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Posts from the ‘History’ Category

Reflections on The Mind is a Collection

On September 22, 2016 Indiana University’s Center for Eighteenth Century Studies held the 2016 Kenshur Prize celebration at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The museum was an especially appropriate setting because the prize winning book was The Mind is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth Century Thought (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) by Sean Silver (English, University of Michigan). It was an honor to be asked by Center Director Rebecca Spang to join a panel of discussants of Silver’s book. What follows here are the remarks that I prepared for this occasion. Those paragraphs preceded by XX were not read in oral presentation but are noted here. Silver’s book, and companion digital exhibition, are an important contribution to material culture and museum studies, in addition to being significant in the fields of Eighteenth Century Studies and the history of ideas. My notes here presume a context present at the event but absent here–a general introduction to the author’s work and project, relevant commentary by the author, and commentary by my colleagues on the panel (who were chosen to represent a diversity of relevant perspectives on the book and project). I preceded my own remarks by welcoming the students and faculty of the Center to the museum and congratulating Sean on this important recognition for his book and exhibition.

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I lack sufficient knowledge of the science, history, culture, and literature of this period, as well as of the relevant parts of cognitive science, to knowledgeably engage the heart of Sean’s remarkable work. Reflecting it central organizing device and thematic concern though, the project’s literal and conceptual organization as a museum-minded exhibition of museum mindedness does offer me a way in. I fear though that I have proven to be one of those rushed museum visitors trying to squeeze in a stop at the big city museum while in route to the airport, roller bag in tow. Passionately interested and markedly impressed, but also nervous and feeling pressed for time, here are a few reflections on my hurried visit. They address smaller vitrines and displays around the edges rather than the main exhibition hall with the core of the story. In the end, such sites of engagement are, of course, a specialty of my own field of folklore studies.

I was struck by the degree to which this is a book and digital exhibition (among the most sophisticated that I have encountered) of our moment. This is not in itself a complete surprise, of course (all of our writings would similarly qualify in degrees), but it does warrant closer acknowledgement. Those who work in museums have a love/not-love relationship with the museum-ification of everything that western societies (and others as well) are in the midst of right now. This is easiest to see in the proliferation of settings in which the word curator is made to apply. TED talks are curated as are meals, fashion shows, and car insurance options. What Barbara Kishenblatt-Gimblett speaks of as the curation of the life world is manifest in the extreme when we speak of curating’s one’s own person brand through, for instance, one’s social media engagements. When it comes to more-than-just-museums curating, there are many very cool things happening on this front in The Mind is a Collection—both the book and the digital exhibition. Like I am, Sean is a part of the zeitgeist. He has interests and passions that are socio-culturally and historically conditioned and he knows the mood of the present so as to anticipate the interests of his readers; but at the same time, his book is fundamentally about the curation of the life world and is a valuable reminder that there is much more to this than a present-day sensibility. I loved learning about the degree to which the curatorial style was a past-day sensibility for learned London, if not for the mass of the city’s residents. Something special happens when a well conceived, well executed project is perfectly calibrated between the ethos of its present and the ethos of the other time or place or context with which it is concerned.  Such dynamics could be investigated in any scholarly project, but here they just ring clear as a bell for me.

XX Another instance of this calibration of then and now ethoses concerns what here at IU we call—as reflected in our strategic plan, for instance—“a culture of making.” Even when Sean is discussing unfamiliar matters, I sense that nearly any practicing museum curator would swoon in response to his manifest love of objects, particularly in their status as manifestations of craft. This is a book and digital exhibition for material culture specialists, even if it deals with materials and concerns not uniformly familiar to the most established material culture disciplines. But outside the scholarly realm, ours is a moment of craft in countless guises, from molecular baskets concocted in materials engineering laboratories to yarn bombing on the streets of Bloomington. I have a friend who crafts artisanal reproductions of the earliest telescopes—the kinds of objects that would seemingly belong in the cabinets of Sean’s subjects. As my own students are documenting ethnographically in a wide range of domains and as the programs of the Mathers Museum reveal, a significant portion of our fellows of the present are in love with the hand made thing and, sometimes, with making things by hand. Such enthusiasms surely persist in a core of actors in each period and place, but they also go in and out of wider fashion. Ours is a maker-minded moment and this is an engaging book and digital exhibition written about the maker-minded living in another maker minded-moment by a maker-minded author. My pleasure again arises in part from the parallelisms found here. I also look forward to learning more about Sean’s in-progress work The Crafts of Enlightenment.

