Museum works with students to avoid jargon while explaining the influence of a 16th century artist | St. Louis Public Radio

Museum works with students to avoid jargon while explaining the influence of a 16th century artist

Apr 23, 2015

Did you ever read the description next to a museum painting and scratch your head? The St. Louis Art Museum and Washington University students worked together to combat that head-scratching moment for a new exhibit.

Art museums are working to avoid jargon, or art speak. In this case, the topic is a bit more obscure than Picasso or Rembrandt. It's the influence of 16th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch on the common culture of his time.

“We’re conditioned to kind of reach for that higher academic level, and sometimes it takes a minute to just step back and think, if I was a friend describing this to another friend how would I get them to look at it?” said Washington University student Marina May. “And how would I get them to stick around and be like ‘Oh, look at that, that’s really cool!”

May is one student who contributed wall text to the museum’s current exhibit Beyond Bosch. The exhibit examines the influence of early Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch on the generations immediately following his death. The exhibit was drawn from the personal collection of a St. Louis area resident who prefers to remain anonymous. No actual Bosch prints are displayed.

Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Elizabeth Wyckoff and Washington University Assistant Professor Marissa Bass co-curated the show. Wyckoff and Bass also managed the student’s textual contributions.

“I thought there would be a way to make students really feel more agency in what they’re doing,” said Bass. 

The assistant professor asked her students to write text that appeals to a broad population while explaining complex imagery of monsters, creatures and contorted human figures.

“Think ‘how do you translate that to a general public who knows nothing about the Renaissance,'” she said.

Wyckoff said the approach also suited the museum.

“It’s very exciting from the museum’s point of view because we have our curatorial voice, but it was really thrilling to work with our learning and engagement staff who worked with the students and talked with them and coached them,” said Wyckoff.

The students’ task mirrors the prints themselves, which brought elite art to a wider public. According to curators, these prints represent pop culture from 16th-century Europe. The prints were like the posters or photos of today: affordable and shareable reproductions of original works. 

Joannes van Doetecum the Elder and Lucas van Doetecum after Alart du Hameel; The Besieged Elephant, n.d.; etching and engraving, Private collection
Credit Provided by the St. Louis Art Museum

“They’re really the beginning of this modern notion of this parodic, almost caricatured kind of culture that is appealing across ages,” said Bass. 

Wyckoff said the pieces also reflect a turning point in the public perception of art  The Beyond Bosch prints highlight a moment in European art history when the public began a fascination with an artist’s ability to conjure ideas and pursue their imagination instead of focusing on craftsmanship. Wyckoff says this turn is reflected in the Washington University wall texts.

“If they take the time to read the wall text, they’ll realize that there was an artist in the 16th century who had this incredible imagination and powers of invention and it was really a generation or two generations later that people were still being inspired by that,” said the curator.