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Albany State Gets NEH Grant for Museum, Heritage Studies Program

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded Albany State University approximately $99,000 to assist with establishing an interdisciplinary museum and heritage studies minor.

Dr. Charles Williams, ASU professor of visual arts in the College of Arts and Humanities, leads the project. He envisions the minor as a 15-credit-hour path that includes internships and one cross-disciplinary course such as business, education, history or computer science.

Dr. Charles WilliamsDr. Charles Williams

He describes the program development as a group effort.

“As director of the grant, I am organizing cross-training seminars that will include faculty who want to contribute by developing curriculum or offering their expertise, and local cultural organizations who will provide input into how such a program can suit their needs,” said Williams, who also serves as gallery director for the Department of Visual and Performing Arts and on the board of trustees at the Albany Museum of Art.

The seminars also will include guest participants who work in museums and museum-related fields, he said.

The NEH Humanities Initiatives at Historically Black Colleges and Universities aims to advance the teaching and study of humanities in areas such as literature, history and philosophy at HBCUs.

The seminars will be professional-development opportunities. ASU educators will assess the needs of the cultural organizations and train to develop relevant coursework. Anticipated partnerships include the Albany Civil Rights Institute, the Albany Museum of Art, Thronateeska Heritage Center, the Albany Area Arts Council and the Flint RiverQuarium.

Each seminar will consist of a presentation by the director of the facility, a tour, a presentation by the guest participants and an interactive work session.

“That’s a tremendous amount of entities,” said W. Frank Wilson, executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute.

He said the entities collectively serve a 26-county area.

“We have some small and poor counties,” said Wilson. “This program will enlighten and raise the horizons of children in the area and serve as a recruiting tool for Albany State University. Areas like this normally don’t have that outlet.”

Wilson said he expects the partnership to be a tremendous benefit to the local community and beyond.

“It raises the level of attention to what we have here in Albany. Citizens will be able to recognize the value of having this tourist attraction, and it helps students appreciate being in a community where there are diverse programs. There will be some joint programs we will do and ultimately give students some hands-on experience, training them as tour guides and curators. To have this grant, which is focused on the arts, is so important.”

The first of eight seminars was March 31 at the Albany Museum of Art as an introduction to museum studies and museum operations. Future seminars will discuss cultural preservation through artifacts, cultural narratives and a design for the project as it enters its second year.

Paula Williams (no relation to Charles Williams), executive director of the Albany Museum of Art, said the partnership came about after years of discussion about how to build up the workforce involving museum studies, “not just the arts.”

“This program is such a unique opportunity to encourage our new leaders of the future,” she said. “Hopefully, it will give students a new direction. This is one of the few interdisciplinary programs in the nation. There is one at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Spelman has a curatorial program, but they don’t have a museum studies program. Because there is such a void in this field, these students will be sought after.”

Charles Williams said the experience could open new areas of research for faculty members and students. “The seminars will be open to the staffs and trustees of all of the institutions, as well as any other faculty members who wish to participate,” he said.

ASU was founded in 1903 to educate African-American students. Part of the motivation for the grant is the national trend to diversify museum fields. According to the International Review of African American Art, the racial breakdown of museum occupations is 84 percent White. Only 4 percent of positions are held by African-Americans.

“I am so happy about training some docents and using them to impart knowledge to their peers,” Wilson said.

The ASU minor will address diversity in various aspects, including ethnicity, socio-economic status and geographic location.

“Even students who do not pursue a career in museums can benefit from the experience,” Charles Williams said. “A student may work with databases, fundraising strategies, creating exhibition materials or other marketable skill sets. The preservation of objects and narratives that are part of the fabric of our overall cultural history is a perennial endeavor that will always employ people.”

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