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Six U. students join RISD museum tour program

Brown students will join the Gallery Lecturers Program as tour guides next month

Next month, visitors to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design will be able to glean a unique insight into the world of art with specialized tours led by a new group of student tour guides.

Each year, the museum invites college students from Providence to join its Gallery Lecturers Program, which started in 2010. This semester, eight new students — six of whom are from Brown — will be joining the program, and tours will start March 4.

After they learn about the museum’s collection, program participants will lead 30-minute tours Thursday nights at 7 p.m. Students design tours based on their own interests and centered around three or four objects they choose from the collection.

“It’s a focused tour,” said Deborah Wilde, associate educator for academic programs at the museum, adding that the program is modeled after one at the Yale University Art Gallery.

After an extensive interview process, students undergo four months of training. During the training period, curators, guest lecturers and museum employees teach the students about topics including the process of making art and techniques for displaying it well. A favorite exercise among students involved “deep looking,” an activity in which trainees spent over an hour viewing a single abstract painting before discussing the intent behind each aspect of the piece, said Katie Bommarito ’15, a tour guide trainee.

To design their tours, students are given access to all of the museum’s curatorial files. Students perform intensive research and are expected to become experts on their chosen pieces.

“A lot of these objects have amazing backstories,” said Kathryn Howley GS, who is earning her PhD in Egyptology and has been part of the program for three years. By engaging in deeper research, students often discover interesting narratives about their objects which have been omitted from the displays. “Display labels aren’t 15,000 words. I find people really like to hear these stories but would never read them,” Howley added.

Bommarito said her tour is centered on the Andy Warhol silkscreen “Race Riot.” The silkscreen depicts a white policeman and his dog attacking a black man while members of the crowd around them look into the distance.

“We don’t know what they see,” Bommarito said. “But it begs the question of what could possibly be more interesting.”

Bommarito said she plans to use this image to segue into a discussion about the concept of cropping. “If you take a fragment of something and make it into a piece of art, how does that change how you perceive it?”

All student tours are free and open to the public. “It’s a chance for our public to understand how students use and view the museum — it’s part of their intellectual process,” Wilde said. Several participants said engaging with museum-goers is their favorite part of the program.

Anna Gasha ’15 said she plans to focus her tour on how two-dimensional artwork depicts three-dimensional architecture. “People see art as a very bourgeois thing,” Gasha said. “But I like the idea of making it more approachable.”

Rebecca Szantyr GS said she still gets excited after every tour. “It’s a little bit of a high that I get after people had a great experience,” she added. “I’m always touched that they decided to come and enjoy it and were willing to learn.”

People often think “museums just put the art there,” said Tanya Olson ’14. “But there’s so much thought put into how to educate people. And I get to do that.”


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