As college seniors across the country scramble to complete final projects under extraordinary circumstances, two from Bethel College face one of the bigger challenges.
What do you do when your project, by definition, is meant for people to visit and look at – and everything is closed?
Elizabeth Friesen Birky, pf Denver, and Emma Girton, of Wichita, are both completing Individualized Majors at Bethel in art history. Friesen Birky has an additional major in communication arts.
Almost literally at the same hour as the two finished their co-curated senior exhibit “Meta: An Exhibition about Exhibitions,” the staff of Bethel’s Kauffman Museum, where the exhibit is mounted, decided to close the museum to the public.
“We were working on getting the exhibit put together basically until the last possible moment,” Girton says. “When it became clear that we were likely not going to be able to have all of the celebrations and exciting pieces that come along with opening an exhibit, we were for sure pretty bummed out.”
However, she says, “We were committed to maintaining our opening deadlines whether people would be able to actually come into the museum or not. Luckily, the team at Kauffman Museum, especially  Bethel graduate Rebecca Schrag, really had a vision and a goal to make sure that what we had been working on would still be seen.”
“I think it’s fair to say we are both still disappointed that this could not happen [as we had envisioned],” Friesen Birky adds, “but we are so very thankful for the creative and quick-thinking museum staff, who helped us figure out ways to show off our hard work virtually.
“Rebecca Schrag worked hard to create a quality virtual exhibition experience [using] Google Tour Creator.”
“It's open-source software that turns Google Earth photos or your own 180- or 360-degree photos into virtual reality,” Schrag explained. “Without … a 360-degree camera or expensive software, we were able to import iPhone panorama photos into Google Tour Creator and create a virtual space.
“Elizabeth and Emma's narration in the exhibit is the best part of the virtual exhibit,” she says. “I really enjoy ‘hearing’ from the curators in this way. All their [text] from the exhibit is [presented] as audio commentary to the virtual museum visitor as you look at the exhibit space with ambient music in the background.”
The virtual tour for “Meta: An Exhibition about Exhibitions” is at https://tinyurl.com/metavirtualexhibit
The curators’ statement for the exhibit explains the thinking behind “Meta.”
“Museums are public spaces that reflect societal standards and aesthetic preferences of a given cultural society. Within museums, exhibition styles communicate insight into this, as well.
“ ‘Meta’ offers a glimpse into four of the most influential and creative exhibition styles from years past: Cabinet of Curiosities, Salon Style, Partial Context and White Cube. Within these four particular design styles, we seek to show how styles and expectations of museum displays have changed, remained and morphed over time to communicate different messages to the public.”
“Both Emma and I have found ourselves interested in museum display and the idea of how artifacts are arranged, chosen – or not chosen – and the reasoning behind these intentional choices,” Friesen Birky says.
“Exhibitions so often deal with understanding artifacts and works of art, but this is the first I have seen that goes in a different direction, to better understand how and why artifacts and works of art are typically displayed for the public. It’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes look into the world of museum curating.”
“This is a topic that I’m not sure has ever been delved into before,” says Girton. “I think it has been really rewarding, and hopefully [will be] meaningful to the greater audience.”
Girton and Friesen Birky already had experience working together, and collaborating with the staff at Kauffman Museum, to create an exhibit.
As members of the Curatorial Studies class taught by Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel associate professor of visual arts and design, they helped develop the award-winning “Campaign for a New China: Looking Back on Posters from the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976,” last spring.
“Whereas we were on a curatorial team for ‘Campaign for a New China,’ Emma and I were given free range on ‘Meta,’ ” Friesen Birky said. “We came up with the concept, we went into [the museum’s] back storage and chose artifacts, and we were the ones who communicated our vision to the museum staff.
“As senior undergraduate students, we were given a lot of freedom as well as responsibility to pull off a well-executed exhibition. I am so thankful to our professor, Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, as well as to the entire staff at Kauffman, for believing in our capabilities as students and for pushing us to take on this new challenge and experience.”
“While our previous exhibit was focused around us learning the process of writing labels and selection of artifact groups, we did not have a great deal of say on the subject matter,” Girton added. “I would say that working as student curators on ‘Campaign for a New China’ really helped us gain confidence and start the groundwork in preparing us to work in a museum format of creating an entire exhibit as we did for ‘Meta.’
“Additionally, all of the objects in the exhibition were pulled from Kauffman Museum storage, and this was a really good way for us to finally display a lot of the fascinating artifacts they don’t get to [show] very frequently.
“Some of these artifacts even go back to the original museum of Charles Kauffman, so this is a really good look into all the treasures that we got to go through in the creation of this exhibit.”
Says Friesen Birky, “This process of student curating has never been a partnership that has been explored previously, so I’m glad we have been able to test the waters for future students.”
Andi Schmidt Andres, interim director of Kauffman Museum, agrees.
“Providing hands-on, real-life experience for students fits perfectly with Kauffman Museum’s mission,” she says. “We are eager to collaborate with area organizations, whether that is the school district, local businesses or our parent institution Bethel College.”
Epp Buller says, “It’s been exciting to see [Friesen Birky and Girton] leverage that learning into this new project. Both projects have helped them develop skills vital to their eventual museum careers.
“Schools and museums around the country are figuring out creative ways to showcase exhibitions and student work in the midst of widespread closure. Ultimately, this [virtual tour] will help ‘Meta’ have a longer shelf life and make it accessible to future online visitors.”
Schrag adds, “My goal is that their hard work from the semester can be showcased and hopefully their exhibition can reach new audiences it hadn’t been able to before.”
“This has been a bit frustrating [for us as curators],” Friesen Birky says, “and I still feel like virtual visitors will not get the full effect they would viewing the exhibit in person at the museum. Ideally, a virtual experience would have been developed over more time.
“Despite this, I am thankful for the available technology we do have. This experience has been a fascinating learning experiment in virtual collaboration, communication, and in learning about another type of exhibition style: virtual exhibitions.”
Both Girton and Friesen Birky have a career goal of continuing in museum work. Girton looks forward to her fourth summer at the Wichita Art Museum, while Friesen Birky will spend the fall at the Washington Community Scholars’ Center with a museum internship (she hopes for the Smithsonian).
“I’ve so enjoyed having Elizabeth and Emma in classes and conducting directed studies with them on specialized topics,” Epp Buller says, “and I look forward to seeing where their paths lead.”