Behind the Scenes of New Museum, Students Brings Art to Life

What does it take to open a 53,000-square foot museum? For students who served as everything from exhibit designers to tour guides, connecting the GW community to the new museum was all in a day’s work.

Museum Studies graduate student Lauren Shenfeld, BA ’13, wears many hats at the new museum, from community liaison to tour guide
Museum Studies graduate student Lauren Shenfeld, BA ’13, wears many hats at the new museum, from community liaison to tour guide. (Photo: William Atkins)
April 08, 2015

When Lauren Shenfeld, BA ’13, shows up for work at the new George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum each morning, she’s greeted by more than George Washington’s handwritten letters and Mae West’s eight-inch platform heels.

A second-year museum studies graduate student and Presidential Administrative Fellow, Shenfeld has a crowded to-do list waiting at her desk. Her official role as a community liaison is to engage the museum’s diverse audiences with the new facility and its collection. But the monumental task of opening a 53,000-square-foot museum also calls on her to help out with everything from writing grant proposals to unrolling rugs dating back to 3000 BC.

“Never a dull moment,” Shenfeld laughed. “This is a remarkable experience and a professional development jackpot. How many students get to be intimately involved in the opening of a brand new museum?”

The museum, which opened last month, brings together two venerable Washington artistic collections: the internationally-renowned Textile Museum featuring the greatest collection of fine textiles in the world; and the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection, an assortment of rare papers, maps, drawings and artifacts chronicling the history of the nation’s capital.

But long before 2,000 visitors enjoyed a grand opening weekend of inaugural events, dozens of students—primarily from the Museum Studies graduate program—have taken advantage of this collaborative opportunity to put what they’ve learned in the classroom into practice. Exhibition design, collection inventory, curatorial research and educational programming are among the projects they’ve been involved in. Even history students have lent a hand, contributing copy to a recent Smithsonian Press catalogue on the Albert H. Small Collection.

“A major component of the museum is to create genuine opportunities for GW students throughout our operations, our collections and our education programs,” said Museum Director John Wetenhall. “We are creating a bridge for students . . . to add to their professional development and enhance the museum as a whole.”

Hands-On Education

Last spring, students in Assistant Professor of Museum Studies Barbara Brennan’s class designed two of the inaugural Washingtoniana exhibitions: “Seat of Empire: Planning Washington, 1790-1801,” which uses historic maps to illustrate early blueprints of the city; and “The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington,” which looks at the transformation of D.C. from the 1800s to today. “This is hands-on education at its finest,” Brennan said. “Students learned the exhibition design process by working directly with professional curators, presenting and defending their design ideas and producing refined design concept packages.”

For the “Civil War,” Sydney Katz, MAT ’14, created a sepia-toned mural of the Capitol under construction. Katz, now a designer at the Orlando Science Center, imagined arranging snapshots of the district during the war around a larger image of the half-built dome. Her mural currently stretches across a wall in Woodhull House as an entrance treatment to the exhibit. “I wanted to walk you through Washington-in-the-making and show how the Civil War literally shaped the capital,” she said.

This semester, Brennan's students are working on two new Washingtoniana exhibits that will premiere in November and a textile exhibit planned for 2016. Other students from the Museum Studies program devised social media strategies to enhance the new museum’s digital presence and brainstormed ways to garner financial support. “If you think about all the people and the roles involved in museums, the field really is all about working collaboratively,” said Natalia Febo, MA ’14, a student in Professor of Museum Studies Kathy Dwyer Southern’s class on fundraising.

A “Student Corps” developed by Shenfeld was also launched to train students from across the disciplines to be amateur tour guides. Part of the training involved having these students design their own 10-minute interactive presentations for their classmates. “The idea is to give our students a peer-to-peer experience that allows them intimate access to the galleries,” Shenfeld explained.

For example, political communication senior Zinhle Essamuah’s “Superheroes: Fact to Fiction” tour is based on items in “Unraveling Identity,” the largest exhibition in The Textile Museum's 90-year history. The “Superhero” tour draws parallels between exhibits like a fireman’s helmet and a knitted Batman costume.

Junior Juman Kekhia, an international affairs major and dance minor, wanted to highlight the history of places that she visits as a GW student. Entitled “My DC: Then and Now,” her tour re-imagined the Washingtoniana maps as a scavenger hunt of favorite haunts and landmarks. And senior Amanda Rooth’s “Say Yes to the Dress” tour is arranged around Textile items such as a Japanese bridal gown and a feathered Givenchy dress. “This was an opportunity to bring in students that other people in the GW community could relate to,” said Rooth, an international affairs major. “I knew instantly this was something I wanted to be part of.”

Although the grand-opening bustle is behind them, Shenfeld said the museum staff isn’t able to catch its breath just yet. The next challenge is to convert from opening- to operating-mode, she said. “This is a phenomenal resource for the university, but there’s a lot about this building and these communities that we’re still learning.”

It’s a process Shenfeld will largely miss. After graduating this spring, she will pursue career opportunities away from the D.C. area. “Leaving is going to break my heart," she said, "but I’m so grateful to have helped make this place a reality.”