This Pitt class takes a behind-the-scenes look at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museums

Plus, some tips for your next museum trip.

Tom Little / CMOA
MJ Slaby

With two of the four Carnegie Museums in Oakland, University of Pittsburgh students pass them all the time.

But one class takes students inside those museums, as well as the other two on the North Side. “Inside the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh” is taught by Erin Peters, who has a joint role as a lecturer of curatorial studies at Pitt and an assistant curator in science and research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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This class exploring the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Science Center is geared at students who are interested in museum work.

Most students are pursuing a minor in museum studies — popular with students studying history, anthropology and art and architecture — Peters said, adding that it’s growing in popularity with biological sciences and chemistry students. Peters said it’s especially exciting to have students from those areas, because natural history museums have a different model from art museums, so their expertise is needed.

A role in the decisions

Peters is teaching the class for the third time this semester and said each time can be a little different.

She’s currently focusing on an approach called the participatory museum — museums putting a focus on being inclusive and a part of a socially active community where audiences are brought into a creative role and are part of the dialogue, Peters said.

“Museums are not just about things or objects. They are about people,” she said.

Participatory is different from hands-on exhibits, she added. It means that the audience is the co-creator and makes decisions with museum leaders. Peters said one example is a CMOA exhibit that ended this spring called “The Stories You Tell,” where audiences were asked to create six-word stories to go with the paintings instead of traditional labels.

So how do you know if you’re in is a participatory museum? Here’s what Peters said to look for:

  • Community advisory groups
  • Audience evaluations in advance of an exhibit to gauge interest
  • Visits that make you feel like you have a stake in the museum and what happens there

Museum pro-tips

Ever go to a museum wanting to see everything but find yourself burnt out after just a small portion? Peters admitted that even though she’s an expert, she knows that feeling, too. So how do you avoid that on your next museum trip? Here’s Peters’ advice:

  • Do some pre-trip research. What do you want to see most? The answer can depend on if you’re likely to go back to the museum again. When Peters is out of town, she said she goes straight for the ancient history displays since that that’s her area of study and what she’s most interested in. But with local museums, she said to consider the temporary exhibits along with your favorite topics first.
  • Orient yourself when you first arrive. No matter how much research you do, it’s good to take a look at the maps and daily programming, as well as ask questions at visitor services once you arrive, Peters said.
  • Check out both temporary displays, as well as the permanent ones. The temporary ones rotate more frequently, but both do change, Peters said.
  • Pay attention to the layout. Some museums are very specific in the order you should view displays, she said. The Carnegie Natural History Museum is chronological from the first floor up. But the Warhol is chronological from the top floor down.

Recommended reading

Want more? Here’s a few suggestions from Peters:

Take a look at the class schedule: