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Zooming in: Ackland student guides program engages audiences with art

The Ackland Art Museum sits on Columbia Street in Chapel Hill on April 6, 2021.

With a piece of sarcophagus, a pocket watch and a portrait of an unidentified sex worker called “Peaches,” a student tour guide at the Ackland Art Museum can create a conversation about telling time through art. 

Ackland Student Guides is a program that teaches UNC undergraduates to create and execute tours based around the museum’s collection. Currently, teams of two are giving 30-minute virtual tours on select Wednesdays. 

Each tour is its own event; they are the product of a year of training plus archival research and plenty of practice tours, all pulled together by each volunteer according to his or her individual interests. In addition to time, past tours have gotten into topics from devotion and contemplation to intimacy in the everyday. 

“You can make a tour off of the color blue, and it’ll be just as rigorous and exciting as something more abstract,” Brett Harris, the head guide in his third year with the Ackland Student Guides program, said. 

In September 2019, Christina Barta built their tour “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” around modern pieces like “The Squeeze”  — an art piece that is sometimes seen as less accessible.

“I didn’t want people to be afraid to hate on modern art … It’s all about trying to get people to look closely and embrace what they see and not think about the formalities and correct answers and history,” Barta said. “Part of the reason I titled my tour “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” is so people felt like they could have whatever response they wanted to.”

More recently, Harris and his cohort have been working to keep the spirit of the program alive through a modified training process and virtual tours. 

“I definitely miss being able to walk around and look at all the art and chat with everybody before and afterward, but the essence has definitely remained,” Madeline Nielsen, a sophomore student guide studying classics said. 

Since her first year was spent training, researching and designing a tour, and her second year in-person guided tours were canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, Nielsen hasn’t given any individual or in-person public tours during her two years with the guides. 

Two weeks ago, Nielsen and another guide hopped on Zoom and gave a tour built around the themes of portraiture and expression. In the absence of physical art, they used pictures.

“It’s obviously constraining. You don’t have the physicality or the materiality of the object, you can’t walk around something to get multiple perspectives,” Harris said, “but we have found that the Zoom platform, surprisingly, can really open up different pieces of work.” 

The ability to zoom in — literally, as in on an image — has allowed participants to see more texture, brushwork, etc. depending on the object, Harris said. 

The guides have also been able to bring in different forms of media to elevate discussions and engage an undergraduate audience. Their newly-created Instagram, @acklandstudentguides, is currently holding a “March Madness” tournament for works of art. Winners are based on the votes of followers; “Peaches” is in the final four. 

Engaging audiences with art and building communication skills is one of the most rewarding parts of the program for some guides. 

“For a lot of people, that sort of public meaning-making is really powerful,” Harris said. "I think it’s rewarding to the guides because we’re able to give the public the tools to look at something that fundamentally may be different from them or inaccessible."

The next virtual tour by an Ackland Student Guide is on April 7th. Barta will be giving a tour on April 14th. Participants can register for free on the Ackland website. 


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