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Figure: The landing page for Silver’s digital exhibition The Mind is a Collection.

 

XX For the social scientific reader, I also think that this book and digital exhibition participates in the contemporary conversation in the human sciences in a novel and interesting way. Like other particularly noteworthy works of our moment, it is a book about the recursive entanglement and co-constitution of humans (as individuals and in groups), objects, and ideas occurring together in particular environments. (For instance, consider Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World.) Its central concepts are shared keywords of our moment: design, complexity, network, embodiment, scale… Such matters interest many of us broadly, but in Sean’s project I find that they are being approached in fresh and new ways that I can happily begin carrying back into my own disciplinary conversations. His website and book are just the kinds of works that I could recommend to the graduate students with whom I work, as an anecdote to conventional approaches to conventional topics addressed with the help of canonical works. Put another way, the book and website engage shared interests in fresh ways. I say this from the perspective of someone who teaches a graduate course on Theories of Material Culture. I would welcome the challenge of working with students in that course in study of The Mind is a Collection.

XX The term material culture arose in the disciplinary context of anthropology. It fits and doesn’t fit in that field in a number of different ways in different times and places. In one now moribund American formulation, material culture was part of a triumvirate that also included mental culture and social culture. The phrase material culture persists despite our shedding of these two companion terms.  During the height of ideas and symbols-centric anthropology, material culture studies faced hard times in social and cultural anthropology. Folklore studies became a key contributor to the study of material culture during the time of its neglect in cultural anthropology.  Today, matters have changed again and material culture is front and center in anthropology and anthropologists face a changed landscape outside their field. The English Department at the University of Michigan has a nice website. When looking at the department’s faculty, one can sort them easily by research interests. In the past, but even today, many cultural anthropologists would be surprised to see that material culture is one of these departmental research foci. They would be even more surprised to see that twelve core faculty members in English—Sean among them—identify with this interest. The same dynamic is now active in many fields lacking deep histories of work in this area. Those who long studied material culture alone in a tiny disciplinary node now operate in a field that is broad and deep. Sean’s book arrives in this new context, one that is driven home each day when my editorial assistant and I open envelopes containing books sent to Museum Anthropology Review for review. If a skeptic asked me for an illustration of what a scholar of English could contribute to the material culture studies commons, The Mind is a Collection offers an incredible answer. But it also reveals the newer challenge for anyone working in material culture studies—this interdisciplinary field is now vast and sophisticated beyond the practical ability of most practitioners to keep up. Material culture studies has entered a new era.

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Figure: The cover of The Mind is a Collection (Penn Press, 2015).

Let me close with a reflection on “thinkering” this is a great word prominent in a great project. In the contexts in which it comes up here, this neologism caused me to think of a pronouncement that I always make when discussing the pleasures of being a curator. It comes up sometimes when I am discussing careers with graduate students. It always comes up in my graduate course in Curatorship, and it certainly has popped out when a non-museum friend or colleague finds me at work cleaning a vitrine with Windex or measuring a gallery wall with a tape measure. What I have said countless times is that the special pleasure of being a curator is that it is the perfect mix of brain work and of hand work—hammering one minute, studying in next. Now this dualism participates in exactly the problematic conceptualizations that are at issue in Sean’s study, but he is generous and, in my reading, he gives our folk psychology back to us and lets us get on with the work. While he holds a professorship and not, to my knowledge, a curatorship, it is a pleasure to have engaged with the work of someone whose brain work and hand work are so well integrated and so well executed. I hope that soon Sean will get the chance to build a physical exhibition to go along with his book-as-catalogue and his digital exhibition.

Don’t Miss the Great Mathers Museum Building Debate

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Built in the early 1980s, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures building is an example of Brutalist architecture, a modernist style reviled by some and revered by others. Two Indiana University historians with a research expertise in architecture fall squarely into one camp or the other. Eric Sandweiss, the current chair of the Department of History, and Michael Dodson, the current chair of the Dhar India Studies Program and a faculty member in the Department of History, have agreed to participate in a spirited debate on the relative beauty (or lack thereof) of the Mathers Museum building. In doing so, they will provide general insights into contemporary architecture and the contrasting and competing ways that beauty has been embraced, complicated, or rejected as a criterion for the evaluation and understanding of the built environment. The debate will be free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Themester 2016: Beauty, an initiative of the IU College of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the President.

