Having been encouraged to think big by her Museum Studies professors, Emily Berg (class of 2018) decided to take a chance earlier this year and apply for the competitive Kress Interpretive Fellowship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. She was not only granted an initial interview, but
made it to the final round and was eventually selected for the fellowship. Her skills and experience, she believes, aligned closely with what the Smithsonian American Art Museum – known as SAAM – wanted in an interpretive fellow.
SAAM was looking for someone with audience research experience who knew how to involve communities in exhibitions and understood the relevance of addressing diversity, equity and inclusion issues. Berg has an academic background in both fine arts and art history. When she did her Master of Museum Studies degree, she focused on interpretive planning, curatorial work and visitor research. And during her subsequent project work as a freelance interpretive planner, she applied that knowledge on the job.
In the world of museums, interpretive planning helps visitors to better understand, interact and engage with museums, their collections and exhibitions. This involves everything from creating the wall text labels to developing hands-on activities that further leaning engagement. “I’m always thinking about the different types of visitors to an exhibition, and what each type of visitor might be doing, thinking, feeling and saying when they’re in an exhibit,” says Berg.
“It’s about engaging with artworks and objects in a meaningful way. It’s not just learning about facts. While you don’t want an exhibit to be over programmed, you do want visitors to have the space to take it in, to engage with it, and to allow for a variety of multiple entry points.”
At SAAM, where she began her nine-month fellowship in July, Berg is currently assigned to three projects working with their interpretive team in the education department.
The first involves the reinstallation of SAAM’s permanent collection galleries for modern and contemporary art. Berg is working on creating interpretive labels that will help prompt discussion and closer looking by placing works of art in conversation with one another.
Her second project is the Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice exhibition, which is currently on tour and will be on view at SAAM in 2024. It features a series painted by the artist in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers. To add additional meaning to the portraits and to encourage interdisciplinary connections with other Smithsonian museums, Berg will be interviewing curators at various museums including the National Museum of African American History and Culture about objects in their collections – for example, a shawl belonging to abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The voices of these Smithsonian experts will be accessible to exhibition visitors at SAAM.
For her third project, Berg will work on the interpretive plan for an upcoming exhibition featuring the paintings of mid-twentieth century artist Alma Thomas.
And finally, she will also work on SAAM’s overall audience research initiatives.
“Every day, I contribute to a variety of projects,” she says. “I bring in my experience with museums here in Canada and have the ability to share new creative ideas.”
For the first few months of her fellowship, Berg has been working remotely and will continue to do so with one planned work visit to Washington, D.C. this fall. Starting in January, she will spend four months on site at SAAM.
After having a quiet pandemic workwise, Berg is optimistic that the connections she’s making will open up new opportunities in her field. While she had worked in the arts and culture sector before returning to university to do her Master of Museum Studies, Berg says she hadn’t quite found her niche. “I always knew I wanted to work with exhibits, but I didn’t know what aspect of them,” she says, adding that all changed by the first or second day of classes at the Faculty of Information. “I knew I’d finally found my passion.”