Picturing the past: Visual Arts alumna curates and studies museum exhibits

By Lisa Intrabartola

BFA, Visual Arts
OCCUPATION: Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow
LOCATION: Philadelphia

While studying photography at Mason Gross, Diana Marsh adored wandering with her camera, and she relished experimenting in the darkroom.

But Marsh also realized that the arrangement and display of those images could provoke emotional responses in her viewers.

Nearly seven years after graduating with her BFA in Visual Arts, Marsh’s passion permeates her work curating the American Philosophical Society Museum exhibit Gathering Voices: Jefferson and Native America.

The Founding Father was a president of the American Philosophical Society (APS), based in Philadelphia. APS awarded Marsh the prestigious Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellowship in March 2015.

Marsh’s exhibit, running through December 30, 2016, showcases the third U.S. president’s archival papers. But she knows the photographs–portraits of native leaders and their tribes during early attempts at Native American and U.S. diplomacy–will pack the biggest punch.

“There are two images next to each other in the exhibit: one is of kids in native clothing, and then in the other they’re in a mission in Western clothing. You can immediately see the sort of assimilation policy they were being forced into,” she said. “Photographs are so good at conveying those kinds of stories.”

Making her mark
Marsh credits former Mason Gross gallery manager and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and photography professor Jason Francisco with sparking her curiosity about installations and how they come together. Even after he accepted a position as an associate professor of photography at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Francisco continued to work with Marsh as her thesis advisor. He remembers her as a central figure at Mason Gross–the first-ever student liaison to the faculty–and said he has followed her trajectory.

Francisco said even as an undergrad Marsh was adept at crafting provocative installations in unexpected locations to ask hard questions and prompt conversation. Take her 2006 photo-text installation, which she curated in the Douglass Student Center in response to the university’s announcement that the women’s college would merge with the general undergrad population at Rutgers: The installation showcased historic photos and Marsh’s own contemporary photos to question the decision. Francisco praised the show and its relevance, calling the exhibit a perfect example of “critical intervention into a community space for the sake of community dialogue.” 

Marsh said the wide-ranging experiences and independence she enjoyed at Mason Gross set her on the path toward curatorship.

“Doing stuff with your hands, playing in a photo lab, or installing pieces around the Mason Gross buildings; it’s not that unlike what we do now when we’re planning an exhibition,” said Marsh.

Then, when she took a class titled “The Anthropology of Art,” she discovered the field of museum anthropology–and her calling.

Marsh graduated from Mason Gross in 2009 and the next year earned a master’s of philosophy in social anthropology with a focus on museums and heritage from the University of Cambridge. She received her PhD in Museum Anthropology in November 2014 from the University of British Columbia, where Marsh studied museums as cultural spaces.

“There are so many kinds of expertise that go into producing an exhibition,” said Marsh, whose research centers on observing scientists, educators, and artists as they determine what will become the public face of a museum’s research and collection. Marsh says it’s useful “to think about is how those groups come together, and all the stakes and backgrounds at the table” that affect what the public sees.

The APS’s two-year fellowship allows Marsh time and money to edge closer to her goals: completing her PhD, researching at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to determine how much the public actually engages with museum documents accessible in digitized form; and a book she’s been contracted to write about her findings.

“As far as careers go, this is an amazing period,” she said. “I get to figure out whether I really want to go to curatorial work or a hybrid of academic research and curatorial work.”

Marsh says she’s proof that a BFA in Visual Arts can open up myriad opportunities.

“Don’t downplay your art degree. There are a lot of skills you gain from completing a creative but also rigorous program,” she said. “The fact that Mason Gross has a BFA embedded within this big research university allowed me to take a range of interesting and creative studio courses and get all the academic training that prepared me for my master’s and PhD work later.”

Posted April 2016.