WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Christina Olsen, the new director of the Williams College Museum of Art, is thoroughly versed in the latest technology of art and art history education. And she is a huge advocate for using that technology to open the doors of museums to a wide-range of users including the general public.
But, using her children as an example, technology is not the only future when it comes to providing creative interaction between art and humans, sometimes it simply takes a blank sheet of paper and an active mind.
"When I say to my children ‘Oh, you guys are spending too much time with technology.' They say to me ‘What are you talking about?'," Olsen said, picking up a smart phone during a recent interview in her new office. "They do not think about this as technology, they just think it is an extension of their world. They think of it as ‘I am going to draw now' on this sheet of paper and then ‘I am going to do this' on this smart phone. They just go with the flow. That is their world.
"I think that what our museum has to do, is it has to think about itself as an (educational) platform for student and faculty and other publics ... some of that may be technology based, some of that might be notebooks in galleries. And then it has allow that (interaction) to happen. The museum has to step back from its desire to put out information and its has to see itself as a platform for participation.
"Yes, we have collections, sure," she said. "But to reach a broad public, to participate in a way that people are interacting with information, with art, you have to adapt. It is beyond a website. I think a set website is anachronistic at this point. It is just stuff that gets shared and dispersed. ... I think the museum and its collections must participate in all of the online and mobile platforms that are now part of people's lives. But that is only part of it."
Given Olsen's background, she knows many, if not all, the ways to make art and art history part of people's lives.
Olsen comes to Williams after serving as director of education and public programs at the Portland Art Museum and also previously worked at the Getty Foundation and Getty Museum, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Olsen has a BA from University of Chicago, and an M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in the creation and reception of new leisure and visual forms and practices in 15th Century northern Italian Renaissance courts. Her doctoral dissertation was titled "Carte da Trionfi: The Development of Tarot in Fifteenth-Century Italy."
Olsen, who is married and, with her husband, has two children, recently moved to Williamstown from Portland, Ore. But the change is not as great is one might think.
"I grew up in New York, so the Northeast if very familiar to me," she said. And she has found much alike in Portland and the Berkshires. "There is a sensibility that is shared, between the two. ... (the area) is unusual, there is so much culture. There is such a community."
Another thing that made her introduction to Williams a pleasure is the collection of the museum -- and what were there objects in the collection that jumped out to her, that attracted her attention?
"There were like a dozen things like that," she said. "This collection is very, very good for a museum of its size. A lot of people don't know that, because a lot of things are not on display.
"The things that jumped out at me? The boxes by (Joseph) Cornell ... many of them are very, very beautiful. That is a rare and exquisite thing. I would say the Assyrian reliefs, those are just unbelievably beautiful and rare, and they have a very moving story connected to them. There are obvious things, like the Hopper; our wonderful, wonderful Hopper. (Edward Hopper's "Morning in the City.") ... The Sol Lewitt wall ... the size of it; I could go on and on."
And with her Renaissance studies background, she added: "I love our Giovanni Da Milano ... the fragment of the alter piece that is on display. I really love that."
(If you want to find out more about these works, the museum has technology for that: Visit wcma.org, then "Search the Collection" at the top of the page.)
During the interview, Olsen said she believes the museum can and should be a resource for public as well as for college community: "I fundamentally and deeply believe that the museum, its collection, is a resource and a space for a range of publics," she said.
"Students are, of course, part of the public. But yes. Absolutely. Other wise we would just be drawers with objects for study. Part of what a museum does, what makes a museum a museum, is that it has a public. It is the encounters of the objects with the public that makes a museum. That public is varied here, and it is skewed to the students and faculty, but there is all kinds of people (that use the museum) as an educational opportunity ... We have a public component. And understanding that public component, and how it interacts with art, is also an educational opportunity."
And is this an "educational setting" for her as well? She said she has never worked in a higher educational setting before.
"There are things that build on my experience, on this job, and there are things that are new to me about this job," she said. "I would not have taken this job if both of those things were not true. Both are what make the mix interesting. For me, what is familiar, what I know how to do, is working within a large context. That is what I did at the Getty ... I know how to put large things together that require a lot of different constituencies. But I have never done that within a higher education setting. ... I have never done that with this kind of mix of publics."
And she looks forward to helping the museum becoming even more of a educational center.
"There is informal learning and there is formal learning, and this museum has a foot in both, if you will," she said. "That is really, really interesting to me. ... college museums can very legitimately have a mission to push the field forward. They are places where experimentation, new kinds of practices, get tested and born."
One of the key reasons for that freedom is that the Williams museum, always free to the public, does not need to be focused on what the public will spend money to experience.
"We are a place where students learn, we should be testing the newest ideas if we are going to be teaching them something," she said. "The fact that our mission is about learning, and the fact that we are not about gate (funds raised from exhibit ticket sales), we do not have X amount of our budget that is pulled down by the gate, is an incredible freedom. There is real freedom there. I have never been in a place where that is as true."
Contact K.D. Norris at email@example.com