Continuing with the new A Writer’s Guide… series, check out this article by author Virginia Soenksen on being an Art Historian.
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Art Historians and Museums
by Virginia Soenksen
Introduce yourself as an art historian who works in a museum and you will immediately elicit an impressed expression from your audience followed by a blank one.
While most people associate the job with being educated and (somewhat) cultured, chances are no one outside of the field will understand what you do all day and why you get paid to do it.
The following is a cheat-sheet to being an art historian, and museum work in general in the United States.
What is art history?
Art history is the study of works of visual art within their historical and stylistic contexts; in other words, learning why a work of art looks the way it does, what outside forces influenced its creation, and how it connects with other works of art and elements of a culture.
Art historians are expected to know the “canon,” a collection of celebrated artistic works from prehistory to now deemed of great importance to humanity.
In addition to this broad knowledge, art historians specialize in time periods, cultures, and mediums; this specialization is typically developed in graduate school based on the historian’s academic interest.
For example, my specialization is in Japanese art history with an emphasis on textiles. While I don’t always get to focus on this for work, this is what I focus on for professional lectures and publications.
All art historians require education; this isn’t a field where you can study on your own and expect to get a job.
Start with a four-year Bachelor’s degree (which does not necessarily have to be in art history or even arts-related), then add one two-year Master’s degree in art history from a reputable program.
Expect the Master’s program to be small, intense, and sometimes brutal. Graduate professors want students who will contribute to the field, and will do their best to mold you into a competent professional.
Many graduate students teach undergraduate students or work in internships or in entry-level museum jobs while they pursue their degree.
If you want to be a museum director or teach at a university level, you will also need to pursue a PhD in Art History, which typically takes five to seven years. While it’s still common for curators to have PhDs as well, this trend is shifting so that it’s not necessarily a requirement.
Because you will rarely, if ever, be paid to sit around and produce pure art history without practical application, education isn’t enough; art historians also need real-world experience.
Many gravitate to museums, galleries, archives, historic houses, or private collections based on their area of interest. Working in museums can be challenging, as competition for all jobs is fierce and compensation is not always reflective of the expense, time, and rigor of graduate school.
But museum work offers a way for art historians to educate the public and advocate for a field of study about which they are hugely passionate (to say nothing of the attractiveness of regular publications in the form of museum catalogues).
Art historians are, across the board, intellectually curious people. They enjoy learning, as well as educating others.
They also enjoy writing and have to do a staggering amount of writing on a daily basis. The exhibition text you see on the walls of museums, the audio guide you enjoyed, the tour given when you go as a group—chances are an art historian wrote it.
The ability to understand written foreign languages is necessary, and the language is usually (but not always) connected with their area of specialization.
For example, I need to be able to muddle through written Japanese for scholarly purposes, but I took my graduate school language proficiency test in French. Est-ce que j’utilise le français régulièrement? Non, mais je pourrais!
Visual literacy, the ability to make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, is another skill all art historians possess.
They typically have a sharp eye for detail, keen powers of observation, and the ability to memorize specific artistic and cultural details. These are the people want them on your trivia team, trust me.
Public speaking is usually a requirement of the field, especially if you work in a museum where public programs like lectures and tours are de rigueur.
You need to be able to eloquently articulate why people should care about various types of art without freezing up, so art historians are usually good conversationalists as well.
Charm and good social etiquette also go a long way, whether you are speaking with colleagues, patrons, or visitors.
The tasks an art historian does depends on their job title. Again, unless you are enjoying the sweet life in academia, rarely will you ever be paid to do pure art historical work. Instead, most art historians apply their training and skills within the workplace.
While I self-identify as an art historian, I’ve had a huge variety of job titles. I’ve been a docent coordinator, meaning I focused on training volunteer guides on how to give effective tours.
I’ve been a curator of interpretation, focused on crafting audio guides, education resources, and public programs. Currently, I’m an associate director, overseeing things like budgets, exhibitions, and helping our museum fit into the larger university.
While each job I’ve had has a slightly different focus, they all fit into a larger goal of helping visitors understand and make personal connections with works of art, and hopefully become lifelong supporters of the museum.
