Each day, hundreds of visitors enter the Milwaukee Art Museum to stare in awe at the incredible wealth of artworks within the museum’s collection. But what can too often go unrecognized is the equally awe-inspiring work of the many museum staff members, without whom the museum in its current state could not exist. “MAM Behind the Scenes” is a blog series written by Digital Learning intern Emma Fallone to showcase the wide range of positions that make up a museum, and to reveal just a few of of the many people whose work makes the Milwaukee Art Museum a source of inspiration and education. We begin with Heather Winter, Librarian and Archivist.
Can you give a brief description of your job, in thirty seconds or less?
A little bit of anything and everything. My responsibility is to take questions about the Museum’s collection and history, and then answer them with any number of materials from the library or the institutional archives. It’s my job to know where those materials are, and to use them to answer the questions quickly and accurately.
What would be a “typical day” in the life of a librarian/archivist?
None! The day can change based on exhibition changes, or research that’s going on within the Museum for publications. We mirror what’s happening in the Museum, from multiple departments at once – and also from the public. Sometimes there will be a lot of interest in a particular artist – for example, if a certain painting sells for a high price at auction and makes the news, we’ll often suddenly get a number of inquiries for information about the artist and the work. So, we really follow the trail of things that are happening everywhere else in the Museum.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Whenever people have projects that they’re working on, I have the benefit of getting to learn a bit about the subject matter, as well. So, every day I get to learn something new! It’s very satisfying, and also constantly interesting, as there are never two days or topics that are identical.
Is there anything that you have learned in the past, through your research, which has especially interested or surprised you?
Yes! Some of the lesser-known facets of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s history have really stunned me. Did you know that we held the first Cubist exhibition in the country, in 1914? We also had a very early retrospective on the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner, an amazing African-American artist. And, I recently learned that one of our former directors was the uncle of Orson Welles! And it was so interesting, because when you watch the work of Orson Welles and see the distinctive, visual way that he tells his stories, it sounds so much like the way that this director ran the Museum. There’s definitely a book waiting to be written about it!
What is one challenge that you have encountered in your work?
Definitely that there’s not enough time in the day – or enough coffee in my cup! There are just never enough hours to follow an interesting historical story all the way to its root, because there are so many things that need to be done. As a librarian, you have to be very responsive to the needs of the rest of the Museum and the public. There are definitely days when I wish I could just lock my office door for six months and only research the things that I’m interested in – but that’s not going to happen! However, I definitely feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn as much as I do, about so many diverse aspects of history.
Is there something unusual or unique about your position that most people may not know?
That I exist! Many people are surprised that an art museum would even have a librarian. But when you think about it, it soon becomes clear what an essential role the library and archives play in the life of the Museum. We’re constantly researching the collection – there’s so much more to be known about the artists and artwork. Just because a work of art is on a wall in a museum, that’s not the end of the story. Names and dates can change – and so can even the painting’s attribution to a particular artist. The works of art within the Museum’s collection are alive and constantly in flux, as we learn more and more information about them.
Tell a bit about yourself – how did you come to have this position?
Well, I actually came to the Milwaukee Art Museum a bit by accident. I worked for a number of years in New York, first as a legal assistant in a law firm. I really enjoyed the research aspect, and it seemed like a natural fit to find a position which would allow me to enjoy working with the arts while also incorporating elements of research. So, I transitioned to working for a significant art dealer, still in New York. But after a while, I felt that it was time to return home to Milwaukee. In my job in New York, I had been working with modern and contemporary artworks, so I actually came to the Milwaukee Art Museum first as a curatorial assistant. Within a year, I had moved to the Library/Archives department – and that’s where I am today!
Why do you believe that art and art museums are important in today’s society?
There’s a mistaken assumption today that the only way that we have communicated traditionally is through the written word. In many ways, this is understandable when we consider the issue of accessibility – while it’s easy to for anyone to find and read Shakespeare, because Hamlet is available in every library and bookstore, it’s completely different and perhaps more challenging to access art. You can really only do it by visiting a museum – there’s just such a uniqueness about seeing a work of art in person. And art is such a powerful mode of communication, about ourselves and how we have developed, in the context of our society and environment. It’s constantly changing and evolving, with new techniques and media, new design characteristics – all of which reflect and preserve a moment in time. For this reason, I think the preservation and appreciation of art remains highly important and valuable today.
Is there anything that you would like to tell future visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum?
You know, I would say: don’t tell them anything. I want visitors to look at the artwork and rely on their instincts, and to interpret the works for themselves. Because whatever their instincts are, they are valid and deserve to be felt. I think there’s a lot of intimidation associated with viewing works within a museum setting – people often believe that their feelings and interpretations are “wrong” in some way. So, I would like people to come in to the Museum and feel comfortable embracing their instincts, and to recognize that each person’s unique response to an artwork is correct and valid.
And, finally: what is your favorite work in the Museum’s collection?
Oh – Mark Rothko, absolutely. I’ve never seen a work of art move – and that one, if you sit and look at it for a while, it just pulses. It’s incredible.
Read more “MAM Behind the Scenes” features here.