If you’ve been to an art gallery before, you generally know what to expect. There will be art on the walls to look at, and panels that describe the theme of the exhibit; those two pieces combine to tell a story that the curator of the exhibition wants to share.

But what if you also found paper and pencils in the gallery, inviting you to contribute your own story? What would you be inspired to do? That is the premise behind “Tell Me a Story,” the spring exhibition put together by Elizabeth Schlatter’s museum studies seminar.

“A lot of times museums are sterile places where you look at art and say, ‘Someone thought this had lots of value and I’m looking at it because that’s what culture is,’” said Miranda Rosenblum, ’18. “What our exhibit does to try and break down that fourth wall and engage visitors is to say, ‘What about this piece or work inspires a story in you?’”

When you enter the “Tell Me a Story” exhibition, the descriptive panels invite you to view the artwork and share a story of your own based on one or more of the paintings by writing it down, drawing a picture, or leaving a video message. All of the stories are catalogued and included as part of the exhibit, allowing visitors to see what others have contributed.

The class worked with Schlatter and the University Museums staff over the course of the spring semester to fully experience the process of opening a museum exhibition, from artwork selection and placement in the gallery, to promotion and public programming. All of their work was done with the overarching goal of getting visitors to participate in the exhibit.

But how do you get a visitor comfortable with the idea of being an active contributor when gallery audiences are accustomed to being passive viewers of art? A large part of the process was determining how to get visitors to interact, and refining their strategies over time.

“When we first put the exhibition together, we didn’t have instruction panels,” Rosenblum said, “but we realized it would be easier to engage visitors if we added them.”

Emma Felt, ’18, said they also developed different ways for visitors to respond and interact. “At first, we only had binders with prompts to write stories,” she said. “But then we got colored pencils so you could contribute a drawing, and installed an audio recorder. We’re trying to do what we can to get people to interact but also give them options for what they are able to do in the space.”

Rosenblum added, “These constant shifts in how we are communicating with the public to encourage as much engagement as possible is a core element of our class.”

Their work has paid off, as evidenced by binders full of written stories, contributed by visitors, that are placed under each painting. Visitor drawings are on display nearby. “One of my friends was excited about sharing her story because she liked the idea that as a visitor, you become an artist and your artwork is just as valuable and crucial to the exhibit as the artwork on display,” said Meg Strickland, ’16.

In an exhibition devoted to stories, the students have also spent time thinking about what story they want to tell through their work. “I think it’s a way for people to engage with each other, share stories, put words down to images and unpack their inner emotions,” said Tim Gruber, ’16.

Strickland added, “What I loved was that it’s forcing people to slow down, look very carefully at the art, and connect with it.”

Before taking the class, none of the students had prior experience working on museum exhibitions, and they came away with a wealth of knowledge about the complexity of the process.

“Knowing that museums don’t just happen with one curator having an idea, or one artist making art — that it’s a community creation — was something I have come to know through this process,” said Rosenblum.

“We get to see how museums are adapting to provide a more engaging experience, and we were able to make one here which I think is impressive, but I also feel as though what we’re doing makes people happy,” said Strickland.

Photo: Museum Studies seminar students lead a workshop with students from the School of Professional and Continuing Studies' Osher Institute. Photo by Chris Ijams.