Linda Best '76 BA
How does a French major who has never visited an art museum end up spending 40 years as a caretaker for our cultural heritage? Take Professor Walter Denny’s survey course-and then all of the other courses he offers. Add Professor Iris Cheny’s Italian art courses, Martha Hoppin’s American art courses and throw in Professor Norton’s architecture course – a whole new world opened up and my path was set. Without any artistic talent of my own, it was the pure appreciation of the talent and beauty of works of fine art along with the social and cultural understanding gleaned from a myriad of artifacts that had me hooked. At the time of my studies most art historians became academics but my nature required less library research (there was no Internet!) and a more active component. So with the guidance of Professor Denny I decided to pursue museum work which provided more direct contact with objects.
While I naively left UMass for Washington DC determined to secure a position at the Smithsonian, I was ultimately successful. My first position was as a Technician at the Archives of American Art. This led to the position of Associate Registrar at the National Portrait Gallery; then Registrar at Historic Deerfield; Associate Registrar at the Wadsworth Atheneum; Registrar at the Mead Art Museum; and for the last 20 years Registrar/Collections Manager at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
My position requires physical as well as intellectual interaction with the objects entrusted to my care. While my art handling training was more aligned to the apprentice system and learning on the job, I am gratified that the profession is now recognized with internships and advanced programs such as Museum Studies. Even with wearing the proverbial white gloves there is nothing more exhilarating than holding an ancient vessel or Renaissance painting and imagining the life of its creator or owner.
Without my art history degree I would not be able to effectively address the intellectual component of my position as relates to information management in the now electronic “card catalogue.”
As part of an academic museum, our focus is using the collection to creatively engage across all disciplines. This provides the opportunity to introduce the wonders of museums to students who might think they can’t relate or have a place in an institution that has a history or being elitist. Witnessing the revelation on a student’s face serves as a trigger to reliving my first moment of enlightenment. There is nothing more gratifying.
Latin may be dead, but Art History is alive and thriving!!!