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A story-driven approach: Emilie Bryant ’22 connects communities through museum work

Emilie Bryant '22

Emilie Bryant ’22 poses in the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. 

From the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, Maine’s Monhegan Island was a haven for artists.

“As industrialization began to urbanize large masses of the once idyllic scenery across the United States, artists would escape to Monhegan Island to study and capture the rugged, sublime, and beautiful environment there,” said Emilie Bryant ’22. “Almost all the famous American artists made a pilgrimage to the island at one time or another. The island has such a rich and intriguing history.”

Bryant recently found herself digging into that history while working on interpretive materials for the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College exhibition Beyond the Sound: In Memory of Sandra Whitehead.

The exhibit, on display in the Maier’s front lobby, features work on loan from the collection of the Honorable Paul Whitehead, Jr.

Whitehead supports an annual Maier lecture series in memory of his late wife, Sandra Whitehead, who was one of the first docents at the Maier.

“Many of the artists in his collection lived on Monhegan Island, as did the Whiteheads, and many of the works of art were purchased on the island,” said Bryant, who designed, researched, and wrote the exhibition material on the Whiteheads, as well as the artists and works on display, over the spring semester.

Bryant, a museum and heritage studies major, consulted an extensive collection of art books the Whiteheads donated to the College in her research, while also seeking outside sources when necessary.

She also interviewed Whitehead by phone, talking about both the artwork and his late wife.

“It was clear how much he adored her and how much the exhibit would mean to him to have it in her name,” said Bryant, who also designed a website for the exhibition. “I had to make sure that the focus was not just on the art but also the history of the artwork and, most importantly, the history of its owners. Approaching my research with story-driven and person-centered perspectives has always been my desire.”

That story-driven approach has also played a part in both of Bryant’s summer internships.

Locally, she’s spending a few hours a week cataloging, photographing, and organizing the metals within Randolph’s Ancient Collections Room. She’s created a database, which will be available in both digital and print formats, that is searchable, with photographs and links to additional readings and resources.

She’s also been working virtually on a project with the New Mexico History Museum.

Bryant was tasked with researching the Santa Fe Indian Market, which celebrates its 100th year in 2022, and curating an online, interactive timeline about it. She was also asked to research how social, cultural, and political changes in the U.S. connected with and influenced the market’s success or decline.

The work has given Bryant a front row seat to what she called an exciting new frontier for many museums.

“Museums are changing in a fascinating way,” she said, noting how many have previously relied on labels alone to inform visitors. “Online or digital features have become a necessary component for exhibits, especially since the onset of COVID-19. Museums needed to make their exhibits and objects available online due to closures, and they needed to do it quickly.”

The New Mexico History Museum had already been offering online components, including an interactive 3D walkthrough of the entire museum.

Audiences are diverse, Bryant said, with multiple preferences to how they prefer to interact with a museum.

“Some visitors just come for the day to look, while others look for in-depth material to study. Also, people learn differently, and it makes sense to have multiple methods of interacting with objects,” she said. “At the New Mexico History Museum, they believe that options are essential and that in-depth information about an object should always be available for visitors if they want it. That’s exciting for a student like me because I love to research, and I love making a labyrinth of connections within multiple disciplines.”

Bryant’s work is always outwardly focused, said Laura McManus, the Maier’s curator of education.

“Emilie has a genuine passion for connecting museums with the community,” McManus said, “and is a joy to work with.”

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