Art Grad Student Leads Exhibition Team at Transportation Museum

Ashlee René Thompson, an MFA candidate in painting set to graduate in May 2022, is also working on her museum studies certificate while at UA. As part of the certificate requirements, Thompson took a course in museum education and exhibits with Dr. Alexander Benitez, then director of Moundville Archaeological Park. For a semester-long project, the class was at first divided into groups and asked to come up with proposals for museum exhibits. But when an opening at the Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum (MWWTM) came up, Katherine Edge, director of the MWWTM, and Dr. Benitez decided to turn the museum class project into an actual exhibition.

The class and museum directors brainstormed several ideas and finally proposed a solo exhibition by the award-winning artist Mary Smith, a member of the Muscogee Creek nation who had previously woven a traditional feathered cloak for permanent display at Moundville Archaeological Park. The proposal became Weaving Muscogee Creek Culture: The Artistry of Mary Smith, which opened in October 2021 at the Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum and will run through March 19, 2022.

(left to right) Ashlee René Thompson, Elissa Lisle, Riva Cullinan, and Manasar Alharethi hold their SWIM presentation awards at the Southeastern Museums Conference in Chattanooga. Not pictured: Emily McKenzie.

Thompson’s original group volunteered to work through the summer and fall to prepare for the exhibition. Along with Thompson, who was selected as the project manager, the volunteers were Emily McKenzie, an undergraduate anthropology major; Elissa Lisle and Riva Cullinan, both master’s students in history; and Manasar Alharethi, a doctoral student in communication and information sciences. All of the graduate students are working on certification in museum studies. As project manager, Thompson was responsible for keeping everyone and the work on schedule, as well as keeping up with supply needs and the exhibition’s budget. She managed all the communications between the Transportation Museum, the director of the Moundville museum, and the exhibition workers. In addition, Thompson developed the promotional materials for the show.

Thompson’s group also submitted their exhibition proposal to the Student Work in Museums (SWIM) competition at the 2021 Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and were the only student group selected to present. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, four of their group were able to attend in person (including Thompson) and one attended virtually. The students were all presented awards for their presentation.

poster for "The Artistry of Mary Smith" exhibition.
Mary Smith poster

The conference was the first Thompson has attended and she had a great experience. “I was able to sit in on sessions full of information about the ins and outs of museums and exhibition installation as well as curatorial tips and resume building,” she explained.

Thompson said the conference and the coursework were deeply inspiring and enriching on a practical level. “It was an amazing experience and one that I would gladly take part in again. UA’s museum studies certificate program is a great opportunity to improve an artist’s skillset in artwork display options and get a sense for all that happens behind the scenes in any exhibition, gallery or museum space.”

For information about The University of Alabama’s programs in studio art and art history, visit our Degree Programs page.