By Sarah Lockwood | Photos by Matt Schmachtenberg

Lisanby Museum looks to teach students in a whole new way

Hands on Art
The Lisanby Museum’s current exhibit features a display on ear spools, pieces the Aztec and Mayan cultures used for piercings.

A boy looks into the camera from behind a shattered car window. This black and white photo, “Cracked Glass with Boy” by Elliot Erwitt, is part of The Mysterious, Absurd, and Ironic exhibit at the Lisanby Museum in Festival. The photo is museum curator and senior art history major Frances Loyer’s favorite.

The exhibit, running through April 27, showcases the work of Manuel Bravo and Elliot Erwitt, both social documentary photographers in the Americas. Erwitt, whose iconic portrait of Jackie Kennedy in her mourning veil is on display, is an American photojournalist who infuses his ironic sense of humor into his most of his photography.

“He’s got a real interesting insight about what it means to be human,” said Kathryn Stevens, Madison Art Collection (MAC) director.

“He takes everyday social situations and he just makes them completely absurd and ridiculous,” Loyer added.

Manuel Bravo’s showcased works, which are also black and white, are from Mexico in the early 20th century.

“He’s looking at more of that impoverished scene and what does it mean to be at this … point of crisis in Mexico,” Stevens said.

While Stevens thinks this exhibit is particularly relevant to photography students, history students and Latino students, she thinks anyone would enjoy it.

Loyer began research for this exhibit in November, working more than 10 hours every week as part of an internship with the MAC. During this period she selected and researched each work and planned the installation layout. For more background, check out Loyer’s gallery talk on April 6 or rent an iPad and use the gallery’s app, which enables you to scan corresponding tags and learn more about each work.

“I think the photographs have a really personal, intimate feeling,” Loyer said. “[There is] just a dramatic, serious feel to them.”

The Lisanby Museum, recently renamed from Skyline Museum, formally opened in January. The space, which has been repurposed several times for the past couple years, is located on the first floor of Festival.

The museum is an exhibit space for Madison Art Collection, JMU’s permanent artistic and cultural collection. Built up from gifts, the 35,000 items in this collection include everything from Indonesian and African art to collections from John Sawhill and Charles Lisanby to Egyptian artifacts and works of Pablo Picasso.

Other campus collections include the Historic Portrait Collection, the Art and Antiquities Collection, the Anthropolgy Collection and the Alumni Collection. While Stevens hopes to streamline the university’s art eventually, MAC alone is a lot to work with. The staff is still trying to get a hold of the life work that that Charles Lisanby, an award-winning television artistic designer, donated.

The works are stored in Festival in a secure, climate-controlled room decked out with motion detectors and door alarms. Needless to say, the collection is valuable.

But then again, “how do you put a price on something from 3500 B.C. from a tomb in ancient Egypt?” Stevens asks. “It’s just really cool.”

When Stevens teaches Survey of Ancient Art, she introduces her students to artifacts from the collection. It’s a resource that’s available for learning many fields.

“What I’m interested in is the rich educational [aspect]; the scholastically interesting collection,” Stevens said. “We’ve got such a wide range of things, and they’re perfect teaching examples that we can do anything from anthropology to women’s studies. And I think that’s what makes us exceptional.”

Professors can also reserve a case in the museum for a course’s content.

Kathryn Stevens, director of the Madison Art Collection, demonstrates one of the two iPad apps the exhibit has set up. The app scans QR codes found around the museum to deliver supplementary information to the pieces. The other iPad app displayed is a 3D interactive version of the Skyline Gallery.
Kathryn Stevens, director of the Madison Art Collection, demonstrates one of the two iPad apps the exhibit has set up. The app scans QR codes found around the museum to deliver supplementary information to the pieces. The other iPad app displayed is a 3D interactive version of the Skyline Gallery.

“It’s not just ‘here’s the image that you’re seeing on the screen,’ ” Stevens said. “It’s not just stories and a textbook. It’s not something your professors say, it’s not something you study. … When you get to see something that Warhol created, when you get a chance to hold a Roman gladius that some Roman soldier probably died with in Germany, it makes that really become viscerally real to you.”

And she wants to share that with everyone. The museum’s director, Kate Harvey, is a senior who also hires and trains the student interns, giving many students great career experience.

“I sort of see this as a classroom,” Stevens said. “From the actual exhibit that is here to the running of the space. It really is to provide our students with real-world experience.”

Getting involved with the collection is not just for art history buffs. Curators have included Asian studies students, and anthropology and political science students are working on a future exhibits.

In addition, Stevens hopes that the museum invites visitors through a Wi-Fi hotspot.

“I’m sort of hoping that you come in, you bring your coffee, you got your laptop, you’re chilling, you’re reading and you say, ‘Wow, what is that?’ and you go look at it,” Stevens said. “And even if it’s only one thing, then it’s still exposure.”

MAC continues to grow and, as campus continues to expand, Stevens hopes to one day have a freestanding museum.

“We have enough objects, we could easily fill out several permanent galleries and I could easily see them: The ancient world, the Renaissance, the 18th century,” Stevens said. “That’s what I really want. That said, this is a great first start.”