Tribute to Charles Sawyer

Former Museum Studies Program Director, Raymond Silverman, and Museum Practice Program alumna, Marjorie Harth, offer tributes to the memory of Charles Sawyer.

Raymond Silverman

I am very sorry that I am not able to be here today to celebrate Charlie Sawyer’s life and career. I would like to thank Marjorie Harth—someone who for many years was intimately involved with the former Museum Practice Program—for graciously agreeing to pinch-hit for me today representing the Museum Studies Program.

It was only two years ago that I first met Charlie, nevertheless, I feel fortunate to have been able to experience the passion for museums and museums studies that Charlie sustained to the very end. We had the opportunity to meet several times to chat about museum studies—both the program he founded in the late 1950s and our new program which just completed its second year. Charlie was totally committed to museum studies here at UM. He was disappointed of course that the program he founded had ceased to function in the early 1990s, but was thrilled to learn in the late 1990s that plans were afoot to resuscitate the program.

When I joined the UM faculty in 2002 to launch the new program in Museum Studies, I was pretty much given a clean slate. There were no expectations that there should be any continuity between the former program and the new program. We developed what I’d like to think is a dynamic, innovative curriculum in applied museum theory. Interestingly, over the last two years, as I’ve learned more about the former Museum Practice Program, the program that Charlie Sawyer founded 45 years ago, I’ve come to realize that the two programs have a great deal in common.

One of the first things I did when I arrived on campus in 2002 was to read a marvelous little document published in 1980. It is the text of a talk Charlie delivered at an event held in 1979 to celebrate his tenure as the Director of the Museum Practice Program. In it he offers his reflections on the then 20-year-old program. His talk offers insights into Charlie’s thoughts concerning the requisite knowledge and skills a student should acquire to prepare for a successful career as a museum professional, as well as the strategies that he and his colleagues, such as Marjorie Harth developed to provide students with this experience. I was struck with how closely his thinking resonated with many of the core principles associated the new Museum Studies Program.

For instance, Charlie believed that it was critical that museum professionals—especially directors, curator and educators—have a strong disciplinary grounding. From the very start, the former Museum Practice Program was designed “to create a bridge between the academic discipline and museum experience, as an adjunct to that discipline. . .” This fundamental philosophical commitment to disciplinary grounding remains at the core of the current certificate program””all of our students are simultaneously enrolled in advanced graduate degree programs.

That said, Charlie was also a strong advocate of interdisciplinarity. Indeed, in some respects, Charlie was a man before his times. He commented that early on, “I welcomed the interdisciplinary backgrounds of the participants [in the Program] . . . for I thought that they learned a good deal from each other.” Unfortunately, “as enrollment pressures increased in later years, and the Program became more professionally oriented, it became increasingly difficult to maintain this interdisciplinary charter.” In fact, though the program was predominately comprised of students from the history of art, there were also students from classical studies, history, American studies, library science, art and anthropology. Charlie’s reflections reveal a certain degree of frustration concerning failed attempts at bringing greater interdisciplinarity to the Museum Practice Program. He attempted to establish collaborative relationships with a number of programs on campus, including the Department of Anthropology and the Anthropology Museum, the Department of History, and the American Studies Program. But these formal relationships never came to fruition.

Well, times have changed, and UM is living the dream of interdisciplinarity and now provides a fertile environment to pursue interdisciplinary initiatives—the new Museum Studies Program is one of the Graduate School’s premiere Interdisciplinary Programs. The first two cohorts of students in the MSP have included students from history, anthropology, art history, classical archaeology, art and design, information science, architecture, biology, computer science, to name just some of the disciplines. In addition, our curriculum draws on faculty from a similar array of disciplines. Our program seeks to create and sustain an intellectual space where students and faculty from a host of disciplines can meet on a regular basis to learn and think about museums—it is this conscious mix of disciplines that cultivates interdisciplinary thinking.

