What I Learned as a Kid in UMMA

My first ever museum experiences were in the glorious University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) in Ann Arbor.

UMMA Apse Ann Arbor

UMMA has always been a magical place for me. As my hometown museum, it was a cabinet of curiosities for my young self. I saw things there unlike anything I had ever seen: intriguing objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

During a trip this month to see my family in Ann Arbor, I took time to stroll through UMMA and it felt like time travel. I vividly remembered the impressions and discoveries that I had experienced with these artworks at different points in my life, from as early as preschool. 

Here are some of the lessons about art that I learned as a kid in UMMA:

Art can have secrets

UMMA, Alfred Stevens, Hide and Seek

Stevens experimented with the composition of this painting: he first painted a young girl standing in the doorway, but then replaced her with a dog. If you look closely at the doorway, you can see traces of the girl's wide skirt! I'll never forget how that fact blew my young mind; that artworks could be such puzzles.

Alfred Stevens, Hide and Seek (Cache-Cache), circa 1878, oil on panel 

Art can be scandalous

UMMA, The Dead Soldier

Her BOOB is showing! 

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Dead Soldier, 1789, oil on canvas

Art can be mesmerizing

James McNeill Whistler, Sea and Rain, UMMA

I could spend hours gazing into this delicate painting. When I was little, it reminded me of a Magic Eye image: the longer I stared at it, the more it felt like I was actually entering the scene.

James McNeill Whistler, Sea and Rain, 1865, oil on canvas

Art can be boring

UMMA, Jules Olitski, Absalom Passage-18

My young self was not impressed by contemporary art. What were you supposed to look at? Where was the story?

Jules Olitski, Absalom Passage-18, 1973, acrylic on canvas

Art can rival American Girl Dolls

UMMA, Pier Gilardi, A Visit to the Gallery

My favorite American Girl Doll was obviously Samantha Parkington from the Edwardian era, as she had the fanciest dresses and was a brunette like me. But none of her outfits matched the ruffles and lace and ribbons and feathers of these ladies. I had major gown envy.

Pier Gilardi, A Visit to the Gallery, 1877, oil on canvas

Art can tell a story

Randolph Rogers, Nydia the Blind Girl of Pompeii, UMMA

This statue depicts a moment from the story of Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii. When I learned Nydia's sad fate, I felt like I was in on a secret, as if I could read the statue like a pictogram.

Randolph Rogers, Nydia the Blind Girl of Pompeii, 1861, Carrara marble

Art can help me tell a story

Blolo Bian, UMMA

Fast forward a couple of years, and I'm an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. In a class on African art, we were given an assignment to present an object from UMMA's collection.

I made a video that, in retrospect, was my first attempt at museum education.

Artist Unknown, African, Baule Peoples Côte D'Ivoire, Male Spirit Spouse Figure (Blolo Bian), 1920-1960

University of Michigan Museum of Art

Address525 South State Street, Ann Arbor 48109-1354  Opening hoursTuesday to Saturday from 11am to 5pm, Sunday from 12pm to 5pm