WHO: Rachel S. Ropeik, Manager of Public Engagement, Guggenheim Museum
BIO: Rachel S. Ropeik is a museum adventurer currently serving as the Manager of Public Engagement at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She believes in museums as places where traditional and new techniques can help everyone feel comfortable and inspired, so she likes to try new technologies and experimental strategies for museum education. She wears lots of hats to do that, so you might find her talking about digital technology and social media in museum teaching, accessibility issues, multi-sensory learning, playfulness, and more.
She’s also worked at the Brooklyn Museum, MoMA, and the Met in New York, Dulwich Picture Gallery and The Courtauld Gallery in London, Smarthistory/the Kahn Academy online, and several high-end educational travel companies*^*
By: Olivia Mason
O: Rachel, it is such a pleasure to have a self-proclaimed “museum adventurer” participate in our Guest Contributor series. We are really looking forward to sharing your recommendations with our readers. To get started, can you tell us about some of the projects that you are currently working on? What has you jazzed these days?
R: One thing I’m really excited about is possibilities around “Changeover” (the period between exhibitions here at the Guggenheim when visitors’ anticipated experience of walking up and down our spiraling Rotunda ramps is limited because of the deinstallation of one show and the installation of the next). We’re one of the few museums where visitors get to see the behind-the-scenes work of putting on a museum exhibition. Along with some like-minded colleagues, I’m trying to encourage people to frame this period not as a negative where the museum is noisy/blocked/full of construction, but as a positive where you can see “behind the curtain”.
I’m also eager to collaborate on bringing a digital element into Public Engagement (my department). How can we reach out to the massive social media following the Guggenheim has and share some of the experience of the museum with people who may not be physically able to join us in the building. A few of those ideas are developing. Keep an eye out for more on that front soon.
O: Those are exciting developments! As someone who works at a museum, I’m curious to know what inspires you to visit museums in your spare time?
R: I visit museums for the thrill of finding something new to get immersed in. I visit both to be surprised and to see “old friends” (how I think of my favorite objects). I visit eclectically and somewhat at random. I’ll just as happily go see an exhibition featuring interesting new ways to engage visitors as one about my academic areas of interest as one I know nothing about. I really appreciate that museums feel comfortable to me, which I know isn’t the case for everyone. Because of that, I look at them as places to explore. They’re always treasure troves of interesting ideas and objects and ways to communicate about both of those.
O: What was the last museum that you visited?
R: I just (finally) went to see The Met’s current Costume Institute show, “Manus x Machina”. I try to be sure I make it to their yearly major show, since I’m also a geek about costume history. This time around, I went with one of the groups of educators I manage as an offsite professional development session.
O: What’s your favorite NYC experience?
R: It’s more an experience type than one experience. I love the little serendipitous moments that make me consider this city differently. Take me out of my usual daily experience of NYC, and I’m your attentive audience.
Years ago I went on a silent “listening tour” of Prospect Park at sunrise on May 1. There’s one example. A couple weeks ago, I joined a “roving, immersive theater experience” in Green-Wood Cemetery at sunset. There’s another.
A great experience of this sort (also Met museum related) is the Soundwalk 9:09 project done as a partnership between MetLiveArts and WQXR. Composer John Luther Adams was commissioned to create a soundtrack for the walk between the Met Fifth Avenue building and the Met Breuer. A group of us met in spring 2015 to walk between the two buildings, each on a different path, each recording the ambient sound on our phones. Then we all piled into a bar for drinks and chat. After that night, Adams took those contributions (and any other contributions anyone wanted to submit) and, without adding any additional noises, turned them into a soundscape that reflects the section of the city between the buildings.
Months later, when the Met Breuer opened, another group (including many of the same initial participants) gathered to walk the route again, this time listening to the final composition. That walk was followed up with a Q&A session with Adams. It was a magical pair of evenings for me that really made me pay attention to NYC in a totally different way: privileging my sense of sound, opening myself up to considering typically “unpleasant” noises (screeching brakes, car horns, general urban din). And where else but NYC do you get to end your random weeknight in a bar hanging out with a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer?
O: What are you currently reading?
R: A mix of “work” and “play” books:
“The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses” by Juhani Pallasmaa
“The Gilded Hour” by Sara Donati
“Art Museum Education” by Olga Hubard
O: What NYC street food are you most likely to eat?
R: Three-way tie: A hot dog (ketchup, mustard, and onions); those cut-up mangoes with hot sauce on them that come in ziploc bags; an Oreo ice cream bar.
O: Which museum is on your bucket list?
There are two: The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia and The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California. They both play with storytelling and histories (imagined or real) as the things that create an object’s importance. I’m a complete sucker for museums that poke at the idea of what’s “real” and what’s “important”, and these two both do that in really interesting ways.
O: Which NYC museum do you typically recommend to out-of-towners?
R: I like to recommend museums that aren’t typically on the “Top 10” lists. And I like to recommend museums that will get people out of Manhattan.
Brooklyn Museum, because it’s a great encyclopedic collection (something there for lovers of many different kinds of art), and they do a wonderful job making the museum accessible and welcoming to lots of different people, which is what I think all museums should aim for.
Morbid Anatomy Museum, because I’m fascinated by medical history. Plus, this one’s across the street from Four and Twenty Blackbirds, where you can get delicious pie to go along with your museum visiting.
The Noguchi Museum, because it’s not only got beautiful artwork, but it’s also a beautiful space that feels like a little oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city.
O: What do you collect?
R: Statement necklaces. I pretty much never met a giant necklace I didn’t like. I like to add them to outfits that already have other patterns and colors going on. I DO NOT follow that maxim often attributed to Coco Chanel about taking off one accessory before you walk out the door.
O: Which item might you donate to a museum that best represents your life in NYC?
R: My purse. It’s a typical “NYC woman carries large bag full of stuff” type leather satchel from Madewell. It’s yellow (I like bright colors) and worn (I carry the same bag every day, and I’m not very precious about taking care of it), and at any given time it contains a combination of essentials (wallet, MetroCard, work ID, medications, phone, keys, glasses), things I like to call “secondary essentials” (business cards, Band-Aids, lip balm, extra tissues for when there’s no toilet paper/napkin, etc) whatever book I’m reading (I’m still primarily a physical book reader, and I don’t leave home without a book in my bag), and interesting odds-n-ends (at the moment, there’s a glass slide of a Dürer self-portrait, a tiny shell collected from a beach, four different lipsticks, an empty Trader Joe’s salsa jar from my morning iced coffee, and a CD of MRI images that fascinated me).
I think my purse’s eclecticism is a pretty good representation of my personality. I’d stipulate that the museum I donated it to should display it in a way so that people could poke through it and explore all of its contents to draw their conclusions about my life. Even better if there was a way to get those people to record what they think of me based on the purse.
O: IF I were to hand you $5000 for completing this interview, where are you headed to shop?
R: I’d be buying plane tickets. I just got my passport renewed, and I’d put that money toward filling up all those empty pages with adventures to new places. Of all the expenses I’ve incurred over the years that have stretched my bank account, travel ones are the ones I’ve never regretted or worried about for a second. I could cover a lot of distance for $5k.
O: Rachel, thank you so much for your time.
R: Absolutely, this was great!
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PHOTO CREDITS & DISCLAIMERS
*Copyright Park Avenue Armory, Photo by James Ewing
**Copyright High Line Art
***Copyright New York Hall of Science
*’*Disclaimer: The remarks herein are the personal views of Rachel S. Ropiek and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.