Faculty Profile: Monique Scott
On a basic level, we ask: "what is a museum?"
An anthropologist, Associate Professor of History of Art Monique Scott led cultural education programs at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History for 10 years before joining Bryn Mawr as director of the new Museum Studies program in 2015. Museum Studies officially became a minor in 2016.
Can you talk about the research interests that have informed your museum work?
My Ph.D. is in bioanthropology and my dissertation work was on representations of Africa in different natural history museums. I was a bio-anthropologist. So, I looked at exhibits in London, and in Nairobi, and in New York City, I was interested in the history of race-science and how it manifested itself in museums, and the residues of that today.
How have you shaped the Museum Studies program?
A lot of museum studies programs in the U.S. are graduate programs and they focus a lot on the practical side of museum work. So, I was really eager to teach it as a humanities-focused, critical-thinking program.
I've built the program to be about studying the museum as an institution and looking at the role it serves in society and about how knowledge is constructed in museums—reading museums like a text, just as we do in all other liberal arts courses.
I believe in museums, I love museums, but I was always interested in how they can do more in terms of engaging politics, culture, and race. So, the curriculum here is very much around that. And it's very interdisciplinary. We ask questions like, "How do you curate for social activism? How do you make museums more of a relevant, resonant part of the political landscape?"
On a basic level, we ask: What is a museum? Is it about the objects, and collecting and conservation? Is it about public education and public service? Should it be transparent and nonprofit? Who is it serving and how can it serve audiences better?
I believe in the program as a minor and not a major because it's complementary to students of any discipline. It's thinking about how to visualize knowledge, learning to tell stories through objects. It's often a new way of thinking for students.
I feel like the program is a good balance of bringing them practical experience, but also teaching them theoretical grounding. I love the theory. And I also love the smell of dusty old cabinets in the basement storage areas of museums.
When did you first become interested in museums?
Museums are in my blood. I begged to intern at our local science museum in Harrisburg when I was 11. I wanted to go every weekend. I loved it. I worked there all through high school. There's a way that science museums are really accessible because they're interactive. I loved being in close proximity to real science in action. It felt alive!
Tell us about your current research.
My recent research is on the history of African Art in collections. I was on the curatorial team for a new exhibit on Africa that opened in 2019 at the Penn Museum, and that exhibit featured much of the archival research I did with Bryn Mawr student interns.
Because of my anthropological research, I am someone that is passionate about museums but also cares a lot about how they construct race and culture and our identities. I've become involved with a lot of Philly museums in how they're responding to this decolonized museum moment.
I have been very involved in how museums are responding to new pressures and new reactions to them as elitist institutions. It's hard work to make these changes in large institutions but I’m committed to being part of that change.
How have you found the switch from the museum world to academia?
I love teaching Bryn Mawr students. They’re curious, they're passionate and they become really excited about this way of thinking and processing and questioning the Museum. There’s an enthusiasm and interest in the program that's just very moving. What I love about being back in the classroom is feeling the energy in the room when we're debating topics or coming up with their group exhibition proposals. These students are the future!
I also love getting them jobs. I mean, one of the benefits of connecting to all these different Philadelphia museums is that students have greater access to internships. Several museums, such as The American Philosophical Society, have created a unique set of internships just for Bryn Mawr students.
Though Bryn Mawr doesn’t have a museum, it does have significant collections. The art and artifact collection here is phenomenal. It's mind blowing what's there. Although I’m a faculty member in History of Art, my work is closely aligned with Special Collections. It’s such an important collection and it’s important to be good stewards of it.