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STAFF PROFILE: Lynette Pohlman, Director & Chief Curator

Posted on June 10, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Quinn Vandenberg


Around 50 years ago, the powers of artistic passion and circumstance culminated in the birth of a new department at Iowa State, University Museums. Its origins and development can be recalled first-hand through the current Museums’ Director and Iowa State alum, Lynette Pohlman. Lynette originally hails from Moorhead, Iowa in the Loess Hills region. During her childhood, family travels around the nation fostered a passion for art and museums. When her family traveled to Washington DC and visited the Smithsonian Museums, she found her inspiration and her life’s calling first beckoned.

“I couldn’t articulate it until I was 30 years old, but the Smithsonian was where I discovered visual literacy, to be inspired by art and cultural artifacts, to understand your world through objects all happened in that museum when I was seven years old,” Lynette said. “I was less of a book reader, but I could visually consume my world and come to understanding.”

At age 16, Lynette managed her first construction team, developing interests in architecture and how functional structure can serve an aesthetic purpose and impact lives. “I saw very little distinction between the barrier of art, art history, interior design and architecture. To me, it was all an aesthetic world.” Lynette said. Upon her arrival at Iowa State as a student in the early 70s, Lynette sought out art in all aspects of her classes. Visual literacy manifests itself in a variety of departments, so Lynette followed suit. Architecture brought her to the engineering college, interior design landed her in home economics, and art history brought her to liberal arts.

In April of 1971, Neva Petersen, Lynette’s mentor and professor, hired Lynette to help in the restoration of the Farm House Museum, in time for the nation’s upcoming bicentennial celebration in 1976. Still an undergraduate, Lynette’s career in art was underway, and along with it, the future creation of University Museums. Lynette’s work on the Farm House Museum led to her thesis subject, obtaining her master’s degree in 1976. The project allowed her to work freely and explore under the leadership of supportive faculty. The restoration also branched into the creation of the future Brunnier Art Museum. 

IMAGE LEFT: A progress photo of the parlour in the Farm House Museum restoration in the 1970s.

IMAGE RIGHT: The Child's Bedroom in the finished restoration of the Farm House Museum in the 1970s.

In 1973, Iowa State Vice President Carl Hamilton, tasked Professor Neva Petersen and her team to open and catalogue a supposedly small collection of dolls gifted to Iowa State by alum Henry Brunnier and his wife Ann the decade prior. The Brunnier’s collection turned out to be enormous and the foundation for what would become the University Museums’ permanent collection. “We went about unpacking the collection. The 40 dolls were really two semi-trucks of 30,000 objects by the time we were done,” Lynette said. “It took six months just to physically unpack the objects.” The unpacking was completed within the small confines of a hidden secure room in Hilton Coliseum. Boxes were stacked floor to ceiling. Lynette recalls unpacking the first object well; it is one of her most crucial memories.

“I took a box down and set it on the one, lonely card table, and we opened it. There were newspapers in there from San Francisco from 1969. [...] We opened this box very carefully, having no idea what was going to be inside. We came to a plate that was deep red color with a lot of carving on it. There was silence in the room,” Lynette said. The plate was a work of Chinese cinnabar, and the first of many unique objects to be unpacked and catalogued. “That was the beginning of six months of not knowing what was in the next box, what was going to come out of it and how we were going to create an inventoried list of what the objects were,” Lynette said. “I feel like I have been doing collections management ever since opening that first box.”

Lynette’s vision for the future of University Museums reaches into the foundational spirit of the land grant university and the culture of a student community. “The land grant mission is about equal access of people to knowledge and information that has practical application to build a better world. For museums, I think that the department is about people and objects, putting inspired knowledge with facts and feeling to solve problems and be better individuals,” said Pohlman. “Land grant is about agriculture and engineering, but it is also about the art, and emotional quality is part of the democratic educational experience. I think that arts and culture evolve and define the equity, diversity, access and education we have at Iowa State.”

People naturally have an intuitive, emotional response to works of art. University Museums facilitates those responses to generate inspired learning. 

“What students do with that inspired learning? That is another story,” Lynette said.

ABOVE: Lynette Pohlman speaks to the crowd in attendance to the Beyond the Glass Reopening Gala last September.

TOP IMAGE: University Museums Director and Chief Curator Lynette Pohlman describes the details of a woodblock print in the Contemplate Japan exhibition at the Brunnier Art Museum (currently closed).

INSET OBJECT: The first of 30,000 objects in the original collection from Henry and Ann Brunnier, received in 1973. Plate, made in Cheng-Hua period of the great Ming Dynasty, Chinese. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 5.2.4ab

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