Helen O’Donoghue- Examining Archival Practice in the MoMA

Helen O’Donoghue, Senior Curator, Head of Engagement & Learning, Irish Museum of Modern Art went to the MoMa on a 2019-2020 Fulbright Irish Scholarship.

“As I sit in Dublin, working remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I feel so fortunate to have completed my Fulbright scholarship in the USA.

I was there from mid October 2019 to the end of February 2020, living in NYC and carrying out my research in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) archives and galleries, hosted by the Education department there.

The world is so different now- with most of the American museums furloughing education staff and museums and galleries planning their reopening through a COVID 19 lens of health and safety strategies in order to create access again to  exhibitions. This changed world has in turn, changed Education programming in ways that no one could have foreseen or imagined. In the eighty-year history of MoMA which I delved into through their archives, they responded to world events in meaningful and creative ways. In the 1960s they created programmes for Veterans returning from Vietnam war; the museum took its role in societal responses to the AIDs crisis and while I was on my Fulbright they were addressing issues arising from the build up of overt racism in society; the challenges in relation to identity politics and the rise of bullying as a consequence. These issues were informing their programmes with schools and other community groups. I have no doubt that they will rise to this challenge imaginatively by responding to this current crisis.

The privilege of being embedded in an international museum’s education programme to learn about their archiving strategies; their current practices and to have ongoing peer to peer conversations with Wendy Woon (The Edward John Noble Foundation Deputy Director for Education) was invaluable. I was a guest lecturer on a University of New York course on museum education led by Wendy. I also had opportunities to share my ongoing research while there, with the Education staff; the Education Board of Trustees and the Creativity Lab artists and education team. I returned from NYC with great plans to set up staff exchanges between our two institutions and I hope to see that manifest itself soon in person and not only through Zoom.

The experience of being a Fulbright and having face to face access to so many of my peers while in NYC has been a life line on my return, every week the USA initiated international group FLAME (Forum for Art Museum Educators) group zoom into my home and we share experience and strategies for coping with the changing landscape of museum education. MoMA still include me in all of their weekly roundups of work in progress and I have been able to introduce my team at IMMA to people there in order to share knowledge and skills.

The Fulbright scholarship also facilitated me to have dreamtime in NYC, I know Margaret Kelleher has written very eloquently recently in the Irish Times about her walking in NYC. For me too, walking in NYC was inspirational in revealing ways of mapping that great city, my reading materials included writers such as (Jeremiah Moss’, Vanishing New York; Patti Smith’s, MTrain and Olivia Laing’s, The Lonely City, Adventures in the Art of being Alone. These writers mapped out a city that is well known for its independent minded inhabitants, its romance and its attraction for artists across all disciplines.

The Fulbright scholarship afforded me time, at a time to reflect on my professional identity. I spent time in the People’s Studio https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5130 at MoMA where people were encouraged to be present, to interact and connect with one another, and reflect on art and the making of art and what this means in their lives. I enjoyed being a part of this research, was inspired by the reading I could do in their extensive archives and learnt so much from the education team with whom I spent valuable time.

Finding accommodation was as challenging as described when we had our orientation in June 2019!  The city unfolded itself over the four and have months that I spent there- I divided my time into two parts and like Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities I experienced living in West Harlem at 150th Street initially and then lived in the Upper East Side for the latter part of my time there. Riding the buses that connected these two very contrasting parts on the city, was a daily reminder of how segregated society is in New York.

We were also advised not to leave any emails unanswered from any of the State agencies and there were lots of these- I spent every morning checking my emails and many hours following up on bureaucratic requests. The Institute of International Education (IIE)/CIES, were in regular contact with questionnaires and general communication. …and yes the IIE Portal is a challenge to navigate!

One to World provided great support, creating opportunities to meet other Fulbright Scholars from around the world through social occasions and since I returned through Zoom meetings where we have been invited to share our research. These challenges are far outweighed by what I gained personally and professionally. The opportunity given through the Fulbright Scholarship to live abroad in a new city, to navigate the day to day needs alongside of developing new relationships and deepening older ones has been very empowering. Working closely with a peer from another institution doing a similar job has been invaluable and insightful and will continue in new projects into the future and continue to inform our respective institutions and deepen international exchange.”