Published: March 15, 2001.
Bringing the Curatorial Process to the Web
The Seattle Art Museum's "My Art Gallery" Web site was born out of an actual experiment in the galleries of the museum itself. The project was called "Growing Up With Art" and was funded by a four-year grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. SAM invited sixth-grade classes from local schools into the museum to curate two exhibitions using the museum's permanent collection. It was a project requiring collaboration from many corners of the institution - curators, educators, and registrars - as well as teachers and students in the public schools. Achieving an actual exhibition in the museum's galleries after only a ten-week lesson was an ambitious goal. Educators and a curatorial associate developed lessons for the students that would take them step by step through a "curatorial process." This process was designed to incorporate key elements of a curator's exhibition-development process and to tie into a sixth-grade curriculum as well as Washington State learning objectives.
The very nature of this project was clearly experimental and brought up many issues within the museum about the display of art and the role of the museum in relation to its community. Because of the intense time commitment and expense required for the project, the museum was able to give this experience to only a limited group of sixth-grade students. Not wanting to retire our efforts to the archives, we turned to the Internet as a way to extend a version of the unique experience to a wider audience.
As the project was winding down, SAM had completed the transfer of its object collection data to a new system, allowing the data to be accessed through the Web. Using the Web to engage our audience with the permanent collection became a new possibility. The idea was to build a Web site where students could be introduced to the elements of the curatorial process online: a process of visual analysis that includes observation, questioning, research, comparison, and label writing. Students, specifically in grades 6-10, could create a virtual exhibition by choosing from the group of works used in the actual student-curated exhibition and writing the results of their research and observations into a database-driven notebook. The notes and images would then dynamically generate html pages displaying their work. As a reward, students could pick their own gallery backdrops for their exhibition and send "gallery opening" emails to friends and family.
This paper will explore the transformation of classroom curriculum into an engaging, Web-friendly, interactive experience, pointing out the Web-management and structural-design challenges that were faced to achieve this goal. Similar to the program that resulted in the physical exhibitions, the Web site project was ambitious; it required museum staff to work collaboratively and face new issues that were pushed to the forefront by this medium.