The 2022 MGMM intensive cohort visiting the Gunnison Pioneer Museum in the summer of 2022. Photo credit: Erica Nunn-Kinias

“I chose [Western] as a path that would lead me further in my career because in the museum world, the art world, it’s all about who you know,” says Lauren McCaulou, a student in Western’s Master’s of Arts in Museum and Gallery Management (MGMM) program. “[Program director] Dr. Nunn-Kinias is fantastic at outsourcing and getting you connected with people.”

Founded in 2018 by Dr. Heather Orr, a since-retired art history professor, the MGMM program currently has eight students at various stages of graduate study, with four more entering the program later this summer.

Dr. Erica Nunn-Kinias, a Western professor and art and architectural historian, heads the predominantly remote program. Other faculty include fellow Western anthropology instructor Dr. David Hyde, Dr. Mathilde Ludec, a curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, and Dr. Carl Fuldner, an art history instructor with the University of Chicago. 

The program’s flexible curriculum allows students from around the U.S. to earn their master’s in as little as one year (and up to four years, with many students doing it in two) while completing a museum internship and a capstone project.

In completing their MGMM degree, students take a diverse slate of coursework in curatorship, exhibition, and business principles that prepares them for a wide range of potential career outlets. 

An exhibit in the Royal Museum for Central Africa

Why MGMM?

That combination of the artistic and the practical made the MGMM perfect for Michaela Rich-Mooney, a Casper, Wyoming resident who has a deep passion for science museums.

“I had been looking for a program that I could do online,” says Rich-Mooney, a new mother. “My professors were very, very accommodating … [they] genuinely care about you and work with your life situation.”

Having studied anthropology with a focus in museum studies and collections, she was on the hunt for a graduate museum program that she could complete from her native Wyoming, and that would expand her skills in leadership, management, and business. 

Lauren McCaulou, a fellow MGMM student living in Chandler, Arizona, came to the program with a fine arts background. For her final BFA project, titled “Roadside Anthems,” she curated and exhibited a gallery of her own works, mostly landscape oil paintings.

McCaulou in front of her 2022 BFA exhibit “Roadside Anthems”

“That was the most thrilling experience that I had had up until that point,” says McCaulou, who stumbled upon Western’s MGMM program around that time, which fit into a vision for the future where she hopes to curate and exhibit her own work.

Previously, McCaulou had worked with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in Saint Michaels, Maryland as a remote educational intern in 2021, addressing accessibility needs above and beyond the baseline ADA requirements for the museum’s new welcome center.

“They took a chance on a desert rat who doesn’t know anything about boats,” says McCaulou, who would later work as a submissions and panelist coordinator for CBMM, helping assemble an exhibit on the past, present, and future of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Lauren McCaulou in 2021 on the recreation of the ship the Dove in St. Michaels, Maryland at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

The future curators of America

A key part of the MGMM program is a two-week summer intensive in Gunnison, a flurry of orientation, museum study, and hands-on gallery work that brings together new and returning students with program faculty, forging quick bonds amid new colleagues. 

Every year, MGMM students have the opportunity to experience different museums, and to dive into different projects in curation and exhibitions taking place on campus. In 2022, the intensive cohort began their work by curating a small archeological display case in Hurst Hall, Western’s sciences building. 

“That was a really interesting thing because you get to learn what everybody’s experience is, and what people’s opinions are on how objects should be displayed,” says McCaulou, hinting at some strong aesthetic opinions amidst the group. 

For Rich-Mooney, the experience was a welcome return to archaeological work, which she had previously done with the Wyoming State Parks and the Bureau of Land Management.

MGMM students also had the opportunity to help design an exhibit composed of thirty copperplate engravings made by Evan Lindquist, a famous printmaker from Arkansas.

“Like mementos of history, each of Lindquist’s engravings includes visual cues and subtle historical references related to the techniques of printmakers, delivered in his indelible wit and masterful skill with calligraphic lines,” writes Dr. Nunn-Kinias for the Western website’s piece on Lindquist’s donation, and the associated art show “Evan Lindquist Engraves Engravers.”

“The four of us were working together to curate the whole thing: Creating labels …. hanging the pieces up on the wall and making sure the piece felt like it had a flow to it and that it made sense,” says McCaulou. “That was all done in two days — it was very intense.”

