Student Life, at the University and Museum
The required curriculum of the program is supplemented and improved by many resources and opportunities at the University of Delaware. Many Winterthur Fellows have eclectic interests, and actively seek interdisciplinary experiences to broaden their horizons. Electives offered in the departments of History, Art History, and English, as well as certificate programs like Museum Studies and the Center for Historic Architecture and Design, are great opportunities to meet other graduate students. More importantly, these courses present forums in which we share ideas and theories with individuals trained to interpret objects from different perspectives. These conversations make the program wonderfully unique and gratifying, and are truly eye-opening experiences. Very few other universities can offer students this kind of collaborative environment focused on material culture.
In addition to coursework, Fellows benefit from other events on campus—happy hours, guest lecture series, and seminars on grant applications, to name a few—programs that are relevant to all graduate students.
The rewards of working in a museum environment extend beyond the individual objects Fellows encounter in class. Winterthur is a center for scholarly inquiry and exchange, and as part of this mission, it hosts numerous conferences and lectures each year. Academics and museum professionals come from all over the world to participate, presenting a great networking opportunity. Fellows can usually attend free of charge. The subjects of these programs are incredibly diverse. In 2009, Fellows participated in sessions ranging from a discussion on art theft led by FBI agents on to a lecture on furniture crafted from decommissioned ships in the nineteenth century.
Another strength of the program is the faculty’s commitment to familiarizing Fellows with pressing, contemporary issues in the field, beyond the academic agendas of the average Winterthur conference. To this end, professors host casual lunchtime discussions for students with guest speakers. During these brown bag lunch series, Fellows have talked about museum ethics, the nuances of working with trustees, and the future of cultural heritage institutions, all with a variety of museum professionals from Winterthur and elsewhere. For example, curators from the Chipstone Foundation demonstrated how they have experimented with decorative arts installation and interpretation in an art museum, provoking a great discussion about the future of this kind of display and how museums serve their audiences.
Winterthur is a wonderful and unique resource for its collections and its history, but we realize it does not exist in a vacuum. The opportunities to connect individually with other professionals in the field tremendously enhance our time the program.
In addition to meeting leaders in the field of material culture, Fellows also enjoy the opportunity to interact with museum visitors. Each Fellow doubles as a museum tour guide, completing at least twelve shifts over the course of the program. This requirement allows us to connect to visitors firsthand, as we learn to communicate our passions to the public in creative and engaging ways. Guiding forces Fellows to think like a visitor, to step out of the ivory tower and onto the ground. Guides are on the frontlines, seeing how visitors actually respond to the experience that museum professionals have crafted for them. If we want to be successful curators, educators, or any other position in this field, we have to remember who our audience is and how to communicate our knowledge effectively.
A hidden benefit of guiding is that Fellows learn so much more about Henry Francis du Pont and the Winterthur Museum. We become experts in the history of the Winterthur estate, as well as American material culture. Providing tours is fun too. Fellows meet visitors from around the world, share their enthusiasm for objects, and delight in the connections they inspire amongst the guests.