In this article, I will tell you a story from my past. I was a student, a museum guide, and out of all the possibilities that could be more suitable for a beginner, I was talking about the great Rembrandt. The experience was lovely, but only many years later I realised how I could have done it better.
Everything started in the late 2008, and it was quite a surprise. A great temporary exhibition was about to be open, and above all, I was excited to see it. In fact, I was just a student on the second year, and I was only about to turn 20 years of age.
However, I was also trying to get a job as an exhibition guide in several institutions. These were favourable times to be a student-worker on these events. There were many exhibitions, they had good sponsors, and the work was decently paid. It was also compatible with the student schedule.
Most importantly, they were hiring and giving opportunities for us to learn something.
Rembrandt, printmaking… printing?
On the other hand, I was slightly too young for the usual standards. They usually didn’t hire people younger than 23, and since then the age threshold got even higher. Nevertheless, I got a chance thanks to a good recommendation from a professor. My boss, the leader of the education department was quite an outstanding person, so she welcomed me into the team as she believed I would do a good job.
It was the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb, Croatia’s largest museum.
The temporary exhibition was about Rembrandt’s prints. I had been in Amsterdam just a few months before that, so I had recently observed several oil paintings from Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum. Now, I was supposed to present something slightly different, but nonetheless amazing: Rembrandt’s prints.
The collection presented on that temporary exhibition was from the Regional Museum in Graz (Austria), but again, these were the prints on paper, so the same motifs can be found in other collections. As the name suggests, the same artworks were printed many times, they just didn’t have those annoying printers we have today. Instead, they used manual mechanisms to make as many copies as they needed. Due to the manual production of copies and handling of tint and paper, every copy looked slightly differently, so they are still unique forms of art.
The technique Rembrandt used is called etching.
What is an “etching”?
Etching is one of the most loved print techniques, as it allows an incredible variety of lines and details. Nevertheless, artists worked with ultra-thin needles and magnifiers to achieve the best results. In this 4 minutes video below, you can easily understand the entire process.
“Rembrandt was arguably one of the best printmakers of his time. Although he is more famous for his oil-paintings on canvas such as Nightwatch, his printmaking says much more about his brilliance.”
The previous paragraph is not a quote from some books but my usual introduction into guided visits on that exhibition. It was in a dark space, with all the doors closed to preserve a relatively low temperature and humidity, as well as a limited number of visitors (loooong before a limited number of visitors became a trendy thing!). Taking pictures was not allowed.
That kind of dark and strict atmosphere needed an icebreaker. My boss instructed me to tell stories. I realised I needed to make visitors have fun. Most importantly, that experience was one of the very first sources of inspiration for this Fun Museums project.
I had made an etching before that, but I had forgotten to say
I was a History of Art student. As it was usual for most of us, I didn’t create any art at the time. However, I was in an art workshop, 10 years before that, when I was in elementary school. It was one semester of a children’s art program based on drawing the surrounding landscapes. After some drawing exercises, we made our own etching prints.
Unfortunately, I didn’t attend any further workshops there, because I somehow lost the motivation. I liked books more than pencils, and observing paintings in museums was much more interesting to me than holding the brush in my hand. Still, I could have said it to the museum visitors, how I was a printmaker.
It wasn’t a big mistake, but it was a little bit of missed opportunity to give a bit of personality to my guidance.
How did I motivate young visitors to get curious about Rembrandt?
Initially, being a museum guide was a big challenge for me. As a natural introvert and a shy person who was often interrupted in conversations with family and friends for not being “concise”, I didn’t have much natural charisma to offer to my visitors. On the other hand, I had some wonderful assets – creativity, focus, and ability to observe the behaviour and body language from my visitors.
Many of my groups were high school students. They would enter that dark space, sleepy and wishing they could be somewhere else. Once when a group of about 30 teenagers entered, they were all in conversations. I mean, at least 10 voices were active at the same time. Meanwhile, their teachers were just saying “tišina”, the Croatian word for silence, but silently, as they were saying it to themselves. I was only a few years older than them, and I looked like I was their age.
Feeling slightly anxious, doubting my capabilities to deal with that, I remembered my boss’ words – tell them that they are not obliged to be inside, and if they don’t like it, they are free to get out. Obviously, they were not our responsibility at all, it was later up to their teachers to put up the sanctions if necessary. I told them that.
After that, I started telling silly stories about some of the artworks (laugh). By balancing between emotions, relatable humane factor, and stories about a distant country (the Netherlands, which I had visited so I could tell them stories). Last, but not least, I gave them some small glimpses of baroque art, etching, and how unique it was.
It is all about some healthy curiosity
Finally, I saw my group of teenagers observing the artworks and appreciating their beauty. They were doing it quite an innocent, honest way, just like people do when they are so young. Only now I am aware of that, because back then I was so young too.
On the other hand, it is important to keep a little bit of that childish, youthful spirit. That is why i recommend curiosity as a way of life.
At the moment, Fun Museums is becoming a platform for curiosity and casual learning, with a growing interest for guest writing. Many of applicants are current or former museum workers. For that reason, I decided to start with my own experience, while encouraging others to follow me.