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An Interview with Curator and American Music Specialist Levon Williams

Levon Williams will return to Indiana University in the fall of 2016 to pursue a MA degree in Non-Profit Management in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He holds a BA in Interpersonal Communications from Purdue University and studied Library and Information Science at IU. He has previously worked as Curator of Collections and Registrar at the STAX Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis and as Curator of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

Jason Jackson (JJ): Thank you Levon for taking time for this interview. You are looking ahead to your new graduate program, but I am sure that you have also been reflecting on your recent years working as a curator and interpreter of American musical culture. What have been some highlights of your work as a museum professional so far?

Levon Williams (LW):  Well there have been many, but here are two that really standout. During my time at the Stax Museum, I had the opportunity to work collaboratively with the non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO). Facing History and Ourselves’ work focuses on empowering young people to be “upstanders” (as opposed to bystanders) by strengthening their capacity for empathy and understanding. Our goal was to create an educational curriculum for middle school and high school aged students centered around the development and music of Stax Records as well as the history of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

The opportunity to use the history of Stax Records as a lens through which to explore broader concepts such as Civil Rights history in this manner spoke directly to both my professional and personal goals. Using music as an entry point, we were able to help students frame their own history and related it directly to the lives they live everyday. FHAO were absolutely wonderful to work with on this project and I am very proud of the result. This curriculum includes text, images, as well as several audio/visual elements. It can be viewed here: Sounds of Change.

A second major highlight, was the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Curatorial Team at the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) to create what will become the interpretive program for the museums galleries. The NMAAM set open in Nashville, TN in 2018 will house 5 main galleries, a changing gallery and a large area for shared visitor experiences called Rivers of Rhythm. It is shaping up to be something that will be extremely engaging for visitors from various interests and walks of life.

It is not often that one has the opportunity to have input on how a story of this magnitude (the history of American music) will be told on this scale (roughly 1600 sq ft.)  Learning about the process of undertaking such a task, as well as working collaboratively to contribute to how the history and music will be contextualized in the story the museum will tell has definitely been another professional highlight.

JJ: Those are incredible experiences. In the case of the FHAO project, an exciting museum effort is closely aligned with positive social change. In the NMAAM, the creation of a new museum is itself a huge change, one that will surely create an important platform for doing good on a national level. How did your previous work in the field and your studies at Purdue and Indiana prepare you to contribute to those endeavors?

LW: I’d definitely suggest that in a way all of your previous experiences contribute to how you approach any given project in one way or another. However, specifically in regards to my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I would lean heavily on my graduate experience having a significantly strong impact.

Over my two years at Indiana University, I worked, volunteered and/or interned at Wells Library, Monroe County Public Library, IU GLBT Library, Kinsey Library and Special Collections, Archives of African American Music and Culture, Archives of Traditional Music, Mathers Museum of World Cultures and the Monroe County History Center. My understanding of how libraries, archives and museums worked increased exponentially. My association with these different organizations offered a wealth of opportunity to gain experience in all three disciplines, and was immeasurable in terms of exposing me to the inner workings of different organizations. I’d definitely say it did much to prepare me for my first steps into professional life. The opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of departments were set up, how workflows were managed as well as the seemingly inescapable politics of work were just a peak into what what I would encounter in the field, but I am beyond grateful for those opportunities.

I was also able to utilize these positions as a platform to build a strong professional network. I established relationships with several people I would come to call mentors. It has been tremendously helpful to be able to call on them during my time in the field. I am eternally grateful to all of them for the support they’ve offered over the years. Their collective impact on my career path cannot be understated.

JJ: I like how you stress the ways that skills development and networking are both part of the practicum/internship/volunteering experience. I also note that you treated libraries, archives, and museums as a diverse but unified sector—what, with the inclusion of galleries, we sometimes call the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) fields. You have finished up your work at NMAAM and are soon to return to IU as a student. What will you be studying and what are your goals for your program?

This fall I am returning to IU to pursue a Master of Public Affairs degree in the of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. My focus will be Nonprofit Management. After spending close to 5 years in the field I felt this area might be one where I could make an impact of significance. I am a strong believer in the importance of a strong and supportive organizational culture. I feel that strong support and sustained investment (financial and otherwise) in creating and empowering strong leaders is especially pronounced in the Nonprofit sphere as organizations are often understaffed and may not have salaries that reflect the impact of the work they do. I feel an environment that is energizing and offers the potential for professional and personal growth goes a long way to keep staff passionate about the mission they serve.

On a personal note, my hope is to broaden my Administrative skill set and to return to the field with a strong foundation in best practices for operating healthy Nonprofit organizations as well as some practical experience as well. The SPEA Nonprofit Management program stands to significantly deepen my understanding of many of the Administrative elements of leadership in Nonprofit organization such as budgets and philanthropy in general. I strongly believe a better understanding of how these concepts all work together will prove invaluable as I continue my career. The program also offers a Capstone project that I am very excited about, as it will afford me the opportunity to apply the concepts I will be learning in class to real world scenarios. I look forward to possibly returning to museums or working with other organizations in the Nonprofit sphere once I have completed my degree.

JJ: The leadership needs that you’ve identified for the non-profit sector are certainly pressing. I am excited for you that you have this new opportunity to return to SPEA and secure this additional training. I look forward to keeping up with your work, both in the nonprofit management program and throughout your career. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. Good luck with your new round of studies.

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