See also the Themester and Museum events pages for this big event.

An Interview with Dorothy J. Berry, Metadata Specialist and Project Manager for Umbra, an Initiative of the Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries

While a graduate student at Indiana University, Dorothy J. Berry concurrently earned an MA degree in ethnomusicology from the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and a MLS degree from the Department of Information and Library Science. She undertook several projects at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, including work co-curating the 2014 exhibition Ojibwe Public Art, Ostrom Private Lives. Her masters research focused on African American musical theater in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and she has broad interests in the curation and presentation of historical and cultural materials. She has just begun work as Metadata Specialist and Project Manager for Umbra, “a free digital platform and widget that brings together content documenting African American history and culture.” The Umbra project is an initiative of the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Jason Jackson (JJ): Its great to catchup with you Dorothy! Congratulations on your new post at Minnesota. As you know, I am a huge fan of the work being done at the University of Minnesota Libraries, thus I am really eager to catchup with you and your efforts there. Umbra sounds very ambitious in terms of its technical work, its institutional partnerships, and its culture-changing goals. What is it all about and how are you beginning to contribute?

Dorothy Berry (DB): Umbra is ambitious in scope, indeed! In clear technical jargon, Umbra is an African American digital archives aggregate. It will provide an accessible interface for researchers at various experience levels to explore African American archival materials from across a wide variety of repositories, from huge institutions like the Smithsonian to smaller, but still vital cultural heritage sites like the Jacob Fontaine Religious Museum. Umbra works as a gathering place for African American collections, placing far flung digitized holdings within the broader context of African American history.

Up until now, Umbra has primarily worked with its over 500 contributing institutions to get their already digitized holdings accessible through the site. My position as Metadata Specialist and Project Manager is part of a Council on Library and Information Resources funded grant to digitize over half a million holdings from over 70 collections across the University of Minnesota Libraries system. U of M library staff and faculty have already gone through their wealth of collections looking for hidden records related to African American history—collections which on their face may not be directly related to Black history but have turned out to have breadcrumb trails leading to newly contextualized rich resources. At this point, we are in the digitization and metadata augmentation stage. There is a fantastic cadre of student workers doing large batch scanning and quality control. My position involves supervising their work, as well as using my research background in African American history to add to the metadata for these recontextualized items, making them more easily findable to future scholars studying Black history both in Umbra and in U of M’s Online Finding Aids and UMedia. Not to mention, of course, documenting the process along the way so that other major institutions can potentially implement a similar hidden holdings digitization plan for marginalized histories within their own collections.

In spite, or perhaps because, of the broad scope of the project Umbra has very clear pathways from both the front and back ends. My fellow Umbra team members with more forward facing positions are really masterful at organizing with stakeholders from all levels of participation and creating an aesthetically engaging and community engaged portal, and this massive addition from the University of Minnesota Libraries will go even further in making Umbra a research destination.

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Dorothy J. Berry shares historic film photographs with Danny Glover, star of stage and screen.

JJ: That sounds awesome. I look forward to using it in my own work and teaching! In my experiences visiting there and talking with librarians and campus leaders, I came to see that Minnesota has long been a leader in special collections development and has advocated an approach to access that is mindful of broad and diverse community needs. It seems that your work there is a part and parcel to a wider embrace of open access values and practices. There is also the context of the Big Ten Academic Alliance—what we until recently called the Committee on Institutional Cooperation or CIC. Minnesota is part of a community of universities and libraries committed to working on such things in an innovative way. Indiana University is part of that environment too. How have your graduate studies and the hands-on work that you did at IU prepared you for the work that you are now doing?

