Discovering the Collection with an Ackland Graduate Intern

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A woman looks at a work of art in a glass case

Before working at the Ackland Art Museum as a Graduate Intern, museums were a mystery to me. As a visitor, I saw only the artworks and the occasional tour guide, and I wondered: How can I see all the artworks a museum collects? What other functions make up a museum? How can I be a part of a museum? Over the past academic year, I have had the opportunity to apply my library science expertise to the Ackland’s collection and education services.

I manage and update attribute terms for the collection management database to enhance the discoverability of artworks. Attribute terms, the equivalent of “subject headings” in the library field, are specific words or phrases used to organize and find artworks in a database by topic. Attribute terms help museum professionals and the public utilize the online database to locate artworks by topic, such as “animal” or “UNC-Chapel Hill.” Although not every museum sees applying attribute terms as a common practice, I consider it a crucial part of collection management. My work helps connect Ackland’s collection to public audiences, especially those who do not speak the language of art or who are unfamiliar with the collection. The project excites me not only because I am able to explore the extensive and diverse permanent collection through my work, but also because I integrate my knowledge from the library and archive fields to make the art more organized and discoverable for all.

As a part of the teaching team, I connect learners with artworks by integrating visual literacy techniques from the academic library setting. As an object-based instructor, I lead learners to engage in visual inventory as the foundation of analysis and thinking, and help them unpack the hidden message of artworks by asking questions like “what do you see?” and “what do you see to make you say that?” I aim to engage learners to examine and evaluate the art, and hopefully all forms of information, through the visual literacy lens, as I anticipate visual literacy will become a new focus in the discussion of information literacy skills. What has surprised me most while teaching at the Ackland is that art education has interdisciplinary applications. For example, I use a back-to-back drawing activity with journalism classes to emphasize communication and recognize different perspectives. I also guide students from the School of Public Health to engage in “systems thinking” by finding the interactions among details in a painting, and relating that experience to the idea of the American healthcare system being greater than the sum of all its individual healthcare functions. My teaching experience has informed me that art is for people, and everyone from every field of study can learn something new and valuable from art.

After working at the Ackland for an academic year, museums are no longer a mystery to me. The Ackland has become my second home. Working with art collections and teaching at the Ackland has been a remarkable learning experience. I hope this experience demonstrates that education has no boundaries, and neither does art.

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Brigitte Yuqiao Cao is the 2019-2020 Ackland Graduate Intern and an MS Library Science candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her interests include archives and records management and non-traditional education.