Charlie observed in his reminiscences that “museums are social institutions, (with a small s and a capital S), and require a certain amount of dedication to public service, a willingness and ability to work in concert with others . . .” Once again, Charlie’s view was consistent with our current educational objectives that place an emphasis on understanding how museums work as social and cultural institutions. Our students leave the program having been introduced to the history of the institution and the theories that have driven its evolution, particularly the thinking that is influencing current museum practice. Today, museums have become more responsive to the interests and needs of their audiences, they have moved closer to the center of the communities they serve. The former Museum Practice Program sought to instill the values necessary to sustain collaborative relations—a critical requisite for working in and around museums. The same holds true of the new program.

From the very start the Museum Practice Program benefited from a close relationship with the Toledo Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, and The Henry Ford. Forty-five years ago students visited those institutions, as do our students today. Indeed, the program produced museum professionals who assumed leadership positions in these institutions—perhaps most notably, Roger Berkowitz, who recently stepped down as Director of the Toledo Museum of Art, and Steve Hamp who is the President of The Henry Ford. Today, building on these long-standing relationships, we maintain strong partnerships with these institutions, as well as a number of other regional institutions. Ours students are visiting these museums as part of the year-long Museum Studies proseminar, where they have an opportunity to interact with the staffs of these institutions. Some students are pursuing internships at these museums. And we have created what we call the Museum Studies Forum that is bringing our students and faculty together with the practitioners who work in these institutions for lectures and discussions of current museum-related issues.

One of the significant differences between the former program and the new one, is that the new program includes in its purview not only museums but institutions that maintain living collections, such as arboreta, botanical gardens and zoos, as well as theme parks. And, it acknowledges the blurring of the boundaries that exists between museums, libraries and archives. Along these lines, it acknowledges changes in thinking about the nature of the object that lies at the heart of museums””the fact that we now must deal not only with the single artifact but consider groups of objects, systems if you will, as objects. It also requires that we consider “experience” as an object around which many exhibitions and museums are being built.

Charlie was keenly interested in our new program. Last summer, I shared a copy of the syllabus for our year-long proseminar with him. He read it carefully, and in an e-mail message in which he thanked me for sending him the syllabus, he remarked, “things have certainly changed since I was involved with the program!” Indeed, over the last twenty years the museum has become a focal point for many scholars writing in the field of critical cultural theory. There is a rich theory-oriented literature that we combine with significant practice-oriented writing that comes out of the museum profession for our year-long proseminar.

We, of course, are very glad that we decided to make the announcement about our plans to name the administrative home for the museum studies program, the Charles H. Sawyer Center for Museum Studies, last September while Charlie was still with us. Doing so was—as they say—a “no brainer.” It offered an opportunity to acknowledge the important contribution Charlie made to the University as well as to the museum profession. From the late 1950s to the late 1980s the Museum Practice Program awarded over 150 masters degrees and certificates in museum practice. Many of the students who were either directly or indirectly associated with the program went on to assume important leadership positions as curators, registrars, educators, designers, and as directors in some of the country’s leading museums.

Those of you who knew Charlie will not be surprised to learn that when James Steward and I first broached the subject of naming the Center after him, Charlie first expressed his appreciation—he was genuinely moved—but quickly added that if a better “naming opportunity” presented itself (one that might yield significant financial support for the program), he would certainly understand. Quintessential Charlie!

On Sunday, September 12, last year, roughly 50 people—old friends, former students, faculty and staff who had worked with Charlie, as well as students from our new program—met in the media room of the Museum for a lovely reception. Millard Rogers, former director of the Cincinnati Museum of Art, and the first graduate of the Museum Practice Program back in the late 1950s, attended, as did Bret Waller, who sded Charlie in the early 1970s as Director of the Museum of Art and the Director of the Museum Practice Program. There were several nice speeches, but Charlie stole the show, as he reminisced a bit and acknowledged a number of special people who had either been students or who had assisted in shaping the former program. He was sharp as a tack . . . not only referencing numerous individuals but the dates and details about their associations with the program. It was a special afternoon.

We are excited about the prospect of moving our administrative offices into the new wing of Museum of Art, and of course, very pleased that we have this perfect opportunity to acknowledge Charlie’s contributions to museum studies here at the University of Michigan. We will miss Charlie but his legacy will live on in The Charles H. Sawyer Center for Museum Studies.