DB: I think the wealth of hand’s on opportunities available at Indiana University are what have most prepared me for professional life. While a graduate student I had a two year assistantship at the Archives of African American Music and Culture, one year at the Black Film Center/Archive, a year’s practicum at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, and a semester practicum in the Film Archive. Librarianship in particular is a field that expects its emerging professionals to already have a wealth of experiences before getting that first full time job—I don’t believe I’ve ever really seen a job listing that didn’t ask for at least two years experience, unless it was a specific “recent graduates” oriented position (few and far between!). Having the opportunity to work at a variety of cultural heritage repositories in both front and back of house positions, exhibitions and cataloging, really set me up to have a set of skills and experiences that demonstrate competency, even from a very recent graduate.

On the academic side, I think the pursuit of a dual masters is really key for reaching new levels of accomplishment in archives and museums, especially when it comes to dealing with marginalized people’s collections. My job involves adding value to pre-existing metadata—something that requires technical archival skills, but also a focused research background. Every archivist I’ve known has great research abilities and can quickly become an expert in the collection they’re currently dealing with, but I think specific experience with rigorous research in a specific area leads to richer and more diverse finding aids and exhibits. Studying ethnomusicology was particularly of use as it established a research praxis that values discrete cultural intent, which is useful when working with marginalized people’s collections, but also with historical collections as well. My focus has always been on historical ethnomusicology, and I’m a proponent of the idea of research-based historic ethnography. I believe that work in understanding historic lived experiences from the perspective of the day is integral in fairly representing archival collections, which is increasingly important in the more widely accessible world of digital archives.

JJ: That is a great expression of the value of both hands-on work and interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary academic training. You also stress something that I also care about, the continued importance of historical work in ethnographic fields that have often become very present-centered. In your concern for the historical experiences of marginalized groups, I hear you rightly stressing the need to understand and represent such peoples in their own historical contexts. This is part of the Umbra mission, as I read it. But this initiative clearly is also doing important social or political work in the present. Umbra’s name reminds us, for instance, of “a renegade group of Black writers and poets who helped create the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s.” I cannot stop thinking about all that is happening right now in our tragic, shared American present. What are some of the roles that you emphasize when you think about the work of the archivist and curator of African American cultural materials in the present?

DB: What’s most important to me as an African American archivist/Archivist of African American materials is to use the past to inform the present that Black history has always been filled with a gradient of experiences, emotions, activism, and suffering. Because African American history is taught at a very surface level, usually beginning vaguely before the Civil War, people of all colors often come away with a historical timeline along the lines of “Antebellum slaves-Civil War-Maybe Harlem Renaissance-Civil Rights Movement-People had Afros-Hip Hop in the 90s.” Archivists have the ability to show materials from the hands of African Americans and people of African descent from the earliest periods of North American colonization, showing not only that Black people have always been here, but that those Black people were not tropes pushing forward a linear narrative of American history. Primary documents have the ability to humanize in a way that even the best written non-fiction book cannot, and Archivists are the gatekeepers for this information.

I think we are in a time of extreme hunger for this sort of history, in the face of racism that says Black life is one-note and useless. Letters, publications, notes, films, photos—they force people to see that Black life has always been an integral sinew in the American corpus, and that Black people are human. That phrase “that Black people are human,” should be trite but we live in a segmented society that has long seemed to view African Americans as symbols, as stand-ins for cultural and social issues. Fleshing out human experience is an incredibly important role for all cultural heritage workers, but I think archivists have a really unique ability to share things that can completely turn a worldview on it’s head.

I love African American musical theater of the turn of the 20th century, and people usually get a chuckle out of how obscure that topic sounds. At the end of the day though, it was not an obscure topic at the time—we are talking about celebrities amongst Blacks and Whites, who staged financially and culturally successful performances and were well-known enough to have invitations for private performances from the Rothschilds and the British Royal Family. When the average person thinks of turn of the century Black life, they might think share-croppers, Great Migration, Jim Crow. Those are all realities, but so are popular entertainers and more frivolous things—because Black life has always been diverse and complex (something always assumed of White American populations, but rarely of Black ones).

At the same time, I think it’s important for people who work in historical contexts to not get so comfortable in the past that they ignore the present. When I am speaking on archival objects from the past, I do so to inform and complicate understandings of the present. One of the best recent examples of addressing contemporary understandings while exploring a historical document can be seen in Musical Passage: A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica. This project explores some of the earliest transcriptions of African diasporic music in the Americas using two pages from a 17th century book called Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. Decisions like referring to the planter class as “…people involved in colonizing Jamaica and enslaving Africans in pursuit of profit” might seem trivial, but is a powerful step in discussing archival history without traditional deference to a presumed white readership.