Lauren McCaulou installs prints for the exhibit, “Evan Lindquist Engraves Engravers” in Western’s Quigley Gallery, 2022. Photo Erica Nunn-Kinias

The experience was a trial by fire for the new MGMMers, several of whom had never exhibited a show of this nature. “This is his entire life being put up in a show,” explains McCaulou of the 87-year-old Linquist and his artistic donation. “It’s a wonderful gift.”

As part of the preparation, McCaulou was charged with choosing a paint for the walls beyond Lindquist’s works. She recalls running to the Ace Hardware in Gunnison and selecting the copper paint, which perfectly complemented Lindquist’s copper engravings. 

During the intensive, the MGMM cohort also made trips to a number of local and regional museums, including the renowned Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe (the previous cohort went the opposite direction, up to Aspen). 

Amidst the educational chaos, the program’s faculty goes out of their way to ensure that students walk away with the best possible experience. 

MGMM student Emily Gergasko standing in front of the Western exhibit on Evan Lindquist

“We had opportunities to go back and see different museums and exhibitions that we wanted to spend more time with,” says Rich-Mooney. “The Folk Art Museum is insane, anybody who has the chance to go definitely needs to.”

Another key component of the MGMM program is that it introduces students, many of whom come from art, museum, and anthropology backgrounds, to the business end of the industry. 

Rich-Mooney, whose background is predominantly in curations, collections, and exhibition design, wholly appreciated how those business courses, which touch on topics like grant writing, administration, and ethics, have rounded out her professional experience. 

Outside the intensive, the program’s online curriculum prescribes a heavy dose of reading on far-reaching topics in the museum world, including learning from a history of painful mistakes, but also staying current with popular artists, news-catching museum protests, and evolving industry standards.

McCaulou says this focus on the present state of the industry prepares students to enter the workforce with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions in an evolving industry actively reckoning with its complicated past. 

Michaela Rich-Mooney installing a miniature exhibition as the Curator of Art at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. 

The trail of history

Another facet of the program is that it pairs students with a museum internship of their choosing. Some students find opportunities via Western and the faculty’s deep list of connections, while others zero in on options right in their backyard.

Rich-Mooney’s internship involves working as an assistant under Gena Jensen, the executive director at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center (NHTIC).

The museum, a nonprofit partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), includes exhibitions on the historic Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, all of which passed through the Casper, Wyoming area as travelers made their way west. Nowadays, the BLM leads guided hikes from the center where visitors can walk the historical trails for themselves.

Rich-Mooney wears many hats in her role with the NHTI — writing grants to support the museum and monitoring and maintaining exhibitions for public viewing. 

For her capstone project, she’s working with the consortium of local museums in Casper, social media to understand how honesty and transparency can help foster healing, particularly with minority cultures who have been harmed by the actions and portrayals of museums historically. 

An artistic depiction of the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail. Photo via Encyclopedia Britannica

As part of that work, she’s working with Native American peoples on issues of reappropriation — navigating a way forward through a complex and painful history. 

In a 2020 Harvard Crimson article on the subject, Lorén Spears, a member of the Narragansett Nation and the head of the Indigenous Tomaquag Museum in Rhode Island, voiced some of that dark history. 

Spears says that museums have historically acted as gatekeepers of the past, filtering Native stories through Eurocentric value systems, resulting in inaccurate, stereotypical framings of Native peoples that lacked any significant Indigenous voice — and perpetuating the idea that Native Americans are a relic of the past, not a diverse group of more than two million people living all throughout the United States today.

Rich-Mooney has spoken with a number of larger museums that have significant followings on TikTok, including the Nicolaysen Art Museum and the historic Molly Brown House, both in Denver.

The Molly Brown House in Denver

“Currently, reappropriation is a very touchy subject for museums and there is a lot of hostility about the origins of collections, Rich-Mooney says. “When human remains and artifacts are suspected to be of Native origins, they need to be returned to their respective cultures.”

She’s planning to present her findings to the museum consortium in Casper, Wyoming and create a series of TikTok videos outlining her findings and best practices for museums to address historical wrongs in the digital world. Her hope is that the video series will aid the movement towards greater transparency in the museum industry.

“When museums acknowledge that their collections may have dubious pasts, that is the first step in moving forward towards a more ethical future,” she concludes.

