The Rise of University Museums

Marisa Zemesarajs '15 continuing to stabilize Denison's collection of works on paper.

Marisa Zemesarajs ’15 continuing to stabilize Denison’s collection of works on paper.


by Marisa Zemesarajs ’15

Over a century ago, Oscar Wilde wrote, “All art is quite useless.” Given the rising popularity of not only accredited museums across the country (the Smithsonian reported a 20% jump in museum visitors in the past couple years alone,) but also collegiate institutions established for displaying and collecting pieces for educational purposes, I feel as if the consensus would disagree. Nearly every major city in the United States is home to a museum of some sort, which suggests a rising interest in preserving and presenting material culture. New acquisitions of physical objects and universal shifts in thought, alike, change the fabric of each institution. At once, museums are responsible for displaying contemporary collections, presenting the world as a sort of “work in progress,” while also preserving our cultural heritage. A simultaneous glance backward and forward. This continuum, true to definition, is constantly changing.

The growing popularity of museums like the Guggenheim, for example, isn’t necessarily surprising; however, an interesting growth has surfaced in liberal arts institutions. University museums, like our very own Denison Museum, are becoming more and more important within the education system. Every college within the Ohio Five has established a museum on campus, three within the past decade alone. It’s pretty incredible, actually. There has to be something larger at work that calls for a bridge between what’s learned via PowerPoint in a classroom and the marble-encased heritage of the Met.

The presence of university art museums allow for students, faculty, and student employees to physically come into contact with objects of different cultures and time periods. Transcending cultural barriers, art fosters a mutual respect of different cultural ideas, beliefs, and opinions; granting access to an increasingly global community. Internship opportunities also arise from these small institutions as made possible by private donors, giving students the opportunity to learn the technical skills and practices of the industry. At a small college like Denison, these donations are more than simple transactions or tax write-offs, they come from people who believe that Denison can offer a unique perspective into the arts. This summer, we are focusing on re-housing and preserving our extensive works on paper collection- a big task, indeed. This project was made possible by Carole Darst, Denison Class of 1963. And boy, are we grateful! Ms. Darst exemplifies the “personal touch” of university museums that I speak of.

I wanted to get to know Ms. Darst better and by asking just a few, simple questions I noticed a great pattern surface. Recounting stories of her experiences at Denison, her triumphs and patches of bad luck alike, and career moves (which included working as a graphic artist, the Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Executive Director of the Indiana Advocates of the Art, to keep the list short,) Ms. Darst eloquently shared how and why her passion for the arts surfaced. When I asked her what her expectations for the internship, and more broadly, the museum were she replied, “that you, and others might find a unique view of the world that can come from actually touching and studying the pieces, and so- meet, talk to, and understand the artists and people who have created those very things. And introduce others to them.” This advice doesn’t apply to just one specific person, it extends to the whole of the Denison community, and beyond, all in the hopes that many will venture into the arts.

In talking with people that have gone where we want to go (regardless of discipline) it becomes obvious that the Denison experience travels full-circle. It’s really no wonder that museums of liberal arts colleges are on the rise; it provides a great way for the circle to continue. Ending this post, I’d like to quote Ms. Darst who said, “I believe in the necessity of the arts for individuals and for communities in their everyday lives. To me, Life is an art form and art is a way to discover the past, deal gracefully with the present and vision toward the future.” It’s a really neat pattern.

One Response to “The Rise of University Museums”

  1. Carole Darst Says:

    Thanks Marisa, You said it all -beautifully.

“It was like a treasure hunt! (Referring to her work rehousing the Museum’s African collection)”

— Kristine Mallinson ’15