The other role I find incredibly important, personally, is that of someone who is a vocal trained expert who is not easily cowed. This is a role of personal importance because I do not think it is necessarily required of every archivist of color or person working with marginalized people’s collections, but it is one that I try to fulfill as someone with the disposition and positionality to feel comfortable doing so. I have found that many White scholars in a variety of fields assume that people of color who work with materials from their own ethnic/racial/cultural groups are not true scholars—that their expertise comes solely from lived experience and personal opinion. Lived experiences and personal opinions are not without value, of course, but it is important for me to stop those fellow scholars and say “Oh, I hear that you are devaluing my expertise, but we are actually going to talk about this right now.”

I was recently talking to two very intelligent medievalists and said in passing that “race is made up.” They both know me as someone with multiple degrees and professional experience working with archival materials, but one of them immediately scoffed and brought up the dreaded specter of “internet social justice warriors.” I could tell this was something I was supposed to let slide, but instead began a discussion on the undefined “white person” of the 1790 Naturalization Act and the various court-cases and social movements that followed in attempts to create meaning for “white person.” This type of intellectual and emotional labor is, in brief, a pain. I personally find it remarkably important, however, to use my role as a researcher and archivist to plant Black history firmly in the minds of fellow scholars who might, consciously or not, attempt to ignore the historical and archival record solely because they don’t understand or like the 21st century discourse around race.

JJ: Given that talking such issues through over and over again for the larger social good is, as you note, a pain—even as it is also remarkably important—I am very thankful that you were willing to speak to them so eloquently here in the context of your work. In further shaping your understandings of them and in the professional practice that you pursue around them, did you find mentors and allies here at IU during your studies? My hopeful self hopes so, but my worried self worries “not-so-much.”

DB: I don’t know that I’d say I found mentors but that is mainly because my personality doesn’t really seek out that sort of individual one-on-one relationship, for better or for worse. I found many, many people who provided intellectual, professional, and sometimes even emotional support, however. Within the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Fernando Orejuela has always been a great champion and someone with whom I could discus navigating the racial and social problematics of academic life. My time working at the Mathers was fairly instrumental as well, because I had the opportunity to talk with people working with collections, exhibitions, curation. I found everyone there very supportive of professional intentions/potential and was given a lot of opportunity to discus processes and learn. In the other degree side, I spent a lot of time working with Andy Uhrich and Brian Graney, of the University Film Archives and Black Film Center/Archives respectively. They were very much super-allies of the Dorothy-cause, providing again that combination of education and professional freedom that I think is really valuable for graduate students. Graduate students need to learn huge amounts, obviously, but without hands-on projects the job market outside of academia doesn’t really care how many papers you’ve read. There are other professors, Judah Cohen in the Jacobs School [of Music], Terri Francis in the Media School, who really encouraged and challenged me intellectually.

I think there are definitely people at IU who presented serious problems for me, but that is to be expected in life! It is an effort to find and pursue the people that can add to your experiences, but for me it was certainly worth it.

JJ: I am obviously glad that the MMWC provided some of the useful opportunities that you drew upon and took advantage of. I am also glad that you took the Curatorship course and then followed up with hands-on projects at the museum. Engaging a diversity of people and organizations seems to be one key lesson that I read out of your experience. I know that the museum and I benefit from the diversity of students and other stakeholders with whom we engage.

In your new role, you are encountering many different collecting organizations, collections, and collection items. Is there one—at any of these levels—that has really struck a chord with you and that you would like to narrate? (This is the “favorite object” question reworked in an archival context, of course.)

DB: I’m so fresh into the position I haven’t had too much to explore, but in my first week I came across some really interesting holdings in the Social Welfare History Collection. I was pulling files and enriching metadata from a large collection called the Verne Weed Collection for Progressive Social Work, that holds the papers for a variety of activist social workers. That collection contains the Jack Kamaiko Papers, and a subsection of those papers were marked as relevant. The files all had titles along the lines of “USS New Orleans Segregation,” so I originally thought, “Hmm maybe this is someone who was fighting against segregation in the Navy? Maybe a lawyer, maybe someone who was discriminated against themselves?” When I looked through the first file, however, it was all correspondences dealing the the purchase of the Senator Hotel in New Orleans. I had no idea what that could possibly have to do with anything. I tried Googling, and came up with maybe two relevant results that all hinted at the real story.

