Art, Access, and Agency: Melanie Garcia Sympson talks with Gallery Systems about The Block’s online collection

Interview reprinted with permission from Gallery Systems – View original.


Northwestern University’s The Block Museum of Art is placing a stronger focus on its digital initiatives in a resounding response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a teaching and learning museum, the institution is upholding its mission statement of “presenting art across time, cultures, and media” by pursuing innovative ways to open its doors virtually to students, faculty, and the public. Through staff’s recent efforts, The Block launched a new eMuseum online collections site, actively hosts virtual tours through its 6,000-object collection, and collaborates with Northwestern to bring (formerly in-person) events online, creating an interdisciplinary experience for audiences.

Gallery Systems learned about these dynamic changes when we interviewed The Block’s Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate. Melanie gave a closer look at what roles curatorial teams can play in undertaking online collections and projects, while sharing how collections management software shapes research and learning in a university setting.

Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate

How do you see new technologies supporting your work?

New technologies have always been a part of The Block Museum of Art’s work, but the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital tools in fulfilling our mission as a teaching and learning institution. In September 2020, we launched our collections database, powered by eMuseum, as part of a 40th anniversary focus on our collection. Thanks to our collection team, high-resolution images of artworks are publicly accessible, and we have made great progress in standardizing our data. The eMuseum database has been such a helpful tool in our support of faculty, who are currently teaching remotely, and students that are conducting research off-campus. While our team is thrilled to work with instructors in their selection of works of art to use in the classroom, it is also wonderful that we can give people more agency to explore what is in the collection.

Digital projects have traditionally been a smaller component of exhibition, but we are also now starting to see how they can become integral to that work, or even standalone generators of content. This fall, when contact with our audience has been largely digital, we curated a highlights package of objects in the collection that are related to the One Book One Northwestern campus reading of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. We have used this selection of objects as a springboard for tours and virtual visits with campus and community members.

Does The Block use its collection management system as a research tool? If yes, how?

For most of our staff, the collections management system is the starting point for research. People use TMS or eMuseum to search for works of art to use in teaching or programming, for instance, and to find basic information about an object. It is also a great resource for finding further information about an object that is helpful in understanding its history – including inscriptions or curatorial notes that explain why an object’s data may have been changed – without always pulling the object itself or the paper files. We are starting to include even more information about the objects in TMS, so that it can become a one-stop shop for information about The Block’s collection.

What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?

As The Block Museum of Art transitioned to TMS, I worked with our Registration and Curatorial teams to standardize cataloguing practices with the new collection management system in mind. Adhering to data standards is really challenging, especially at an art museum, where the idiosyncratic nature of objects tends to defy categorization. Despite these challenges, I am excited about the work we have done to develop a style guide and manual, with the knowledge that cataloguing and data entry require flexibility.

To what extent do you work directly with the physical objects in your collection? How do digital surrogates supplement the experience of working directly with objects?

There is nothing quite like looking at an object firsthand, which we often do when conducting research or leading in-person class visits. But with many of our staff and the Northwestern community working remotely at this moment, we have started to understand some of the advantages of using digital tools.

We have created close-looking exercises for virtual visit classes that involve zooming in on the different details of an object as the students notice them. This process has been surprisingly dynamic and interactive. In virtual tours, we can host 40 or 50 people and ask everyone to look closely at the same object at the same time. This simply is not possible with an in-person gallery tour.

Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?

I operate under the assumption that I am not the first person to have faced any particular issue, and I learn best from other people who have faced similar situations. LISTSERV® email lists have been a great resource for making connections with fellow museum workers who are thinking about the same questions.

Recently, there has been a lot of reflection about the power dynamics of cataloguing in light of current discussions about inclusion and access. This is something we have been thinking about internally as the collection grows in the diversity of represented artists and global perspectives. Both the TMS Users and American Alliance of Museum’s Collections Stewardship LISTSERV® email lists have been helpful resources for seeing how other institutions are handling these questions, and we have used them as a starting point for conversations.

I am also always eager to learn more about capabilities of TMS and eMuseum and am grateful to Gallery Systems staff who help get us the information we need. I will soon be attending the SQL for TMS Users training and am really excited to better understand the tool that powers our TMS searches.

What is one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on and why?

Before The Block Museum of Art launched its eMuseum site, we ran a beta testing group with Northwestern students, faculty, and staff. This gave us insights into how our constituents would search the database and let us know what kind of information they would like to have at their fingertips. Beta testers identified issues in terminology and reported bugs on the website before it went live.

I loved having this very direct feedback about the platform, and then problem-solving with Gallery Systems to make the site better. We also learned that many of our users would like to be able to search artworks by keyword and have more contextual information to better understand objects in the collection. As we move forward, we are working toward including more and more of that kind of information.

If you had to choose a favorite item from your collection, what would it be and why?

Sebald Beham (German, 1500 – 1550), Peasant Couple Dancing, 1522, Engraving, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, The Norman H. and Marie Louise Pritchard Collection, 1985.2.99

I wrote my dissertation on late medieval manuscripts, so I have a soft spot for small-scale works. I love The Block Museum of Art’s collection of small early modern prints, including Sebald Beham’s Peasant Couple Dancing, which is no bigger than a couple of postage stamps. These small prints encourage close looking and provide different kinds of historical insights than many larger or more costly artworks from the same period.

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