Marjorie Harth

Charles H. Sawyer, who died on February 25 at the age of 98, had a long and distinguished history at the University of Michigan. Director of the Museum of Art and a member of the History of Art faculty from 1957 until his retirement in 1972, he contributed broadly to the intellectual life on this campus, and beyond. We first met in 1966, when I entered the Museum Practice Program; and we worked closely together from 1973, when I returned to the Museum and an administrative role in that program, until 1981 when I left for California. Charles subsequently served as my dissertation advisor, and we remained in touch thereafter. Knowing him—as teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend—was one of the blessings of my life.

Charles Sawyer was educated at Andover, Yale (AB 1929), and Harvard, where, under the influence of Paul Sachs, he discovered a passion for museums. Soon thereafter, he entered the profession as the first curator of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy (1930-40), and then director of the Worcester Museum of Art (1940-43). During the war he held several art-related posts, including one in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as part of the effort to return works of art confiscated by the Nazis. Returning to Yale in 1947, he became director of the Division of the Arts that included the Colleges of Architecture, Art, and Drama, the department of the History of Art, and the Art Gallery. While at Yale, he also created a new department of design directed by Josef Albers. In 1957, he moved on to Ann Arbor, becoming the second director of the Museum of Art.

Early in his tenure here, Sawyer created the Museum Practice Program, one of the country’s first. Catholic in approach, particularly for its time, the program accepted students of American history and archaeology, as well as art history, and worked closely with the Toledo Museum of Art, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archeology. Responding to a perceived need for broadly trained professionals interested in community museums, Sawyer also instituted regional internships—at Cranbrook, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo—that were supported by NEA and NEH grants, which the program received from the first year they became available. The museum program changed over the years, including a shift in the 1970s to a new structure that included a summer session and replaced the Master of Museum Practice degree with a certificate in Museum Practice awarded in conjunction with the academic M.A. Its core values, however—the emphasis on objects, on the museum as educator, and on museum work as public service—along with a balance of classroom instruction and hands-on experience, have remained constant to this day. No higher compliment could be paid to what Charles created—no better demonstration of his wisdom, perspicacity, and the endurance of his legacy. It is deeply satisfying that he not only witnessed this rebirth but also knew that his name would continue to be associated with it. The naming of the Charles H. Sawyer Center for Museum Studies was a fitting tribute and one in which he delighted.

In retrospect, I realize how narrow a conception of Charles’s accomplishments I had for many years. To me, he was “ours”—he belonged to Michigan, to this museum, to the museum program, to this “frame of reference,” to use his favorite phrase. It took me years to grasp how wide his reach was, how broadly influential and universally admired. To say “I’m a student (or colleague) of Charles Sawyer, always produced fond stories and open doors. Much of that fondness attached to his devoted and engaging wife Katharine (Kitty) Clay, whom he married in 1934.

Principled, tactful, endlessly generous, and possessed of an impressive penchant for hard work, Charles Sawyer was the very model of the gentleman scholar. He taught by example as much as overt direction, maintaining what appeared to be a bottomless faith in his students; taking each of us seriously, he encouraged us to do the same. Until the very end of his life, his mind, memory, and open-hearted embrace of things new and surprising, were phenomenal. Well into his 90s, he found it amusing that people expected him to remember things he had done 75 years ago. “Fifty, maybe,” he once said, “But 75?!” In the next breath, however, he told me about watching José Clemente Orozco work on the murals at Dartmouth—in 1932. Reflecting on the many professional watersheds Charles witnessed during his lifetime in museums—the devastation of World War II that inspired a renewed commitment to museum education, the work of art, and American history; the ensuing growth of museums, their visibility, and their role in public life; the intensified ethical consciousness of the 1970s; the advent (and decline) of federal arts funding; the blockbuster phenomenon; the return to community consciousness (which was always fundamental to Charles’s philosophy)— it is astonishing to realize how many he engaged directly.

Charles Sawyer gave himself fully to the arts, to museums, to Michigan’s Museum of Art and to the museum program he founded. We have lost a great spirit, but one whose legacy is indelible.

This tribute originally appeared in the 2005 issue of SPACES, the newsletter of the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program.