An exciting new opportunity

Imagine spending your days surrounded by the colorful, flashing neon lights of the infamous, fabulous city of Las Vegas. That’s how University of Northern Iowa alumna Floris Lafontant ‘12 spent two years of her life post-graduation. But she wasn’t working in the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas strip; she was working as a tour guide for the Neon Museum, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to preserving and displaying the iconic signs that make up the famous city.

It’s an opportunity she never could have imagined, and it came, largely, from the experiences Lafontant had in UNI’s art department. And now, with a new Museum Studies Certificate being offered to students beginning in fall 2019, UNI students across campus will have the chance to learn the skills and make the connections for an exciting career in museum studies.

University of Northern Iowa students examine artifacts during a museum studies course.
Students examine stone tools during the Collections, Care and Management course, a part of the museum studies program.

“There are so many opportunities for students to engage. There are so many things you can do if you see how the skills translate,” said Elizabeth Sutton, associate professor of art. “In addition to being one of those opportunities that provides experiential learning and provides professional practice, [the certificate] really is meant to set students up to further their education if they want to go into museum studies.”

That’s what Lafontant did. Her UNI education prepared her for continued studies and eventual professional work. Although UNI did not offer the certificate while she was taking classes, her work for the art history major inspired her to go on to get a master’s degree in museum studies from St. Thomas University in St. Paul.

“The skills that we get through museum studies are really helpful,” said Lafontant. “Even though we might work in very different places or capacities, the sort of critical thinking and doubting of established norms is really important. I think that’s sort of a skill that I really started thinking of through my art history program, especially [at UNI].”

At the Neon Museum, a large part of Lafontant’s day was devoted to guiding tours, and that involves a lot more rhetorical skill and critical thought than people may realize.

“A lot of people go to museums just because they already know something, so it kind of calibrates your visitorship. That impacts your tours and how you present that information,” said Lafontant. “It’s very important to … think critically about how those choices really impact how your message or your art is received.”

In addition to the critical thinking and rhetorical skills that are involved with giving a tour or curating a collection, writing, research and organizational skills are often utilized in museum work.

“You have a lot of opportunities for different work,” said Lafontant. “Grant writing and fundraising is a component that you’re going to have wherever you go. Also writing labels, deciding on an exhibition core themes and content, making sure databases are up to date, making sure that information is accessible, as well is processing loans or bringing in objects from other museums.”

This might seem like a lot to take on but, according to Sutton, the new museum studies certificate is significant because it prepares students to tackle whichever part of the field they want to explore.

“We needed something for undergrads that wasn’t just history or art but encompassed things from other departments and provided experiential learning opportunities for students,” Sutton said. “Since [the certificate] is lined up with specific majors, students can understand the intellectual component along with the experiential component. They see how what they’re learning in a classroom can be applied.”

More than just teaching students how they can apply the skills they’re learning, art department faculty take special care to help connect students to real-life opportunities for application — and those opportunities lead to the types of interesting experiences Lafontant has had.

“We have this community here in the [art] department, and it’s another way of building, maintaining and growing relationships between the University and Cedar Falls/Waterloo, but ... the opportunities are everywhere” said Sutton. “If you have a project you want to do, we will help you do it. We’re here to mentor, we’re here to guide. Everybody’s got these networks that students who come here can tap into. Go to the opportunities and then — boom! — everything works out. It’s amazing.”