Photo: Tim Little
Marilyn Russell knows her way around people, and art. She’s been calmly, methodically, and passionately negotiating both at Carnegie Museum of Art for 30 years. “It’s about gently guiding people to be open and curious about what they see,” she says. Although she didn’t grow up visiting art museums and wasn’t particularly artistic in her youth, something clicked when Russell took her first college-level art history class. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Chatham University and a graduate degree at the University of Michigan, both in art history, and then returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh, knowing she wanted to put her newfound love of learning and talking about art to work at a museum. After stints at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art and The Frick, she found her home and her calling at Carnegie Museum of Art, first as head of the docent program and then, for the past 20 years, as curator of education.
Under Russell’s thoughtful and tenacious leadership, the museum’s volunteer-based docent program has become a model for visitor-engagement programs nationally; its education programming now serves tens of thousands of children and adults annually; and, perhaps most importantly, Russell has given the visitor—all visitors—a seat at the table in the museum’s day-to-day decision-making. She knows that some of those visitors might be a little intimidated. Going to the museum can be a little like eating our vegetables. “We know it’s a good thing, like vegetables are a good thing,” she notes. “But some of us are at a loss as to exactly what’s good about it. My goal is to invite a broader range of people to give us a try, and to help them overcome that hesitation or insecurity.”
What was education’s role at the museum 30 years ago?
We have a wonderful tradition of Saturday art classes for kids, now in its 82nd year, and with the opening of the Scaife wing in 1974 with its children’s studio, the museum expanded its art classes for very young kids. We also had our volunteer docent program—all wonderful programs, but they were a little hidden. Over time, they were able to come out of the basement.
Literally and figuratively?
That’s right. Education was somewhat disconnected from the “main floor” life of the museum, and that’s the thing that I have focused on—making the visitor experience more integral to and identified with the museum’s mission.
Was this happening at other museums at that time?
Through the ’80s and ’90s there was a bigger emphasis on the public mission of museums. And there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for public-engagement programming—which produced some tension and tough decisions in every American museum about how to do our best for our objects and still make the galleries great places for all kinds of visitors.
Does that tension still exist?
Yes, it’s a good debate to keep at the center of our work. In truth, everyone is concerned with both the objects and the audience, but it’s important to have advocates for each at the table together.
We have a small and truly expert team of educators, and we work alongside an outstanding team of curators and other staff for whom the collection is paramount. Our job as museum educators is to build a bridge between the visitors and the works of art, and to make sure that we provide really engaging access to the range of ideas available to explore in our collections and exhibitions. Artists make art about life. And one of the most interdisciplinary ways of thinking about the world is through the eyes of an artist who has translated his or her observations and experiences of the world and given them visual form that can capture our attention.
How does technology factor into all this today?
It’s big; it’s really big.
Is it tough to keep up with it?
You know, that’s the fun part of this job. There’s always something more to think about, to figure out. And technology, of course, is just a regular part of people’s lives. It’s the way people navigate the world now, and there’s a role for it in navigating ideas and experiences in the museum.
I’m really interested in how we can better support the people who just find themselves here on Saturday with their family or friends. “Here I am, help me out, build me a bridge.” And I think technology is one of the things that can help. But it’s always a struggle to figure out how to do it in a way that makes it clear that it belongs in the gallery, and that it fits in aesthetically and intellectually.
Can you give an example?
Jason [Busch, curator of decorative arts] was really enthusiastic about having us incorporate interactive displays in the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries, which we did. It required tough choices, though. What happens when there are more objects than we have space for? Do we lose an important chair or cabinet to keep that interactive display? It’s a difficult balancing act to achieve our collective goals.
How is museum education becoming more interdisciplinary?
We have the opportunity to help people realize that art can help you see something that maybe you wouldn’t have recognized otherwise, or bring you to some kind of humbling understanding of someone else’s life, or maybe clarify your own values.
I love what we do with the Pitt medical school students, which is a partnership we launched a couple of years ago with The Warhol. We get those kids to think about their role with patients by exploring works of art. And we’re also doing a lot more with the Natural History Museum. It’s really interesting—to break down the myth that science is all about facts and art is all about touchy-feely things. We’re finding ways to capitalize on the imagination and speculation as well as the discipline and strategic thinking that are part of both artistic and scientific work. Those things shouldn’t be taken apart, and that’s one of the problems with schools. In the museum, we can put them back together for kids, and we can put them back together for medical school students, and for any visitor who comes into the building.
You’ve put in 30 years here. Do you love this place?
I do love this place. Now you’re making me cry …
I really appreciate that this place is about the big ideas of life. And it’s an endless independent study. It really is endless—the learning, and the work of continually exploring new ways to make the museum meaningful to more people.