In the 1940s, the United Seamen’s Service, a non-profit that works for the welfare of seafarers by providing services and local information, attempted to purchase the Senator Hotel to provide recreation and temporary housing for both African American and White seamen. Though the housing would be separated into two segregated wings, with separate entrances, local forces in the French Quarter railed against the close proximity. Jack Kamaiko, who would later go on to become a well respected professor at Hunter College’s School of Social Work, was employed by the United Seamen’s Service and kept letters, telegrams, and ephemera detailing the eventually unsuccessful purchase. These kinds of materials are exciting because while they are accessible at this point to scholars who know where to look, once they are digitized and added to Umbra Search they will be easily discoverable for anyone simply searching for “Segregation in New Orleans.” That kind of fleshing out of the historical record, showing the ongoing fights for fair treatment, provide the “vindicating evidence” that Arturo Schomburg described as his intellectual pursuit. Evidence that Black history is now and has always been, American history.

JJ: That’s an interesting collection and a great point to close on. Thank you so much for sharing your work with me.

An Interview with Alexander Betts, Curator at the Ohio History Connection

Alex Betts is a Curator at the Ohio History Connection based at the OHC’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. He earned a MA with distinction in Museum and Artefact Studies at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. As an undergraduate he earned a BA at Indiana University, where he double majored in anthropology and history, graduated Summa Cum Laude, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. While an undergraduate he worked for three semesters as a practicum student at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures participating in a wide range of curatorial and collections documentation projects. He also interned at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites and at the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Jason Jackson (JJ): Thanks Alex for talking with me. I am eager to catch up with you. For an emerging professional in our field, you have already experienced quite a few adventures as a curator-in-training and curator. We’ll come back to some of these, but I hope that we can begin with your current role as a Curator at the Ohio History Connection. You began there as an Assistant Curator in March 2015, less than a year after this 131 year old institution changed its name from the Ohio Historical Society to the Ohio History Connection. You’ve recently been promoted to the position of Curator.What is your work at the OHC about and how does your role fit within the mission of the organization?

Alexander Betts (AB): Thank you for having me! Yes, I am a Curator in the Collections Management department of the recently re-branded Ohio History Connection. We are a team of five that works to make sure that OHC’s collection of nearly two million objects can be effectively used by staff, researchers, and visitors. As a Curator, I contribute to this goal through collections inventory, cataloging, photography, location tracking, storage, and being a collections point-person on exhibit teams. Another large part of my job is to maintain an active deaccessioning regimen, from initial identification to final disposal. My work focuses on the history and art collections, but also involves the archaeology, ethnography, and natural history collections. We are based at the headquarters in Columbus, the Ohio History Center, but also work with our over 50 historic sites around the state. As you can probably guess, our team is never lacking in things to do!

At the Ohio History Connection, our mission is: “Spark discovery of Ohio’s stories. Embrace the present, share the past and transform the future.” Along with the rest of the Collections Management team, I incorporate the spirit of this mission into my work everyday. Whether we are creating new records and photos for the online catalog, hosting visiting researchers, or assisting with the latest exhibit, our work increases accessibility and helps all Ohioans to share in the mission with us. I am also a big believer of the role that active and responsible deaccessioning plays in collections stewardship, especially at a 131-year-old institution. This is one reason that I was hired for the job.

13244773_987181538406_4419907469572014645_nAlex sits with a pair of metal teeth (H 64030) from the Miller Ohio Penitentiary Collection at the Ohio History Connection. This and other Ohio Pen objects are on display in the OHC’s newly-opened Gallery 3.

JJ: You and I know that the range of positions in the museum field is quite large, from information technology to retail; from market research to health and safety. But when most students think about a museum job, I suspect that many of them think specifically about just the work that you are doing—working everyday with a collection (of collections) of objects. How did you travel from being a freshman in college to being a curator working with two million objects?

