Days at the Museum

Samantha Sabalis, a fifth-year PhD student in Fordham's English Department, is a volunteer docent at the Morgan Library and Museum.  First-year student Margaret Summerfield interviewed her about her experiences there.

The Morgan Library and Museum, a small, Neo-Classical building in midtown Manhattan, protects a wealth of cultural artifacts that have been an invaluable resource to academics since 1924, when the son of Pierpont Morgan, the famous American financier, opened his father’s collection to the general public.  Morgan’s enormous wealth and discerning eye allowed him to acquire a collection that would benefit generations of New Yorkers, including the students and faculty of Fordham today. 

I ask Sabalis whether she believes the museum provides a unique experience to its visitors.

“Definitely!” is her immediate reply.  “It’s a small museum with a fantastic collection.  Because it’s based around the collection of one man, the staff tries to organize exhibitions based on what he might have liked…although sometimes it’s a stretch!” she adds with a laugh.  “Currently we have an exhibition on Cy Twombly.  I don’t know if Morgan would have approved.”

Sabalis initially became interested in museum work in 2012 by her friend, who was working at the Cloisters at the time. 

“It sounded fun,” says Sabalis.  “And I wanted to do something academic that wasn’t in academia.”

Getting the job wasn’t easy.  Sabalis went on three interviews with the Morgan Museum staff and had to do a practice tour to show them she had what it took to be a docent.  After she was awarded the job, she took a semester-long class at the museum to learn the skills necessary to become a museum educator. 

“They train us to conduct inquiry-based tours—that’s when you try to get the audience to interact with you and come to their own conclusions about the objects you’re showing them.  This obviously translates very nicely to the classroom.”

Sabalis’s duties as a docent require her to conduct tours of the exhibitions a couple of times a month.  At the start of each new exhibition, she goes through another session of training with the museum staff.  Sabalis describes her job as “interpret[ing] the exhibitions for the public,” a responsibility that has granted her many rewarding experiences. 

“Explaining medieval art to people who don’t know anything about it helps me to remember what’s so exciting about what I do,” Sabalis explains.  She grins as she recounts an exchange that might happen between her and a visitor on a typical day at the museum. 

“I’ll tell them that the pictures in this manuscript are decorated with gold, and they’ll say, ‘Wait, that’s real gold?’  And I’ll say, ‘Yeah!’”

Although her work is challenging, Sabalis loves it.  She credits her time at the Morgan as changing the way she views museums as a visitor.

“Now if I go to a museum and the tour looks effortless, I’m aware of exactly how much time and effort went into making it look effortless.”

Sabalis also believes that her experience as a docent at the Morgan has enriched her abilities as a teacher at Fordham.  She credits it with teaching her how to convey ideas to large groups of people and how to distill her research into quick summaries that are both simple and engaging.  It also granted her the confidence she needed when she was just starting to teach classes at Fordham.  As she says, “After giving so many tours at the museum, leading a class of sixteen is nothing.”

Sabalis’s education at the Morgan extends beyond her role as a teacher; it has also helped her to mature as a scholar by coaxing her to develop new ways of perceiving things.  To explain this evolution she describes one of the exhibits she shows during one of her tours. 

“I’ve always been interested in medieval art, but as a literary scholar, I always see things as a narrative.  So if a manuscript has a picture of Saul and David, as a literary scholar, I might start talking about the story between those two.  But seeing the book as an object instead of a story, you get your viewers to look at the object.  You show them how Saul is pointing a scepter or spear at David and you can see how Saul felt about David.  You’re still getting the story, but you’re getting it through what the picture is doing.” 

Although Sabalis is not sure yet what the future has in store for her, she does know that she would be just as happy working in a museum as in a classroom.  If she does continue in academia, she knows she will incorporate museum visits into her courses, and she encourages others to do the same.  In the meantime, there are plenty of exciting things happening at the Morgan to keep Sabalis busy.

Crusader bible.jpg

“This month we have an exhibition on the Crusader Bible, a picture bible that may have been owned by Louis IX.  It traveled around a lot—at one point a Polish cardinal owned it, and he gave it to a Persian Shah…Christians, Muslims, and Jews have all commented on its pages.  It has inscriptions in Latin, Persian, Judeo-Persian…” 

Sabalis invites anyone interested in religious art, illuminated manuscripts, or medieval armor to come check out the Crusader Bible...and the Morgan in general.