Q&A with CAM’s Emily Holtrop, National Museum Education Art Educator award winner

Emily Holtrop

Emily Holtrop

By Connie Yeager

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s director of learning and interpretation, Emily Holtrop, won this year’s National Museum Education Art Educator award. It is given by the National Art Education Association, which advocates for visual art education in public and private schools, higher education, museum education and community-based settings. The award, determined through peer review, recognizes exemplary contributions, service and achievements of one NAEA member each year.

Holtrop, 43, arrived at the CAM in 2002, after working as an education outreach coordinator in Miami, Florida, and attending graduate school in London. A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, she holds degrees in art history, public history and architectural history.


What and/or who inspired your career path?

A: My mom was an art and home economics teacher, and my dad taught English and speech, so I grew up loving art and reading. When you grow up with two parents as teachers, you go to wonderfully educational places like Plimoth Plantation or Acadia National Park. Along the way, it sunk in that a museum might be a cool place to work. I was a very curious kid (still am) and always loved history and reading (still do). I also really love talking to people – thanks to 10 years of retail shoe store experience. So when it came time to focus on a career, I wanted to marry my love of art, history and people together. Museum education is a perfect fit.

What does your CAM role encompass?

A: I will break it down into the two parts of my title: learning and interpretation. The learning side is the work we do to create public programs and experiences that bring the museum’s collection and special exhibitions to life for visitors of all ages and abilities. I often joke that the programs serve everyone from cradle to grave or womb to tomb. We offer a wide, deep slate of public programs at the CAM, everything from summer camp to scholarly lectures, podcasts, special accessibility programs, community programs, the Rosenthal Education Center and school tours. That is all managed by my amazing team of 10 dedicated, fun and smart museum educators.

The interpretation side is all about storytelling and the stories the museum wants to tell through our collections and special exhibitions. I work closely with our curators to craft the story and messaging for CAM visitors. We create interpretation goals based on what we would like them to learn. I review and edit all interpretive text (wall labels, gallery guides, etc.) before it goes in the gallery. In doing this, I serve as the voice of the museum visitor, asking questions about why something may or may not be interesting or necessary to add. I also devise and write the content for most of the gallery or family guides found in a special exhibition and am in charge of creating all hands-on interactives in the museum galleries.

As far as the difference between education and interpretation, I would say it is more of a difference between education and learning. When people hear the word education, they immediately think of school or a more formal learning environment. The term learning applies more to what we do. We help foster learning in our collection. If we are not engaging with you and helping you learn what you want to learn, then we are not doing our jobs. In my mind learning is so much more active and engaging.

What are your core goals? 

A: My goal in all that I do at the museum is to serve our visitors – all of our visitors – and make them feel welcomed and cared for. Other goals would include making the museum more inclusive and diverse and breaking down barriers, both real and perceived, that come with being an institution that is over 135 years old.

Of what accomplishments at the CAM are you most proud? 

A: I am immensely proud of the awesome museum educator team I have built, all of whom I have hired. I am also proud of our over 115 strong volunteer docent corps. They never cease to amaze me, and I learn from them every day. I am also really proud of the Rosenthal Education Center – that space is my baby. I was so excited to have had the opportunity to work with the architects to design it. It’s an amazing place for families to engage with the collection and feel welcome at the museum.

My most recent big project is the creation of MyCAM, our new interactive art hunt program for which I wrote the content. It is a choose-your-own-adventure tour of the museum with over 320,000 art combinations. Finally, I am really proud of our innovative, engaging public and community programs. My team constantly amazes me with what they dream up to do in our galleries and in the community.

In what ways have your interactions/involvement with your NAEA peers informed/inspired programs at the CAM? 

A: When I came to the CAM in 2002, I was sent to my first NAEA convention. This opened a door to an art museum education family who would become so valuable both professionally and personally. I learn from my peers at other museums every day. I love the conversations we have at conferences, on social media, over the phone and email. Museum educators are a supportive community. Working with NAEA has also created a great network of contacts that helps in my work here. If we are getting a special exhibition from another museum, I most likely know my counterpart there and can make a good connection instantly.

What are some of your favorite works of art at the CAM?

A: It is difficult to choose just one … It depends on the day, my mood and also what I am working on at the moment. Right now it’s the original artwork for a really great exhibition I am curating – Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey (July 20–Sept. 9). McCloskey was a children’s book author/illustrator from Hamilton, Ohio, whose works include Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal. In the CAM’s collection, I will always love Robert Henri’s Patience Serious. It is a small portrait of a little gypsy girl in our Early 20th Century American Gallery.

What energizes you? 

A: I get energized by being in the galleries with visitors. I love to give tours and gallery talks or to work in the Rosenthal Education Center. Being around visitors, especially children, who are exploring art and tapping into their curiosity, is invigorating and it reminds me why I do what I do. I also really get energized when I am researching a new special exhibition. My love of learning new things keeps me going.

What do you see as future goals/challenges? 

A: I am thinking a lot right now about the museum’s role in addressing current events and social justice issues. The museum can be a great hub for dialogue and the exchange of ideas in a manner that is thoughtful and respectful to all points of view while encouraging debate. This is not something that only the CAM is thinking about. My colleagues in other museums across the country are also struggling to find a place in the conversation.  

I am also thinking about how the museum can be a place where anyone and everyone can feel welcome and accepted. Art museums have often been thought of as a place that only people who know a lot about art could visit. Not true! If you like to look at cool stuff and learn new things, the museum is for you. They also think the museum is stuffy and that you can’t have fun in the galleries. Also not true. Almost all of our programs encourage creative play and discussion. I use humor in all my tours/programs to break down those preconceived notions. If the girl from the museum is saying a guy in a painting looks like a stuck-up jerk, you can say that, too. It is okay, all opinions welcome.

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