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What Makes Museum Visits So Valuable? Blaffer Has the Answer

Student research projects explore learning laboratories and the power of students in museums.

Take a trip down memory lane with research projects about Blaffer Art Museum this spring. Two University of Houston poster projects will be featured as part of “Blaffer Art Museum Student Research Projects” at the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) Annual Meeting, from April 18 – 21. The projects will also be on view in the Blaffer café through May 12, presented in conjunction with the 40th M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition and Annual School of Art Student Exhibition.

In “M.F.A. Exhibitions and the University Museum: the Blaffer Art Museum as an Experiential Learning Laboratory,” Blaffer interns Liia Thrasher and Amira Maruf explore what it means to be an artist and museum curator by delving into the 40-year history of M.F.A. thesis exhibitions at the museum. Meanwhile, fellow Blaffer intern Anna Smith and Blaffer Art Museum Student Association (BAMSA) president Alexis Pye highlight the long history of student involvement in their project “Blaffer Art Museum: A Campus Museum and the Students Who Power It.”

In addition to sharing their research during TAM’s poster session, Thrasher, Maruf, Smith and Pye will also have the chance to network with peers and museum professionals from across Texas.

“The TAM conference — the largest gathering of museum professionals in Texas — celebrates our state’s rich cultural landscape,” says Katherine Veneman, Blaffer’s curator of education. “It’s exciting that our students get to showcase their research in a professional setting, as well as exhibit a more expansive display of their projects at Blaffer. I’m grateful to the UH School of Art and Department of History for their support in sending these students to the conference and the Jenkins Art and Architecture Library for their collaboration.”

Graduate students Thrasher and Maruf decided to focus their research on M.F.A. thesis exhibitions because these exhibits give emerging artists the chance to promote their work and connect with the community, while also showing students how exhibitions operate in a critical light and motivating future gallery visits. In the Blaffer café, Thrasher and Maruf will create a “learning laboratory” where museum visitors are invited to peruse resources about past exhibitions, including material provided by the participating artists in response to the project. 

“Essentially, M.F.A thesis exhibitions broaden awareness and allow museum visitors the chance to see firsthand what students are working on,” Maruf says. “This, in turn, can increase the foot traffic and support for museum culture.” 

Thrasher and Maruf’s project also includes a 40-year history of M.F.A. shows at UH. The project features artists from previous M.F.A. exhibitions, many of which are current UH faculty members, to inspire students and encourage further participation in upcoming UH showcases.

"We want to look back to the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and see where artists who’ve participated in M.F.A. shows at UH are. A lot of these artists are now the head of art departments, and our faculty members have gone on to do some really cool stuff,” Thrasher says. “We’re hoping to share these stories and legacies. We want to show the diversity of work that people have done with their M.F.A. career and to highlight the history of this practice here on campus.”

Smith and Pye’s poster project emphasizes how museums and galleries can contribute to students’ personal growth. Though Smith has reservations about speaking in front of a crowd, she is determined to underline the social and academic benefits of student involvement in exhibitions and trusts that the poster will resonate with the audience. Additionally, the project will showcase how museum-related work can lead to the development of important life skills and a stronger sense of self for students. 

Ultimately, Thrasher, Maruf, Smith and Pye consider museum visits and involvement the chance to network, deepen one’s knowledge of exhibitions and grow as a person.

“I want audiences to see that campus museum participation can be a dynamic experience,” Smith says. “This is an opportunity to connect with like-minded people and make a difference. This is a chance for personal exploration.”