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All Hands on Deck: The Carlos Museum brings art into homes

By Mary Loftus | Emory Report | April 30, 2020

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The Carlos Museum has translated many exhibit pieces to online formats for people to enjoy from home, including a jigsaw puzzle of “Tony Scott and Garry Templeton, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, CA, 1979” by photographer Walter Iooss.

The Egyptian mummies, in their eternal sleep, might be indifferent to the lack of visitors, but for the staff of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, shuttering the physical museum on Emory’s Quadrangle during the pandemic has presented a challenge.

They have responded by taking as much of the museum and its programming online as possible, including artist talks and demonstrations, cultural events, educational workshops and family programs and activities.

Anyone can now visit the museum through its website, “Carlos from Home.”  

“Immediately we were aware that parents were home with children and teachers were trying to teach remotely,” says Elizabeth Hornor, Ingram Senior Director of Education at the museum. “We wanted families to be able to still explore our collection together, so we adapted our smARTy packs for online use by families and as virtual ‘field trips’ for schools.” 

And the offerings grew from there. 

The Carlos Museum website features interactive learning experiences through Odyssey Online, which take virtual visitors to places like India, Tibet and Ancient Greece through the museum’s collection. Self-guided tours of the thousands of items in the collection are also available, from papyri to cooking vessels to the famous Carlos Museum mummies and sarcophagi through Carlos Collections Online.

The staff even has made some of their art into online jigsaw puzzles.

“When you think about it,” Hornor says, “putting together a puzzle is an exercise in close looking and carefully examining all the details, the colors, meditating on each small part of the whole — which is exactly how we want to encourage people to view our works of art.”

For those who are missing sports, the museum revisited Curator of Works on Paper Andi McKenzie’s exhibition of sports photography by Walter Iooss. Along with the images and text from the exhibition, the online experience also included jigsaw puzzles of photographer Walter Iooss’ work in the museum’s permanent collection, and a book and art activity from the museum’s popular Artful Stories program, related to Iooss’s photograph of Hank Aaron that had been featured in the exhibition.

“That’s the way these ideas grew into each other,” says Allison Hutton, Carlos Museum director of communications and marketing. “Carlos from Home allows us to connect with our community to enjoy the things we always have—looking closely at art, engaging with new ideas and embracing creativity.

Reframing events and exhibits 

A popular Emory event every spring at the Carlos Museum is Tibet Week, a celebration of Tibetan culture that involves guided meditations, lectures and the capstone event: the creation of a sand mandala by Buddhist monks. This year, the longstanding tradition had to change.

“It’s something we, and many of our visitors and supporters, look forward to all year long,” says Hutton. “So we used the resources that we already had to create a virtual Tibet week online.” 

Virtual events ranged from translating what would have been a live talk on an image of the Buddha, by Associate Professor of Religion Sara McClintock, into a puzzle, with guidance from McClintock about what to look for, and links to a live stream of the creation of a mandala that took place in isolation at the Dreprung Loseling monastery.

One of their favorite online adaptations involved the current exhibition, “Transcendent Deities of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine.” Photographer Manjari Sharma, whose “Darhsan” series is part of the exhibition, was scheduled to speak at the museum in April about the process of transforming models into archetypal representations of Hindu deities. The staff decided to make the talk a Zoom event, which enabled elements such as including model Payal Bhattacharya, who portrayed deity Maa Kali.

“The artist was in California, the model was in Mumbai and we were in Atlanta,” Hutton says. “We picked 11:30 a.m. as the time since that worked for everyone. Manjari sent us her family recipe for chai. We sent it to viewers in advance and encouraged everyone to make a chai and come listen to this artist talk. We had a wonderful response.” 

Sharma also was scheduled to meet with students in the class Hindu Gods and Goddesses, taught by Harshita Kamath, Visweswara Rao and Sita Koppaka Assistant Professor in Telugu Culture, Literature and History, who was including the Transcendent Deities exhibition in her teaching this semester. “So on that day,” Hornor says, “we had a Zoom class with Manjari where she talked about the works, her relationship with Hindu imagery and religion as a child in India, and the genesis of her ideas. Students loved having the opportunity to speak with Manjari and ask questions.” 

Kamath’s students were assigned final projects based on the exhibition, so Hornor took photos and sent them to Kamath. “Our assistant registrar, Annie Shanley, did the same for Rune Nyord, assistant professor of art history, so he could continue to use our collections in his courses,” Hornor says. “And Ruth Allen, our curator of ancient Greek and Roman art, recorded a tour on objects related to Ovid that she was unable to give in person for classics professor Louise Pratt to show in her class.” 

Books on wheels

The Carlos Museum Bookshop has also made a transition, with manager Mark Burell sending out weekly emails recommending books for kids and adults, as well as a quirky list called “Coping with Quarantine.” Popular sellers from the adult list include Scottish bookseller Shaun Bythell’s “Diary of a Bookseller,” late poet Mary Oliver’s “Devotions” and Kassia St. Clair’s “The Secret Lives of Color.” For children, popular selections include Nelson Mandela’s “Favorite African Folktales” and Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology.” 

“I am trying to sell down some of our existing stock, as well as introduce our supporters to new titles,” says Burell. “We weren’t selling much by mail until this happened.” 

Burell, whose background is in archeology, helped establish the Carlos Museum Bookshop, with its distinctive selection of books, in 1993.

“We wanted it to be much more than a gift shop, although certainly we have unique gifts,” he says. “But our focus has long been on featuring books that our particular audiences will enjoy, whether related to our exhibits and galleries, art, photography, poetry, literature, mythology and much more.”

Burell has even been making personal deliveries — on his bicycle — to some who order books. “We did it originally just as a lark,” he says. “I like to bicycle and live close to campus, so I gave up my car a couple of years ago and bike everywhere. Our customers are happy to hear from me, they are getting great books and supporting the museum. It’s always a good conversation.”

Those who wish to be added to his email lists of book recommendations, or to purchase a gift certificate to the bookstore, can contact Burell at mburell@emory.edu. “We have so appreciated people’s support,” he says.

While museum staff are mostly working from home, Carlos Museum security guards are still on the job, checking temperature and humidity levels in the galleries and in the offsite storage facilities for collection pieces that aren’t on view.