Meet the Staff: Melissa Higgins-Linder

How did you get into the field of museum education?

I’ve always loved learning, art, and museums. As a high school student in southwestern Ohio, I spent a lot of time at the Dayton Art Institute and the Cincinnati Art Museum. I fell in love with the Frank Duveneck gallery at the CAM. Later at Kent State University, I opted to study art education because I wanted to share with students the rich and complex world that the arts had opened to me. When I started teaching in the Akron Public Schools, this meant bringing my students to the Akron Art Museum. As I scheduled field trips each year, I increasingly wondered what teaching in an art museum might be like; when I was hired to lead the AAM’s fantastic education department a few years later, I found out firsthand and was hooked. After seven years there, I left to explore big questions about museums and art education in graduate school, and to manage a national research study on the impact of art museum field trips on K–12 students, co-sponsored by the National Art Education Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors. I feel fortunate to have experienced a range of professional opportunities. Each has allowed me to keep wondering and asking questions about learning, visual arts, and what they can mean to different people.

What drew you to working at the CMA?

For the 25 years I’ve lived in northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Art has remained one of my favorite places. It’s been interesting to reflect on how my visits to the museum have changed with each phase of life. For example, as a college student, the modern and contemporary galleries were preferred destinations; as a parent, I’ve spent a lot more time in the Egyptian galleries. Now I get to approach the museum and galleries from a staff perspective. Joining the museum team is particularly exciting right now because the institution is evolving into its next life phase, with its expanding campus and audience-focused strategic plan dedicated to seeing that the museum truly is “for the benefit of all the people forever.”

What is your role at the museum?

I’m the director of learning and engagement, a newly assembled department within the division of education and academic affairs. Our team seeks to use the CMA collection, exhibitions, and object-based learning to connect and engage learners of all ages and stages with new and shared ideas, stories, histories, experiences, critical and creative capacities, and ultimately each other. Our department organizes programs and events for PreK–12 students and teachers, family programs, studio classes, adult learning and continuing education, and select community outreach programs. 

What is your favorite object in the CMA’s collection, and why?

I have so many favorites, and my answer on any given day might depend on how I’m feeling or what’s going on in the world. I’ve always loved Alice Neel’s portraits, so Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd is definitely a favorite. I also love narratively suggestive works with a good dose of ambiguity and room for interpretation: Kiki Smith’s Born, Paul Gauguin’s In the Waves, John Woodrow Wilson’s Mother and Child, and Fidencio Martinez’s El Rio come to mind. Finally, I like to seek out works for which I have very little prior context or information, but raise all kinds of questions and curiosity. Right now I’m fixating on Bird with Human Head in the ancient India gallery.

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