An Unconventional Museum Experience

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Passersbys might notice some oddly placed blue signs around campus — maybe the snapshot of handwritten text by the Academic Resource Center or the picture of an iPhone near the Porter squiggle.

The UC Santa Cruz Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS) has worked with artist collective Public Doors and Windows to erect these blue signs and lead museum-goers through campus, to create an innovative museum experience.

Harrell Fletcher, an alumnus of the UCSC Farm apprenticeship program and founder of the Social Practice Program at Portland State University, started the artist collective with two of his graduate students, Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch. Since 2014, the group has been making trips to UCSC to survey the grounds for the project.

Fletcher’s work on the farm inspired him to do collaborative work that complimented the community around it.

“[The apprenticeship] affected how I was thinking about the role of an artist,” Fletcher said. “Not just as someone who makes objects that then get shown in a gallery but as someone who could also think about the system in which the work is being experienced.”

To fund the project, IAS relied on grants from the UC Institute for Research in the Arts funded via the  UC Office of the President, the Chancellor of Research grant, as well as annual donors and a donation from Plantronics to the arts division.

The experience will be supplemented by 50 blue signs spread around campus for an interactive museum experience. A GPS and audio-enabled website, a print-on-demand collection catalogue and student-led tours will complement the conjunctive exhibit at the Sesnon Gallery located near the Porter quad above the koi pond.

The project, featuring different aspects of campus history, including personal histories of students, faculty and alumni, has been in the works since IAS director John Weber and graduate assistant Rachel Nelson brought Fletcher to an IAS launch event.

“We knew that we wanted to build a museum-like entity on the campus but not exactly a museum. We wanted something that was really interdisciplinary but also alert to what the campus community needs,” Nelson said. “[Fletcher’s] model of social practice really pays attention to the communities that he makes work in.”

Fletcher and his collective were invited to propose the project in 2014 and have since made trips to campus to build on it. Initially, Fletcher sought out places he felt were best for the project, but as other perspectives came into view, he and fellow curator John Weber, shifted the vision to be more collaborative. They wanted a mix of sites, ranging from academic and natural history sites to sites of social history and protest as well as personal history sites.

“One of my favorite things about this project is that it gives you different personal takes of what it is to be here at this campus. Whether it’s to work, to live, to make friends, to pursue research, to study, to teach,” Weber said. “There are all these different ways that it gives you a personal look into that told by a specific person’s voice who’s on the tour.”

In addition to viewing photos and reading signs, people will be able to go on the GPS-enabled website, taking them directly to the web page for that spot and showing them a map of other spots across campus. It will give the viewer more information about the site, an audio clip of the person’s history in their voice and additional links to information regarding the site.

Along with the campus-wide signs will be an exhibit at the Sesnon Gallery, which will include sculptures made by 50 students from various art classes. The gallery will not have any photographs or texts about the sites on campus, but portraits of all 50 participants and the sculptures.

“We went from no museum to having the ‘largest museum in the world.’ So that’s what’s kind of fun and also what the changing role of the museum is,” said Sesnon Gallery curator Shelby Graham. “Is it just about one artist or seeing the great masters or is it about getting people involved? In this case, it’s all about education because we’re here on a university campus.”

The signs will remain on campus for the next five years. There is room to expand the project to additional places, though IAS has no plans to do so yet. For Fletcher and others involved in the project, the Collective Museum is all about telling history through specific lenses.

“People know there are a lot of stories and interesting things on a college campus but we wanted to formalize that and make it more obviously visible,” Fletcher said. “In some ways, we’re sort of pointing to a few things and letting people know what the story or significance is in those things with the idea that really, there are millions of other versions of those all around us also.”