Wes Stoerger

Wes Stoerger, Champaign, graduates May 16 from Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a master’s degree in public administration. Here he handles a Southeast Asian basket he included in a recent exhibit he curated at the University Museum.  (Photo by Russell Bailey)

May 12, 2015

Student ready to pursue his passion for museums

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – He grew up surrounded by art. Visits to museums and art galleries were part of every family vacation from the time he was a child. So for Southern Illinois University Carbondale student Wes Stoerger, graduating on Saturday, May 16, with a master’s degree in museum studies and public administration, a focus on museum administration is a natural choice. 

For him, it’s about giving back. 

A Champaign native, Stoerger particularly remembers the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, a local museum for him growing up. 

“I loved getting lost in there, taking time to go through every gallery even if I had seen everything before,” he said. 

As an undergraduate at SIU, Stoerger majored in history and volunteered at the University Museum in Faner Hall. That’s where he found that, as much as he enjoys working in the museum archives, curating an exhibit is what he really wants to do. 

Recently, Stoerger curated the exhibit “Crossing Borders: Southeast Asian Cultural Treasures from the Museum’s Collection” as an accompaniment to the traveling exhibit at the University Museum this past fall, “Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America.” He described researching the significance of colors in Vietnamese culture to help him select an appropriate accent color, and going through the museum’s newly digitized archives to select pieces that would not only fit the exhibit perimeters, but also look good and excite interest. Some pieces he placed along the wall, some in the center of the room to encourage all-angles viewing. Overall, he wanted an exhibit that was accessible and pleasant, but also one that recreated the magic of discovery that thrilled him as a child. 

“It is our job as curators not only to preserve our collections, but also to display them for the public,” he said. “Creating high-quality exhibits allows future generations to enjoy their time in museums, and to have the same experiences that I had growing up.” 

Stoerger acknowledges that he might have selected an easier career path. Museums, along with other public institutions, face funding and other challenges. Nevertheless, Stoerger believes strongly in the need for museums, and he wants to be part of what they do. 

“Despite the obstacles, I feel there will be a need for museums,” he said. “Museums allow individuals to experience and learn about people, places and ideas they may not have had the chance to otherwise. It is one thing to read about a culture, or to look at the works of an artist in a book. It is another thing completely to see them first hand, and to establish a personal connection with a piece of art or an artifact.” 

He credits his undergraduate history degree with giving him the foundational tools for researching – and also for writing. If he works in museum curation, writing exhibit descriptions will be a big part of his job. Those skills, though, he said are transferable to a range of careers. After all, he pointed out, the first introduction many professionals make to their future employers is a written resume. 

Stoerger hopes to find a career in a university museum, such as SIU’s University Museum, where he learned so much, or Krannert, where he spent happy hours as a child and teenager. He enjoys creating new exhibits, so the high exhibit turnover typical of university and college museums appeals to him most. 

“Now that I am older and have the chance to give back, I feel a great sense of pride that I can now do so,” he said. “I have learned a lot here – Dona Bachman (director of the University Museum) and other museum staff have given me many opportunities to learn about how museums work, and have given me the chance to use what I have learned.”