All museums are concerned with relevancy, how to be important to the public in an age when they are no longer the only reliable sources of information. As such, museum employees usually take a visitor-centric approach to whatever they do.
Art historians use their eyes, first and foremost. The image of an art historian in a museum basement wearing gloves and carefully examining works of art in person is still very much a reality. Despite the leaps and bounds, digital photography has made, there is still no substitute for seeing works of art in person.
There are also a number of ways art historians can learn more about works of art using technology; using X-rays to see underlying damage or the various layers comprising a work of art, UV radiation to analyze varnish and paint, and chemical analysis of pigment samples to determine paint composition. These types of analysis are typically carried out with the help of a conservator.
Art historians work primarily as part of a team of professionals. When planning exhibitions (public displays of artwork), art historians may work with exhibition designers, graphic designers, collections managers, art handlers, and others.
In this context, the art historian is the content expert and will typically write text and determine the “story” of the exhibition, but will listen to and be dependent on the expertise of their colleagues to execute their ideas.
Museums are amazing places to work, though not always as glamorous as people think they are.
An art historian working in a museum will work in a cubicle or small office (usually packed with books related to upcoming exhibitions) and is usually tied to a computer writing exhibition text, reading emails, or crafting lectures.
Typically, office areas are located in the basement or upper floors of the museum itself, usually accessible via a swipe badge.
These “behind-the-scenes” areas are usually highly collaborative in nature, with colleagues popping in and out of offices, frequent meetings, and people texting or calling others with urgent questions.
Multitasking is usually the only constant; I might be writing text on the history of animation at the same time I’m recording an audio tour of Aboriginal Australian art and preparing for a panel discussion on Japanese armor.
Learning to compartmentalize and shift gears quickly is a skill every museum employee learns on the job.
Day in the Life
There is no typical day in the life for me, which is one reason why I enjoy what I do. But here’s a good example of a very busy day I had last year during an exhibition opening:
Arrive at 8:30 am, get caffeinated, then carry training material down to the galleries and meet the docents (volunteer guides) and the guest curator who will lead a walk-through of a new exhibition. Introduce the curator, and observe the walk-through, keeping an eye on the time.
When the walk-through is done, take the curator to meet with other colleagues. Attend several meetings on the next exhibition that will open as well as an exhibition two years down the road.
Contribute as needed, then attend a staff meeting to work with department members on an upcoming free day at the museum.
Eat lunch in five minutes, go back to the desk and craft the guest curator’s introduction for the lecture that evening.
More coffee, edit exhibition text and send comments to the in-house editor. Freshen makeup and change into heels, go down to auditorium and conduct sound check with AV techs and guest curator.
Make sure everything is ready to go for the lecture, work with security guards to keep the audience from entering the auditorium before we’re set to go.
Open doors and help get audience members settled, answer questions and instruct interns as needed. Introduce the speaker, observe the lecture and make sure everything runs smoothly.
Take the speaker out to dinner afterwards, keeping them entertained and relaxed so they will pass the word around the field that our museum is a great place to work with. After dropping them off, go home and collapse in bed around midnight.
That weekend, work on writing text for a professional book project, but thankfully do it in sweatpants on the couch.
That is my field in a nutshell; it is a demanding, often exhausting profession. But I truly love what I do.
I’m surrounded by beauty on a daily basis, my mind is constantly stimulated and challenged, and I get to help people get excited about an aspect of life they often take for granted. It’s been a long journey, but I’m glad I went down this road.
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Virginia Soenksen is an art historian specializing in Japanese art history, and is currently an associate director of the Madison Art Collection and Lisanby Museum at James Madison University.
In addition to her art historical publications, she loves writing sci-fi and fantasy, and is the author of The Titan Strain, the first book in the Genetics Chronicles (Sunbury Press).
Follow her on social media @vmsoenksen and visit her website to learn more about upcoming projects: www.virginiasoenksen.com
Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation? Would you like to be part of the Resource Team?
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All the “A Writer’s Guide” articles will be linked to their new page for easy access. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for Virginia, please drop them in the comments below.