentration, but that didn’t seem to matter. The staff of the Haffenreffer did their best by me, feeding my curiosity and fueling my dedication to curatorial work. The knowledge and practices they instilled were transferable, even if my subject has changed. My director of graduate studies recently mentioned that the Practicum course, a requirement of the program, will likely be held at the Haffenreffer next fall. It feels good to be home.