Five Questions With … Seema Rao
By Carrie Reese
Marketing and Communications Intern
Seema Rao has spent a decade working in the education department here at the museum. We recently met with her to hear her many stories about experiences at the museum. We have it all here for you, from funny moments to favorite memories.
Q: When did you start working at the museum and what have been your different roles?
A: I started as an intern in our docent program. I kind of got the internship by accident; I applied, and then something happened to the previous intern. So I called and told them I really wanted to intern here. Their response: “If you want to start at 1:00 this afternoon, then you have the job.” My next job was working with adult programs and exhibition programming at the museum. I’ve also taught our Asian collection to a K-12 curriculum led library projects with seniors and teens, and worked with storytelling for children. Right now I work with the upcoming learning center and orientation space as part of the museum’s renovation and expansion project.
Q: Have you seen different perspectives or unique observations from younger children?
A: A group of school children and I were sitting in front of Monet’s Water Lilies painting one day, and I asked the kids what’s happening there. A little girl said, “That’s the wind, that’s what the wind feels like.” I just thought wow, you are so right; it does feel like the wind.
Q: You’ve held so many positions in education and worked with so many different groups; what is your favorite part about the department?
A: What I like about education in museum work is that you have to be a generalist. I appreciate the specialized work of the curator and I think it’s really important, but we do something equally important. We see across collections, taking in all of the scholarship, reading a lot, knowing different kinds of things, and then trying to create relationships between them for people. Instead of specializing in something, I’ve always liked knowing a little bit about a lot of things.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece of art in the museum?
A: Honestly, it changes every day. Maybe one of my favorite things in our collection is something called the Namban screens. There are two screens; one has a giant boat on one side and the other has a street scene that shows traders coming into a Japanese harbor. It’s from a very specific time; it’s this amazing kind of popular culture at that moment in Japan. You have people who are just hanging out, there are Japanese Jesuits who are very religious converts to Catholicism, little young Samurais flirting with girls, and wealthy women talking to each other. You have all of these different things happening in it. What I like about our collection of art in general is that you can find so many different things. Basically, whatever I like at the moment changes with what I’m studying or what I’m reading about.
Q: After almost ten years working at the museum is there any moment in particular that sticks out to you?
A: There are two times I can think of. I worked with exhibition programming and we had an exhibition of Jasper Johns’ numbers. We had this big lecture series and two people who came to the lecture were the contemporary artists Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. I was in my early 20s and I was sitting outside and Frank Stella was supposed to come in for this event. Somebody said to me, “Go get Frank Stella.” It was cold out, but Frank Stella was sitting out by the entry smoking a cigar, so I had to wait for him. So I was sitting outside with Frank Stella and waiting while he smoked his cigar and chatted with me. It was just very cool; he was such a nice man. And, similarly, back in the old days we had a lot of artists come in and Jasper Johns was there at the same time. He was so quiet, and seemed so smart. Also, Lee Friedlander has been here many times, and I remember I had to interact with him a lot. And Nicholas Nixon, the photographer, was so nice. It is interesting to see many of these artists and talk with them. But sitting on that little bench in the cold outside with Frank Stella was my real highlight.