AB: As a freshman I already knew that I wanted a career in the curatorial/collections realm—it has been a dream of mine since I was 12. I entered IU as a history major but also quickly found anthropology. IU has such a strong anthropology department, and this is where my undergraduate interests blossomed. Starting my first practicum at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures was what cemented my desire for a museum career. It began to feel like a concrete goal. I will always look to Chief Curator Ellen Sieber as the one who jump-started the beginnings of my career. Through her guidance over three semesters, I gained invaluable experience and skills that I still use today.

After IU, I spent a summer interning with the registrar at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. This was another fantastic internship that introduced me to a completely different area of collections work. I can say I truly enjoyed that summer!

As summer came to a close, I moved to the North East of England for the Museum and Artefact Studies program(me) at Durham University. From my first view over the medieval city and its cathedral (est. AD 1093) in the distance, I knew this was the right next step. During several months of my time there, I commuted to the nearby city of Newcastle to intern at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, the region’s museum network. I split my time between database management in the Documentation Office and rehousing projects with the conservators. The TWAM staff were so willing to shape the internship to my learning needs and interests, which is one of the most supportive things a museum can do for its interns.

After returning home to Indiana, I began the job hunt. Despite my expectations for a competitive field, I received two job offers only four months later. One was from OHC. What do I credit for this incredible luck? My internship experiences. Part of this was intentionally strategic, as I sought collections internships that had variety and branched into registration, conservation, and databases. But the real value was in their quality. I am fortunate to have had supportive, attentive supervisors to guide me and help me learn. Without them, these internships would have been mere exercises rather than the sources of growth that propelled me to where I am now.

JJ: Wow. Yours is a very encouraging story. Given the role that internships and practicum played in you own career development, are you working now with students at the OHC or, like some institutions of its type, does it instead draw in community volunteers rather than students?

AB: OHC does have a large number of both interns and community volunteers that assist our efforts in several departments. So far I have not had the chance to take on interns of my own, but I absolutely look forward to “paying it forward” during my time here. It looks like I may have a chance to train some catalogers later this year, and I am excited to experience the perspective of the teacher.

JJ: In closing, what advice might you share with an IU undergraduate who—like you did—wants to curatorial career? What observations would you like to share with the department chairs in your home IU departments—history and anthropology? I ask both of these questions, because we are busy working to strengthen the support that the museum provides to students with public humanities/applied social science career interests. Much of this work is, of course, done in cooperation with departments across campus.

To my fellow Hoosiers and other students: In my experience, there is nothing more valuable for pursuing a curatorial career than finding good internships. I believe this to have been my key to success. Always seek out variety in those work experiences, not only for an attractive resume, but to try on various hats and see what fits you best. For the same reasons, test out different institutions. Some people strongly prefer working in small community museums, while others prefer large state museums. You may even be like me and love elements of both. It’s all about finding what feels right, in addition to gathering the experience necessary to move forward. And throughout all of it, remember to enjoy yourself!

To the department chairs: Never stop working to promote a flexible learning environment. The best classes I took were those that allowed students to create their own paths within the curriculum by being conscious of differing learning styles and allowing expression through a variety of media. In one class we were asked to present our research in any style we felt appropriate. In another, we were taken on “campus field trips” that tied into our lecture themes, such as analyzing the murals inside the IU Auditorium. These are the kinds of experiences that stick with a student. With that in mind, please continue to offer and expand opportunities at IU and around Bloomington that provide practical experience. My time at the MMWC is a good model. Classroom learning is incredibly important, but the single most useful component of my IU education was this practical experience. It not only provided me with the skills needed to progress toward a career, but also confirmed what I feel passionate about in life.*

JJ: Thank you Alex for sharing your experiences. Good luck!

AB: Thank you for the interview, Jason. If your readers and students have questions or I can help in any way, please feel free to contact me at: abetts (at) ohiohistory (dot) org.

 

*Alex concludes by urging IU to continue developing its hands-on opportunities. This aspiration is expressed in the Bicentennial Strategic Plan of the IU Bloomington Campus in goal 1(2)f “Developing workplace savvy and  professional confidence  through  internships in all settings.” Internships and Practicum are a key focus of the MMWC Strategic Plan as well (see 4.3).

