Diversifying the Narrative at SAAM: 2018 Katzenberger Art History Intern Sarah Cho
(The following blog post was written by Sarah Cho)
This summer, as part of the 2018 Katzenberger Art History program I’ve had the pleasure of interning at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) with the interpretation team in the Education Department. I’ve interned under the supervision of Senior Curator of Contemporary Interpretation Joanna Marsh and Kress Interpretive Fellow Melissa Hendrickson.
So, what is interpretation? When you enter an exhibition, you interact with more than just the art on view. You read the labels, maybe even watch a video or listen to audio. If the interpretation is flawless, you will leave the exhibition having understood the key message of the show. The difficulty lies in distilling complicated, nuanced ideas into information that is digestible by all of SAAM’s audiences.
One of the big projects I have been working on this summer is editing and drafting elements of a timeline for the upcoming exhibition Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. The exhibition focuses on the artworks created in response to Vietnam War-era events. It is difficult to contextualize the confusion and pain that is reflected in the artworks artists made in response to political events, especially as the general visitor likely will not have full knowledge of the historical events when entering the exhibition.
The timeline will be used to help contextualize the artworks. It has been difficult to distill this complicated time period in a way that is neither too simplified nor overwhelming. Working from the timeline that the curator has already created for the exhibition catalogue, I’ve helped draft and edit the timeline to reflect the big events that artists were responding to.
This exhibition will have a formative evaluation through focus groups that compose of veterans, individuals who identify as Southeast Asian and general visitors. The qualitative data from the focus groups will help in developing further interpretive approaches. There will also be a visitor response station in the exhibition where visitors can respond to the material in the show and share their experiences. Visitors can also read others’ responses and engage in an exchange of ideas.
Having spent time engaging with the artworks and researching the Vietnam War, I have become personally attached to this show. Working on this exhibition has reminded me of the social power of art and the public’s influence, especially in response to the painful history entangled in the Vietnam War era, in both the home and warfront. It has been an honor to aide in developing material to make this exhibition more accessible to future visitors.
What I love about interpretation is that it sits at a juncture of curatorial and education. As someone who loves getting deep into research, but also is very concerned with how art can be made accessible everyone, interpretation is a fantastic combination of the two disciplines. It has been really exciting to help in shaping SAAM’s interpretative approach and I hope that I can continue to work with interpretation in the future.