Curator of European and American Art at the Honolulu Museum of Art

The Honolulu Museum of Art houses a collection of 50,000 works spanning 5,000 years in a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility. Their collection features African art, Asian art, textiles, and European/American art, and includes many works celebrating Hawai’i’s local artists and history.

Gallery Systems spoke with Theresa Papanikolas, the HoMA’s Curator of European and American Art, about her work, the role of technology in facilitating curatorial research and engaging with visitors, and her insight into the future of her profession.

Theresa was recently selected for the ninth class of curatorial fellows at the Center for Curatorial Leadership. She also created and curated two highly regarded shows at the HoMA, Georgie O’Keefe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai’i Pictures, and Art Deco Hawai’i. Since joining the museum in 2008, Theresa has learned first-hand about the importance of using social media to connect with audiences and the evolution of the curator’s response.

Honolulu Museum of Art

Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art

How do new technologies support your work?

Certainly, our collection management system, TMS, supports curatorial work simply by being there as an easily accessible receptacle for information on objects in the collection, as well as a tool for publishing information about the collection online. I’m currently fascinated by how museums are using social media technologies to reach audiences, and how curators are involving themselves increasingly in this process. I recently learned that most of our members and a huge percentage of our visitors learn about the museum and its programs from Facebook, Instagram, and the museum’s e-newsletter and blog. And newer platforms like Parachute are reaching an entirely new public. The idea that we use technology to engage museum stakeholders immediately and effectively has made me think more creatively about how to present the exhibitions I organize, and has made me look more closely at the ways we generate and manage information about the collection. Finally, software like Tessitura has great potential to help us learn more about our visitors and their preferences when they’re physically at the museum, which can help us curators plan behind-the-scenes.

Does your staff use your collection management system as a research tool? If yes, how?

We currently use TMS to manage the collection, and members of our staff with access to TMS (curators, educators, registrars) use it to research objects and artists in the collection, as well as generate checklists, reports, and loan contracts. With its great potential to collect and store information, TMS can be a “one-stop shopping” resource for research on the museum’s collection, and so much of the data that we now gather on objects in the collection goes directly into TMS.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge that curators are facing today and do you think the role of the curator will change in the future?

As museums continue to position themselves as community centers and gathering places, the role of curators within them is changing to focus more on public engagement. While it might seem on the surface that the curator’s traditional role as scholar and connoisseur is taking a back seat to more inclusive approaches to art and its interpretation, I don’t see it that way. There will always be a need and a priority in museums for curators capable of conceiving smart programming, practicing sound scholarship, and maintaining expertise, even if their work becomes increasingly targeted to wider and more diverse audiences.

To what extent do you work directly with the physical objects in your collection? How do digital surrogates supplement the experience of working directly with objects?

While engaging directly with objects is one of the cornerstones of curatorial work, digital surrogates are a hugely important supplement; they can include helpful visual references as well as important information about objects. When researching objects in the collection, I always start with our database.

Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resources that has helped or motivated you in your career?

I always have to credit the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) for helping my career as a curator get off the ground and take shape. In addition to its annual meeting, it sponsors mentorship programs and opportunities for curators to receive training throughout the year. I’m also a 2016 Fellow in the Center for Curatorial Leadership, where I am learning valuable organizational strategies and management skills that have been a great help to me as I pursue my work as a curator in a large organization.

What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions you’ve worked on and why?

One of the most interesting projects I have worked on at the museum was the major reinstallation we did of our European and American collection, completed in 2012. I loved going through the entire collection, identifying its true high points, and developing an engaging way to display them. Now we have beautiful galleries that tell the story of Western art not only as an art-historical chronology of eras and movements, but also as a series of moments where themes—like portraiture, and the nude—get interpreted and reinterpreted across time periods.

Honolulu Museum of Art

Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art