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Searching for The Unseen: How Research and Curatorial Work Come Together

December 21, 2017

Nikki Otten posing for a picture

Nikki Otten posing for a picture
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

When Nikki Otten earned her BA in strategic communication from the University of Minnesota, she had no idea that she was building a foundation for a career as an art historian and museum curator.

Otten initially thought she would end up in advertising, but she discovered that she could apply her communication background to other fields, like museum work. For example, the ability to write concisely, which was essential to her work in advertising, also turned out to be useful training for writing informational labels for museum objects, and it also helps her write about art with a general audience in mind.

While working for advertising agencies in England and Ireland, she explored local museums in her free time. She was drawn to the way that museum spaces were inspiring and challenging on the one hand, and comfortable and welcoming on the other. “I just found myself every weekend in the Tate Modern and I started to wonder if could start working there as a job,” Otten says.

How science and art come together

To pursue this dream, she enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s graduate program in art history. She focuses on nineteenth-century French printmaking, a medium that offers a window into a society marked by emerging technologies and by the ideas that flow from new inventions.

Her dissertation centers on the microscope and how it affected art in late-nineteenth-century France. At that time, there was a lot of public interest in science, fueled by a government that hoped that science education would help get the country back onto its feet after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. New science journals aimed at popular audiences published illustrations of things that can only be seen under a microscope. For the first time, the general public got a good look through the microscopic—a view that was both fascinating and terrifying.

Just two decades earlier, in the 1850’s, new lenses gave scientists the ability to see smaller things than ever before—unsettling things, like germs. Germ theory often caused people to fear what they could not see, and artists “used images from the microscope to think about other things that scared them, like changes in society,” Otten says. These changes included shifts in the role of religion, the spread of feminism, and ideas about mental illness.

From microscopic to larger than life

Unexpectedly, the scope of her research is expanding beyond the focus on the infinitely small to also encompass the infinitely large.

As Otten looked closely at the careers of three artists whose work connects to the microscope—Odilon Redon, Loie Fuller, and Edvard Munch—she discovered that each also produced artwork related to the telescope and outer space. While she’s still figuring out how these things fit together, she surmises that “people in the nineteenth century still felt uncomfortable about things being much smaller and much larger than them,” and that these artists were picking up on that tension. “There is still a lot of anxiety that they are playing out through these very small, very large things,” she says.

Working at the Weisman

Otten is currently a curatorial fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, working under Senior Curator Diane Mullin. Much of Otten’s work is behind-the-scenes, such as writing and revising labels or planning out how to reorganize the permanent galleries. “I am most excited to learn about parts of the museum that I haven’t encountered before,” she says, and is ready to tackle things like building the collection and interacting with donors.

She is enjoying the opportunity to make an influence on the institution, while learning about everyday operations of a university museum. She also has an exciting opportunity to create her own exhibition in the Carlson gallery. Otten says, “I might also be able to translate my dissertation into an exhibition, where I put the artwork that I am writing about on display.”

As Otten continues in the art history program, she is enjoying her time at the Weisman. After earning her PhD, Otten hopes to work as a curator in a museum, ideally in a university context, because she hopes for an opportunity to combine teaching and museum work.