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Today's museum curators put visitors' interests first

STANFORD -- Soon after she arrived on campus as Stanford's first professional curator of education, Patience Young began to review architectural plans for the renovated Art Museum and new wing that are scheduled to open in fall 1997.

She looked at the room designated for studio space and thought "kilns." As an occasional potter, she envisioned the potential links between museum tours and hands-on modeling, and she began to mentally reconfigure and wire the room so that visitors would have a place to try their hands at clay.

"Whatever goes on in the studio should relate to what people have been looking at in the galleries, and clay is such a universal medium," Young said. "It's an integral part of so many different cultures and can be considered in both functional and sculptural dimensions. To go from the gallery, where you can get a sense of the history and the process of making Cyprian pots, to the studio, where you can get your hands into the material itself -- that's real learning."

As museum directors nationwide are expanding education programs to make their facilities more accessible and more welcoming to surrounding communities, a revolution is taking place in rotundas that have been too quiet and too exclusive for too long.

"In the past, many museums were run by people who were driven by their own interests," Young said. "They became curators because they knew classical Greek or because they'd been botanists and had worked with natural history collections. They were fascinated by provenance, or the history of ownership, and they tended to do a lot of labeling and to go into excruciating detail in their labels, explaining whether a piece had been owned by Louis XVI or Napoleon."

Today's curators, by contrast, are usually art historians with a broad awareness of how visitors approach museums. They not only know how, where, when and why Roman oil lamps were made, but also can encourage visitors to imagine what it must have been like to live in those dimly lit days.

"We've known for a long time that sitting and listening to a lecture is not a natural way for people to learn about art," Young said. "So what we're concerned with today is how people learn, and how we can ask the kinds of questions that will encourage them to learn more. My job is to be an advocate for the visitor."

Young described one type of visitor as someone who "does the casual stroll" -- who wants to spend an hour at a museum and have fun and not be intimidated or told a lot of things. This visitor, she said, is as important to museums as the focused scholar.

"We want to introduce visitors to the things that everyone comes to Stanford to see -- the Rodin sculptures, for example -- and also bring to their attention the things they might walk right past, the intimate and the unusual, what I like to call the 'little treasures,' " she continued. "My great love is to work directly with a piece of art and a group of people for 15 minutes, and encourage them to explore it visually. Because the more time you spend really looking at something, the more you will see in it."

Since she arrived at Stanford two months ago, Young has been listening in on the tours that the museum's docents provide to an estimated 25,000 people each year at the Art Gallery and in more than 100 area schools. During the past 20 years the volunteer docents have developed a reputation for excellence in the community, and Young says she's impressed with the art background and depth of research they bring to their assignments. At the same time, she thinks some fine-tuning can help to strengthen the talks and tours.

"Everyone brings his or her own experience to a museum, and the challenge for us is to find out what is of interest to viewers and engage them on that basis," Young said. "If we try to tell people something that we think is important, but they don't have a reference for it, they could care less. But if we talk to their interests, then they'll remember. We already know our material and we feel comfortable with the art works, but we really need to develop our willingness to listen."

For the past 18 years, Young was curator of education for the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where she promoted community outreach programs. She previously had taught art history at Drew University in Madison, N.J., and she holds degrees in art history from George Washington University and Drew, in addition to a certificate in museum management from Columbia University.

Her interest in museums was kindled in high school when she spent many Sunday afternoons conducting tours of a historic house in Bedford, N.Y., Young said.

"Although I had a kind of shyness, I loved being in historical houses and talking about them," she recalled. "Of course, I also had to work from a written script and there was a very specific patter for each room -- nothing like the kind of openness I encourage today."

Specific plans for museum outreach to the community at large, and families in particular, probably will have to wait "until we have a building we can invite people to," Young said. But in the meantime she is actively looking for ways to involve more students, faculty and staff in enjoying the museum's collections.

"In the past it's been art students, almost exclusively, who have used the museum, and we really want to attract people from more disciplines," said Mona Duggan, associate director for external affairs. "When Tom Seligman became director of the museum in 1991, he brought with him 20 years of experience in building museum education programs at the deYoung Museum. And Patience has been brought here to help us try to reach a broader audience."

Young would like to have lunch-time gallery talks and brown-bag panel discussions that will bring together people from various disciplines to talk about how their work relates to, and can draw on, the extensive research holdings of the museum.

She also would like to see the national "Empty Bowls Program" established at Stanford. In that community outreach project, schoolchildren and adults get together to make clay bowls and then sell tickets to a meal of soup and bread. People who attend the dinner take home a bowl of their choice, and proceeds are donated to a local food bank or shelter.

"Everyone takes home a piece of art, as well as a remembrance of world hunger, and food is donated to those in need," Young said. "It's a wonderful example of collaborative planning between art and community service -- and it's intergenerational, as well."

As the renovation of the Art Museum continues on schedule, curators are busy arranging new exhibitions. Selections of 18th- and 19th-century European drawings from the museum's collections are on display through May 14 at the Frick Collection in New York City in an exhibit titled "Romantics, Neoclassicists, Realists." A new show opens on campus July 5 in the Art Gallery, across from History Corner, titled "Collecting for Stanford: Selected Acquisitions 1990-1995." It will include an estimated 90 pieces from the more than 1,500 works of art that have been acquired by gift or purchase since 1991, featuring works by Gustav Klimt, Albrecht Durer, Auguste Rodin, Richard Diebenkorn and Andy Warhol.


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