Expanding the public’s access to museums

Melissa Hendrickson

Raised in Hegewisch on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s cultural institutions were aspirational places for Melissa Hendrickson.

“Our proximity to the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Art Institute meant those classical museums were part of my childhood but also removed from my day-to-day experience,” she said.

Hendrickson, a 2017 alumna of UIC’s graduate program in museum and exhibition studies and current fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has concentrated her academic and career goals on the critical examination of contemporary museum institutional practices and pathways to broaden the public’s access and involvement with museums.

Through a grant offered via the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, she will head to the University of Luxembourg in September for a two-year master’s program centered on understanding how to create physical and metaphorical spaces that are relevant, accessible and meaningful to a wide variety of audiences.

“I’ll be studying multilingualism and multiculturalism and the issues they raise, which are essential to understand in a world increasingly defined by mobility, migration and diversity,” said Hendrickson, who will learn both French and German during her time in Luxembourg.

“My intention is to take the best lessons from other disciplines and apply them to the museum field, which historically serves a very narrow audience.”

While at UIC, she worked with the Field Museum on an initiative to engage the Chicagoland Filipino American community on the care and curation of objects from the Philippine archipelago. She also earned the museum and exhibition studies program’s Social Justice Award and the UIC Provost/Deiss Award for her capstone project, “Crafting Cultures.” Working with the community arts and advocacy group Project Prospera, she curated a community dialogue, interactive craft project and exhibition, which all examined migration histories in Chicago’s African-American and Japanese American communities.

At the Smithsonian, she has created visitor-centered interpretations for exhibitions, developed and hosted an upcoming web series titled “Re:Frame,” and conducted museum visitor research.

The perceptions and practices of museums are deeply ingrained, according to Hendrickson, who considers thorough audience research essential for the next generation of museum professionals to rethink approaches and create change from within the field.

“My goal at the Smithsonian, and throughout my studies at UIC, has been to demystify museums and encourage those who may have felt uncomfortable or invisible in museums, as many of those I worked with in my years as a social worker did, to be welcomed as full participants,” she said.

“The UIC program not only taught me how to conduct audience research, but it helped me to develop a strong sense of purpose which I have brought to my current position and will bring to my Fulbright studies.”

Hendrickson, who earned her bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and English at Indiana University, hopes to later pursue a Ph.D. in art history/education or cultural studies and continue her work in museums.

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