Dam Work

McCaulou’s internship also brought her in contact with the Mile High City, via a connection of Dr. Nunn-Kinias. In January of this year, she took a position as a museum curatorial intern with the Bureau of Reclamation (the federal agency that manages many large water resource projects, including dams and irrigation infrastructure), where she works under Western alumnus Peter Solano, a property program manager for the agency. 

“[The Bureau of] Reclamation has a massive art collection that has been stored away for the past 30+ years,” explains McCaulou, the second MGMM student to work with the Bureau. The agency’s collection includes more than 300 works ranging from landscape paintings to dam models and illustrations of bureau projects. 

“It’s a lot of dams. Reclamation is all about water, so it’s a lot of dams. A lot of dam jokes too,” says McCaulou with a laugh. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the bureau commissioned about 40 artists to venture out to Bureau of Reclamation sites in the west and create art — paintings, drawings, and other works at the artist’s discretion bringing to life landscapes, dam sites, workers, and the surrounding communities. 

Lauren McCaulou, a Western MGMM student, presents her internship work to Bureau of Reclamation staff in Denver, Colorado.

“There was no boundary or limitation on what the artist could say,” notes McCaulou of the unique set of works. ‘It’s not a collection [intended] to … praise what the United States government has done.”

McCaulou has been hard at work curating an online viewing room from the digitized works, slated to open to the public later this year. Much of her work centers on researching and placing individual artworks into their proper geographic context. 

“Do you know where Grand Coulee Dam is? Well, you better know where Grand Coulee Dam is if you’ve got 10 pieces of artwork on it,” she says. “For my own personal use, I went into Google Maps and tagged all the locations just so I could see where all the sites were.”

For McCaulou, the most exciting part of her work with the Bureau has been the excitement the staff have displayed at having the agency’s artistic works proverbially dusted off and made ready for public display after spending decades out of the limelight. 

The Grand Coulee Dam in all its majesty, Washington State

She’s made two trips to Denver as part of her internship, the latter of which included giving a presentation to an eager room of agency staff. “They said ‘wow, the artwork looks amazing,’ and I said, ‘I know, can you believe it’s been in here this whole time?’”

McCaulou’s favorite works are four tremendously wide landscape paintings featuring gorgeous mountain landscapes and beautiful flowers set in Montana, painted by renowned modernist Michael Frary

Another marquee piece for the Bureau is a Norman Rockwell oil-on-canvas painting of Glen Canyon Dam from 1969, currently on display at the Norman Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. McCaulou says the agency hopes to eventually get a modern digitization of the piece for use in its online gallery.

Lauren says that working with the Bureau of Reclamation is unique because it requires conducting outreach to a prospective audience, whereas museums have an established patronage of avid museumgoers. 

But one common thread that unites the west, garnering near universal interest, is water.

“Everybody out here wants to know what is going to happen to the water. Where’s it gonna come from? When’s it gonna run out? Is California going to take all our water?” asks McCaulou. 

The topic of water unites the gallery’s diverse works and could serve as a gateway for the general public into exploring the Bureau’s collection, and gaining a deeper understanding of what exaxtly the Bureau of Reclamation does. McCaulou admits that even hailing from Arizona, she didn’t have much awareness of the agency’s work before starting with the Bureau.

“Not only is the artwork meant to be on display because it’s owned and paid for by the American tax dollars from the last eight decades, but it’s also an important piece to [showcase] the beauty of the western United States, and the role of Reclamation in the western United States,” relays McCaulou.  

Norman Rockwell’s “Glen Canyon Dam,” painted in 1969.

The wide world of museums 

In the museum world, obtaining a master’s degree (the terminal degree in the field) is a necessary benchmark to progress to full-time roles in collections, curations, and exhibitions — a driving force for students in selecting the MGMM program. 

With the end to her studies coming into frame, Rich-Mooney’s goal is to combine her experience in the museum industry and start her own consultancy advising museums, allowing her to work with different museums and carve out a schedule where she can spend as much time as possible with her daughter. 

Her advisor, Dr. Nunn-Kinias, has been massively helpful in tailoring her MGMM experience towards her goals.

“Museums are a lot more time-consuming than people think they are, it’s not a standard 9 to 5 job. When you’re installing an exhibition, you could be there until 4 a.m. the next morning,” Rich-Mooney says. “I want to be able to help smaller museums, especially those here in Wyoming, grow.”

You can learn more about the MGMM on the program’s webpage or follow along on Instagram or LinkedIn.

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