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The McMullen Museum reaches out to students

On a warm Friday evening in early September, dozens of undergraduates streamed across Commonwealth Ave., heading to the new home of Boston College’s McMullen Museum.

Some wore little black dresses, others dressed in jackets and ties. But most sported late-summer casual wear (T-shirts and jeans) as they made their way to a private party welcoming students to the recently relocated, expanded McMullen and its
inaugural exhibition, Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.

Music from BC’s own Electronic State of Mind DJ collective drifted through the spacious glass atrium and out onto the third floor terrace of the 1927 Renaissance Revival building at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue (the one-time Boston cardinal’s residence on what is now the University’s Brighton Campus). More than 600 undergraduate and graduate students would turn out for that Friday night’s celebration—the first in a variety of new events and programs planned to encourage students to make the museum their own.


Throughout the evening, students sampled medieval-inspired desserts and looked out over the sloping lawn, woods, and local urban landscape that can be seen from the terrace.  Attendees who took part in a scavenger hunt scanned the medieval- and Renaissance-era manuscripts that hung on the walls during Beyond Words, searching for clues.
“We have always had events and activities to which students were invited, but we now have a state-of-the-art space to fully realize these events,” said Nancy Netzer, the McMullen’s founding director.

After 23 years in Devlin Hall on Middle Campus, the museum moved in early summer to its new quarters. With 30,000 square feet of gallery space—three times as much as it had in Devlin—the McMullen is now home to what Sebastian Smee, the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning art critic, describes as a “wonderful exhibition space for an institution that’s been putting on some of the more interesting shows in the Boston area for a long time.”

The September 9 student gathering, held three days before the McMullen officially opened its doors to the public, marked the start of a new, student-run “Art After Dark” series. It’s part of a new slate of programs that range from public lectures, openings, and readings to Bingo nights, gallery yoga, sledding, and student-oriented holiday celebrations (geared toward undergraduates but open to faculty, staff, and the community at large).


Beyond Words, the first major showing of illuminated manuscripts in the Boston area, was an auspicious start for the newly expanded museum. Netzer worked with curators from Harvard University’s Houghton Library and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to create an exhibition that hung simultaneously across all three institutions, borrowing over 250 manuscripts from 19 Boston-area institutions, including the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boston Athenaeum.

“We view the museum as a laboratory for teaching and research,” Netzer said. To this end, the McMullen has also launched a new Student Ambassadors program, overseen by Rachel Chamberlain, the museum’s director of educational outreach. A gift from Robert ’60 and Judy Winston supports part-time jobs for 28 students, who answer visitors’ questions in the galleries, run the information desk, and help museum staff plan for the future. The program aims to “introduce students to how things work behind the scenes at museums,” Chamberlain said. “If they’re interested in working in museums in the future, they’ll have a foot in the door and some actual experiences to point to.”

The Student Ambassadors are more than greeters and guides. Take Vincent Roca ’17, for example, who is building a three-dimensional model of the museum’s galleries for exhibition designers and curators to use when planning future exhibitions. Roca, a studio art major, is using 3D modeling skills he learned in class to render the galleries with Google SketchUp software. “The project seemed relevant to work I might do after college,” said Roca, who is interested in exhibition design.

Roca is also a member of the exhibition design committee, one of eight students who work in areas such as curation, social media, collection management, videography, and event planning. For Patrick Dunne ’18, the publication committee has been an opportunity to explore a potential career in publishing. In addition to assisting in the production of books, e-books, and catalogues, Dunne helps run The Terrace, a Student Ambassador-run site that covers happenings at the McMullen as well as arts events on-campus and in Boston.

“We’re trying to get students involved,” Dunne said of the online publication. “We want as many people to know about this space as possible.”

Interested students will be able to apply for the Student Ambassador program again in March. Meanwhile, the events committee is planning to continue the Arts After Dark series with two late-night events each semester. This spring, the museum will also host a February 19 “Snow Day” celebration, yoga and bingo nights, all-night study sessions during finals, and the new “Museum Current” series of lectures by museum studies experts. Students were also invited to a January 26 preview of the McMullen’s next exhibition, Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic, where plans called for Cuban food and music and a dance performance by student group Fuego del Corazón to complement the work of Soriano, a renowned Cuban abstract painter. As Chamberlain notes, “Whenever we can, we try to amplify or showcase what our students can do.”

—John Shakespear