Epiphany at the Altar

By Matthew Woodbury

Dr. Lehti Keelmann received her PhD in the History of Art in 2016. She is the Assistant Curator of Western Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Walking past formal 18th-century portraits, intricate Tiffany lamps, and an exhibit of stunning fashion photographs, it’s easy to see why Dr. Lehti Keelmann finds the University of Michigan Museum of Art a great place to work. As the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Western Art, Dr. Keelmann works with the American and European holdings of art ranging from medieval enamels to early 20th-century paintings.  There’s a wealth of material including religious accoutrements, works used for decoration and adornment, and items with practical functions or a mix of multiple purposes.

Dr. Keelmann describes her role as three-fold. As a steward and keeper of the collection, she conducts object research, thinks about ways to display and showcase the collection in a manner that encourages visitor engagement, and explores how to balance preserving an object with making it accessible to the public. Materials that are light-sensitive or fragile, like pencil sketches on paper, require a different type of care than, say, a marble sculpture. A second aspect of Dr. Keelmann’s curatorial responsibilities involves working with a diverse group of individuals and institutions to build the museum’s collections. Recently, the museum acquired a pair of late-medieval richly-illuminated folios once included as part of a missal, a Christian devotional book. A third component of her job involves interpreting the collection for a range of audiences. UMMA is simultaneously a cultural organization with a public-service mission while also being a specialist research and teaching space for the University of Michigan. Juggling this range of responsibilities requires coordinating a number of different imperatives and ensures that no day is ever the same.

Dr. Lehti Keelmann (photo courtesy of UMMA)

Dr. Keelmann’s approach to brainstorming installations in galleries and special exhibitions prioritizes making art accessible, interesting, and relevant to a broad community of museum visitors. When considering objects from the Western Art Collection to display, Dr. Keelmann likes to highlight and interpret the resonance of “old” or “traditional” pieces for a contemporary audience. She describes this challenge as an opportunity to showcase historical art as compelling and resonant in its engagement with enduring human concerns, and to highlight continuity between the past and present.

In the winter of 2014 Dr. Keelmann, a scholar of northern European medieval art, travelled to Estonia as part of her dissertation research. One fifteenth-century altarpiece in particular drew her attention. Housed in the Niguliste (St. Nicholas) Museum, a deconsecrated church in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, the altarpiece occupied the same central place within the building as it did during the past five centuries of religious devotion. Fortunate enough to secure a private viewing on a sunny winter’s morning, Dr. Keelmann describes the moment when the director of the museum carefully opened the altarpiece’s tall painted panels. Catching a beam of sunshine, the panels revealed paintings and polychrome sculptures as they had been seen by generations of parishioners. Standing in the quiet space of the museum, Dr. Keelmann was able to appreciate the altarpiece not only for its artistic qualities of form and color but also for its position as part of a broader aesthetic experience. During the Niguliste Museum’s days as a church, the dramatic opening of the altarpiece – with its rich colors and gilded images – would have been accompanied by prayers, songs, and the smell of incense. The altarpiece’s setting, therefore, was a central feature of how an audience interacted with it. Medieval religious art, in a medieval church, in one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe sparked Dr. Keelmann’s interest in thinking about art and its engagement as a multi-sensory, immersive experience.

Dr. Keelmann began her doctoral program intending to pursue a straightforward path to the professoriate. Her dissertation topic and the experience of seeing the Niguliste altar, however, piqued her interest in museums and the ways in which the public encounters and interacts with art. Skeptical of any easy distinction between the museum world and the academic world, Dr. Keelmann sees the two areas as in dialog with each other. Appreciating the importance of the Niguliste Museum having preserved the altarpiece in situ, for example, enriched her dissertation’s analysis of how the altarpiece was experienced by people who prayed at the church. UMMA’s location just a stone’s throw from Tappan, where the History of Art department is located, has helped Dr. Keelmann continue fruitful collaborations with faculty and students. She is also able to continue her research and specialist interest in medieval art through her work at the Museum, as well as by keeping up with her field’s journals and seeking out opportunities to participate in conferences.

Following her visit to Tallinn, Dr. Keelmann further cultivated her interest in the museum community as UMMA’s Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in the History of Art. She used this experience to gain hands-on training in a museum setting and as an opportunity to pursue questions of artistic interpretation, management, and preservation. She credits the good mentorship she received through this program as having a lasting influence on her own curatorial philosophy that art should be something that everybody can enjoy.

Many humanities doctoral programs require taking courses outside of the discipline, and Dr. Keelmann highlights a class she took with Professor Ray Silverman that was part of the university’s Museum Studies program. Focused on the theory and practice of exhibiting African art, one of the seminar’s assignments required making a series of podcasts about works in UMMA’s permanent collection. Though far from her own area of expertise, Dr. Keelmann found the class an opportunity to build intellectual confidence and think about how to convey information in a creative way.

Being open to opportunities outside her field is something that she identifies as a significant part of her own trajectory. Though it can seem daunting to reach out of one’s comfort zone, Dr. Keelmann recommends graduate students be “a little fearless” in trying something out of their ordinary scope of work. These challenges can open up new opportunities for professional development or provide a new way of thinking about a familiar subject.

Communicating a lot of information to a diverse range of audiences is essential to Dr. Keelmann’s work. She credits the teaching, presenting, and grant writing experience gained during the course of her PhD as preparing her for this facet of her UMMA work. In the course of a day at the museum, Dr. Keelmann interacts and collaborates with a variety of people – not only colleagues at the museum, but also docents, students, and scholars – about objects in the Western Art Collection. As part of this work, she might have to traverse 500 years of history and reflect about budgets, the nuances of an etching by the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and field questions from museum visitors. Dr. Keelmann identifies analogous challenges in finding ways to present information in a manner that is meaningful. The concepts of intellectual rigor, focus, and attention to audience developed through writing a dissertation, Keelmann suggests, can be applied widely in areas ranging from writing a 150-word interpretive label for a painting to explaining the significance of a work to a visiting school group. Scholars, researchers, students, members of the public are each audiences with their own needs.

Dr. Keelmann appreciates that UMMA is a cooperative environment. She enjoys the collaborative approach of her co-workers and credits this method of work with helping her develop projects and ideas for the museum and interacting with visitors. She also has a lot of art to keep her company and provide the material for the visual and intellectual pleasures of learning and looking together as a community. Next time you walk by the museum, drop in and take a look. Admission is by donation.

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