An Introduction: Museums and Media in the Age of COVID-19

Hi! My name is CJ Dawson, my pronouns are she/her, and I am currently a senior majoring in History of Art and Architecture and minoring in Museum Studies and Studio Arts. I’m excited to work as a recipient of a Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship for HAA 0125 “Museums: Society and Inclusion?” this semester alongside Annie Abernathy and my fellowship mentor Professor Gretchen Bender. This course was created as a foundation for the new Museum Studies major and questions the varying functions of museums as educational spaces, as exclusionary and colonialist entities, and as prominent institutions in society.

My CUTF project focuses upon media in museums, both in physical spaces and in the digital realm. Media is essentially a technology of display and a vehicle of how museums might convey information to visitors, ranging from dioramas to wall plaques to TV screens. The use of media in museums is not new, but the ever-changing landscape of social media and technological methods continues to impact visitors in unique ways. In my project I aim to help students think critically about the affordances of displays and the role of consumerism and visibility in the choices underlying the actions of museum institutions. Especially in our current moment of pandemic and physical distancing, online spaces have become increasingly significant. Many museums have promoted digital access to their galleries in attempts to remain accessible and “open” to visitors. Others have even implemented small scale activities and at-home projects within their communities. By exploring how various museums have responded to COVID-19 closures, I want to analyze the changing role of physical spaces in these institutions and how museums define themselves beyond the walls of their buildings.

I aim to also examine how museums engage with their communities, especially regarding issues of race, social justice, police brutality, and public safety. In theory, media, especially digital and social media, can offer more accessible and democratizing interactions with the public by nature of its fluid existence. However, I want to encourage students to think critically about the audiences of specific media, who makes the decisions which shape such platforms, and how this impacts their usage and appearance. Now more than ever, many undergraduate students like myself are living in highly digital environments (especially Zoom!), so I look forward to the opportunity to witness students’ responses to the impacts of media usage in this unique historical moment.

Though I can’t say for certain what the future holds for me, I am very interested in education and public outreach. My parents are both high school teachers, so I grew up in an environment which was very supportive of learning and critical thinking in and beyond the classroom. I’ve also been an athlete for nearly my whole life, and my roles as a teammate and in various leadership positions has strengthened my ability to work with others and foster spaces for growth and positivity. As a recipient of a CUTF, I will be able to explore these aspects of leadership and outreach in an academic setting.

I will be serving a mentoring role on a weekly basis to help guide students and facilitate discussion. Nearly half of the roster for HAA 0125 consists of first-year students. This gives prominence to my job as a teaching assistant to also create a meaningful experience and constructive community for these students and check-in on their mental and physical wellbeing. In my own experience from the past spring, online courses were difficult to complete and I heavily relied on my support systems of family and friends. I was grateful for any flexibility from professors, so I aim to do the same for students this semester by prioritizing their comfort and making myself accessible for feedback and assistance. I hope to uplift new voices and build a welcoming and safe environment like the sports and classrooms that have done the same for me. The CUTF will help me gain experience interacting with students and learn how I can best support their academic and personal goals.

Me holding the disc in a game at Stanford, CA this past spring

And finally, something unique about myself is that I play Ultimate Frisbee! I’ve played since high school and I now play at Pitt for the A team (Danger) of our Womxn’s Ultimate program. I’ve played for club teams in the past and have traveled to places like Seattle, Austin, and Stanford to chase down a plastic disc for this wonderful sport. As soon as it becomes safe to do so, you can usually find me throwing a frisbee on the Cathedral Lawn!


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