Art and Books: Partnering with a Museum for Great Discussions

At Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, we’re just a few minutes’ walk away from Dartmouth College. The possibilities for collaboration with Dartmouth departments and organizations are tremendous, and we try to take advantage of the opportunities available to us as much as is feasible.

One of the most popular collaborations we’ve worked on has been a series of combination book discussions and art exhibition tours held with the college’s Hood Museum of Art. During my time at Howe, we have presented two of these programs. In July 2011 we discussed Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and toured the exhibition Embracing Elegance, 1885–1920: American Art from the Huber Family Collection. In February 2012 we discussed Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff in connection with an exhibition of Egyptian antiquities from the museum’s collection.

If there are any upcoming exhibitions that may pair well with a book, the Hood Museum contacts the library and we work together to choose a suitable book for discussion. As with other book discussions that we run, the library makes copies of the book available for checkout, develops a list of discussion questions, and publicizes the event. We also handle signups for the discussion, which is usually limited to around twenty participants. The Hood publicizes the discussion as well and arranges for a scholar, usually from Dartmouth, to lead a “spotlight tour” of the exhibition.

The discussions are held in the evening at the museum galleries. After participants introduce themselves, the scholar leads a brief (approximately fifteen-minute) tour. Then we sit down right among the art, and the scholar and I co-moderate a discussion of the book.

These events have been very popular—so much so that although we do not usually ask patrons to sign up for events, we do require registration for these programs so that we can restrict attendance to a reasonable number for a discussion. I often have participants come up to me days or even weeks later to tell me how much they enjoyed themselves. Some people come primarily for the opportunity to have a small-group tour, some come because they are eager to discuss the book we selected, but most people seem to appreciate the way that these events connect visual and literary art. The experience of discussing a book while surrounded by art that evokes its setting and themes seems to resonate. It’s a very different feeling to discuss Cleopatra: A Life in a meeting room than it is to discuss the book while surrounded by ancient art and artifacts!

The library, the Hood, and our patrons all gain from this collaboration. Our patrons get to participate in a great event that engages them intellectually and educates them about art, literature, and history. The Hood and the library are able to draw on each others’ unique expertise and connections to create an unusual cross-disciplinary program. Because the events are advertised to our respective sets of patrons/supporters, both organizations are exposed to people affiliated with one institution who may not usually interact with the other. Combining our publicity efforts also yields a much greater reach than Howe usually has for programs we sponsor alone.

I could not end this post without a mention of the excellent Sharon Reed, my counterpart at the Hood. She is a creative, energetic, and diligent partner, and these programs would not be possible without her. One of the most important parts of collaborating with an organization is to find talented people in that organization who are willing to work with you. Sharon is one such person, and it is always a pleasure to work with her.