How an Arts & Letters education inspired art history major Meg Burns to follow her passion — and be open to change

Author: Sophia Lauber

Meg Burns 1
Meg Burns on the coast of the Irish Sea, just north of Dublin

Senior Meg Burns says that the tagline to her experience at Notre Dame could be, “It’s OK to change your mind.”  

After three semesters majoring in biochemistry, Burns decided to follow her passion and major in art history. Then, during her junior year, she dramatically shifted the focus of her senior thesis after having completed research in Dublin.

Looking back, Burns said these moments became valuable learning experiences themselves.

“I’ve learned to be flexible and to be open to changing my mind and looking for new ideas,” Burns said. “Ultimately, I’ve learned to understand that disappointment and twists and turns in the road are part of the process.” 

After working at a local art museum in San Antonio, Texas, during high school, Burns knew she wanted to stay involved in the field. So, she began volunteering as a member of the student programming committee at the Snite Museum of Art during her first year at Notre Dame.

“Working at the Snite made me realize that a career in art history was a viable option,” said Burns, who is also a Glynn Family Honors Scholar. “It was something that I thought wasn’t realistic, but getting to work in the museum made me realize it was the right path for me.”

She added an art history major during her first year and juggled both art history and biochemistry until her second semester sophomore year.

“I was balancing a lot of courses, so I took a step back and thought about what I was really passionate about spending time on and what I was the happiest doing,” Burns said. “I realized art history — that really in-depth research and that close connection you have with the objects — was what made me happiest.”

“Working at the Snite made me realize that a career in art history was a viable option. It was something that I thought wasn’t realistic, but getting to work in the museum made me realize it was the right path for me.”

Learning to pivot

Meg Burns 2
Burns in front of the Hugh Lane Gallery

In addition to planning student-centered activities held at the Snite, Burns conducts research in the photography department of the Snite with curator David Acton and serves as the president of the Art History Club on campus this year.

While she decided not to pursue a formal education in science, Burns became interested in the intersections of environmental science and art history in the work of installation artist Mark Dion, whom she learned about in a contemporary art class. 

With funding from the Glynn program, she traveled to Dublin a week before her semester abroad there in the fall of her junior year to research an exhibition of Dion’s work at the Hugh Lane Gallery and work one-on-one with the museum’s curator.

“Getting to walk through the installation with the curator really gave the experience an extra layer that I wouldn’t have gotten from reading the wall labels or examining the objects themselves,” Burns said. “I think that especially with an artist like Dion there’s nothing like seeing the work of art in person.”

Burns originally planned to use her research to write her senior thesis on Dion’s work, but later realized there wasn’t an area where she felt she could significantly add to the canon.

“It was so helpful to me to have faculty support — from Elyse Speaks, in the Department of Art, Art History & Design and Erika Doss in the Department of American Studies — when I was having this moment of crisis,” Burns said. “They assured me that it’s normal to start doing your research and then realize it’s not going to work out. Then you just need to refocus or pivot.” 

And while she won’t be using the research in her thesis, the experience was crucial to Burns’  career discernment process.

“My research experience gave me a lot in terms of understanding how to approach artists’ work and how to work with curators,” Burns said. “Working with Dion, being in the galleries, and making those connections to curators will all be helpful for me in my career.”

Finding a more inclusive view

Meg Burns 4
Burns with her mother at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Burns built on that experience this summer, when she was able to work remotely as a Havner Curatorial Intern for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in American art and eventually become a museum curator in the field.

When re-evaluating her senior thesis topic, Burns realized that what she most appreciated about Dion’s work was his ability to create social change through art and pivoted to a new subject, inspired by a political thought class she was taking at the time.

“My American political thought class really made me step back and think about American spaces and cityscapes and the political science aspect of the social environment, and that led me in a completely different direction,” Burns said.

Burns was led back to an art history class she had taken with Doss about African American art in which she learned about Theaster Gates, a contemporary artist in Chicago. Gates’ Rebuild Foundation in the southside of Chicago creates artistic spaces with the aim of sustaining cultural development and celebrating art. 

She is now writing her thesis on Gates and Rick Lowe, an artist with a similar project in Houston, to examine the ability of their art practices to impact communities. She hopes to visit both Houston and Chicago to see their work in person and meet the artists.

“My final project will have both an art historical and political science component, discussing what circumstances led these artists to be community leaders and sources of neighborhood-driven change,” Burns said. “This idea of the artist creating social change is something I feel really passionate about.”

Ultimately, this ability to conduct interdisciplinary research is what Burns has found to be one of the greatest strengths of the College of Arts and Letters.

“In my own research, I’ve looked at the intersection of political science and art history and American history and even environmental science with Dion,” Burns said. “Arts and Letters is the place on campus where you’re really encouraged to draw together all of these disparate fields to create new research, to think about things in a different way, and to approach your research — and hopefully your life — with a more inclusive, whole-picture view.”

“In my own research, I’ve looked at the intersection of political science and art history and American history and even environmental science. Arts and Letters is the place on campus where you’re really encouraged to draw together all of these disparate fields to create new research, to think about things in a different way, and to approach your research — and hopefully your life — with a more inclusive, whole-picture view.”

 

Originally published by Sophia Lauber at al.nd.edu on September 17, 2020.