Penn Museum Curatorial Interns Reflect on Creating an Exhibition for Penn’s Year of Media
When we think of the term “media” today, we tend to think of newspapers, magazines, television, radio, or increasingly, of the myriad social media platforms where information is distributed via the worldwide web. Penn students Caroline Miller and Reggie Kramer are aiming to expand our thinking about “media.”
Caroline and Reggie are the student co-curators of Objects Speak: Media through Time, a Penn Museum exhibition, developed in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania Provost’s Year of Media and opening to the public on March 17. The new exhibition, presented in two large cases with adjacent banners in the second floor elevator lobby, features 17 objects from cultures around the world. The oldest object, an Akkadian cylinder seal, is dated to circa 2300 BCE; the newest, a Japanese woodblock print from the Sino-Japanese war, to 1894 CE. Drawn from the Penn Museum’s vast collection and created in a diverse range of materials, the objects were selected for the messages that they each impart—expressing power, influence, and status.
“Our main hope is that people will come away from this exhibit with a different understanding of what media is,” explained Reggie, “and consider how they interact with media in their everyday lives. Especially now, after the last election, media is a very hot topic. I think we are trying to take it back to basics, really. The way we are looking at media in some ways is in the Latin sense of the word: ‘media’ as a plural for ‘medium’: things that convey something else. We want people to think about all of the objects they encounter as media: not just Twitter, Facebook, or NBC.”
To help make that connection, the student curators, working with the Museum’s professional exhibition team, landed on a distinctive design concept. “We wanted to start with the sort of media that is an accessible entry point by making the text inspired by TIME Magazine: the bold text, black, red, and white colors, that kind of in your face news font,” said Caroline. “The show is designed to look like magazine or newsprint columns. We have pullouts, we have photos that you would see in a newsprint of some sort.”
Selecting the Objects that Speak
How do you select a small number of objects for a cross-cultural exhibition like this, drawing on the nearly one million objects in the Penn Museum’s vast collection?
The curators landed on three categories of objects they would consider: monumental media, mass-produced media, and individual media. From there, the collaboration became one of personal interests and personal choices, meshed together. Reggie explored the Roman coins; Caroline wanted to make sure that Egypt and the ancient Near East—two areas the Museum is renowned for—were represented.
“I naturally gravitated toward Roman things, that’s my primary area of interest, Roman history,” Reggie explained. “Within the Roman things, I went towards coins because I like coins, and for this exhibit they’re an excellent representation of ancient media.
Even today, they’re an excellent representation of modern media, too. They’re small, you interact with them daily, and there are a number of things going on: there is writing and images, and the combination of the two convey different messages, which is really the crux of this exhibit.”
Caroline added: “As well as the ability to have a standardized monetary system-that is a huge indication of power and control of a region. Also they were mass-produced, which is a good entry point to people’s contemporary ideas of media.”
“I really enjoyed working with the Akkadian seal. The seal was exciting because I actually got to do the drawing of the seal impression. It’s a beautiful piece, so small and intricate. I learned a lot more about the object from sitting with it for a couple of hours and being able to study it.
It’s one of those pieces that both displays craftsmanship and is perfect for our show because it falls under two categories: more mass-produced, since the cylinder seals were mass-produced. Both the act of making them and in the actual impression, a person would inscribe their name, so it was sort of a personal piece, too.”
The process led the student curators to interact with section curators and keepers throughout the Museum as they searched for pieces that would fit their criteria, and tell their story best. Along the way, they were assisted by Dr. Julia Wilker, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies, Curatorial Advisor for the project. Sarah Linn, Museum Research Liaison, and a graduate student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, was the student advisor and internship coordinator, working to ensure that they had timely access to Museum collections and resources. Jess Bicknell, Interpretive Planning Manager, guided the students in considering the needs of the visitors to the exhibition, while the full Exhibitions team contributed to make the exhibition a reality.
Third Year of Program Invites Students to Take on Curator’s Role
Objects Speak: Media through Time is the third exhibition developed through the Penn Museum’s Student Exhibition Internship program and connected with the University’s special year-long focus on a topic. Last year, students developed Kourion at the Crossroads: Exploring Ancient Cyprus for the Year of Discovery; Corn: From Ancient Crop to Soda Pop, tied in to Penn’s Year of Health. Undergraduate students at Penn are invited to apply in the spring for two-semester curatorial internships, complete with a modest stipend, that focus on the planning, content development, design, fabrication, and installation of an exhibition. The goal is to provide students from diverse disciplines with real experience in creating an exhibition in a large museum.
The theme Year of Media seemed tailor made to the two curators of Objects Speak. A senior from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and Political Science in Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, Reggie Kramer’s interests include Roman history and international peace and security. He saw this internship as a special opportunity to “leave a lasting impression” as he leaves Penn.
A visit to a museum will never be quite the same for Reggie: “In viewing exhibits now, you see how much goes into it. There's a thoughtful process that goes into conveying what the curators want it to convey. We’ve almost been looking at our exhibit like it's a paper – we have a thesis, and we have an argument. The artifacts are our pieces of evidence.“
For Caroline Miller, a sophomore in Visual Studies minoring in Art History and Consumer Psychology, this curatorial opportunity helped her confirm her interest in eventually pursuing a career in the museum field. “This has been the most incredible experience for me. Now, Reggie and I are the ones leading meetings and making presentations, the ones who are coming up with the concept and researching it.
I don't know of any other undergrad program that has allowed us to be so hands on, to not just come up with the ideas but actually do the work."
Exhibition Take Away
After all the objects have “spoken,” what do the curators hope visitors will take away from Objects that Speak?
“We live in a very materialized culture and people consume a lot of things visually that they are not necessarily thinking about. It’s a lot of receiving information with not a lot of analysis of that information. And it's a lot of just not being able to unpack all the messages that are coming at us on a daily basis,” noted Caroline.
“I think what we want is for people to come away just a little more conscious consumers of things in their daily lives. The forms of media as well as the messages they convey are usually very intentional. We want people to be a little more conscious of that."
Photos, top to bottom:
Student advisor Sarah Linn with Penn students Reggie Kramer and Caroline Miller, as they look at a Peruvian effigy vessel depicting a Moché "warrior-priest" (200 BCE - 700 CE), one of 17 objects in the new exhibition, Objects Speak.
Reggie Kramer holds an elaborately decorated Persian sword (ca. 18th - 19th century CE) that was used as a prop in the Shi-i passion play (ta'ziyeh).
Caroline Miller holds the bust of an unknown Ptolemaic ruler (305-30 BCE), presented as an Egyptian pharaoh. The grid lines on the back indicate that it was sculptor's model used for mass-production. Photos: Penn Museum.