Active Collections: A Brown Bag Talk with Rainey Tisdale

tisflyer.final[3]

Osage Weddings Project Website Launched

EDU15_OsageFlierhttp://osageweddings.com/

On the Digital Practices in History and Ethnography Interest Group: An Invitation

CALL FOR PARTICIPATION

New members are invited to join the Digital Practices in History and Ethnography Interest Group (DPHE-IG) in the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international initiative to facilitate the development of effective data practices, standards, and infrastructure in particular research areas, and across research areas–aiming to enhance capacity to archive, preserve, analyze, and share data, and for collaboration both within and across research communities.

RDA’s DPHE-IG works to advance data standards, practices and infrastructure for historical and ethnographic research, contributing to broader efforts in the digital humanities and social sciences.  Bi-weekly calls move the work of the group forward.  Many meetings are “project shares” during which someone leading a digital project describes their efforts and challenges. Some calls are with other RDA groups (such as the Provenance Interest Group), aiming to draw their expertise into our work in history and ethnography.

Our call-in meetings are on Tuesdays, 1:00 p.m. EST; see our schedule through May 2015, and let us know if you would like to share a project. Also see our annual report of activities, including a list of project shares thus far.

RDA holds two plenary meetings each year at which interests group can meet, and interact with other interest groups.  The next plenary is in San Diego, California and will be held on March 9-11, 2015.

Please join the group (just below the calendar here) [its free] and pass on this information to others who may be interested.  We would especially appreciate help reaching people outside Europe and North America.

Jason Baird Jackson (Indiana University), Mike Fortun (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Kim Fortun (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), co-chairs

(Contact me if I can answer any questions that you might have about DPHE–Jason)

Just the Interest Group for You: Digital Practices in History and Ethnography

I would like to share news of the formation of an interest group in an area of interest that I know I share with many Shreds and Patches readers. The group is known as the “Digital Practices in History and Ethnography” Interest Group and it is a constituent interest group within the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international initiative to facilitate the development of effective data practices, standards and infrastructure in particular research areas, and across research areas. The RDA aims to enhance capacity to archive, preserve, analyze and share data, and to foster collaboration across research communities.  My DPHE colleagues and I invite you to join this interest group, and to participate in its online discussions. Biannual RDA meetings are an opportunity to meet face-to-face with others in our area, and with researchers in other areas.

The RDA website describes RDA’s full array of interest and working groups, and the mission, structure and process of the RDA.  You can join the DPHE interest group at no cost by following these steps:

1. Navigate to the RDA website. https://rd-alliance.org/

2. Register in the top right hand corner of the site.

3. Once you’ve finished your registration and are logged in, navigate here: https://www.rd-alliance.org/internal-groups/digital-practices-history-and-ethnography-ig.html

4. In the middle of the page, click Request Group Membership

5. Answer the form question with a yes, and then you should be subscribed.

The second RDA Plenary was held in Washington D.C. September 16-18, 2013.  Our group discussed its mission and plan at a session on Wednesday afternoon, and circulated a list of discussion questions for on-going consideration by the group.

We’ve now started a discussion thread about metadata in historical and ethnographic research.

We’ve also scheduled held several project review sessions and plan to continue holding these events online in coming months. Early sessions in our series have looked at the

Perseids project (A Collaborative Editing Platform for Source Documents in Classics) http://sites.tufts.edu/perseids/

and the

Nunaliit Atlas Framework http://nunaliit.org/

As detailed here, Garett Montanez and I will present tomorrow (2/13) at a project share (1 pm, eastern time) event focused on the Open Folklore project. The presentation will be online and is free and open to anyone interested.

The DPHE group will be pursuing additional project-focused presentations, as well as open discussions of common interests and concerns.

My fellow DPHE IG co-chairs Mike and Kim Fortun (RPI) and I look forward to your participation.  Please let us know if you have

Exhibition Opening: Operation AB – Katyn–The Destruction of the Polish Elite at the Beginning of WWII

Thank you to all everyone who traveled, from near and far, to attend last night’s exhibition opening of “Operation AB – Katyn: The Destruction of the Polish Elite at the Beginning of WWII,” at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The exhibition, organized by, and circulated to the MMWC by, the Institute of National Remembrance, Poland is an important effort to report on a tragic, important, and poorly understood phase in WWII-era European history, particularly the terrible Katyn massacre. It is an honor to host this important historical exhibition and it was an honor to welcome so many guests to the museum for the opening.

Among the special visitors attending the exhibition opening was Dr. Łukasz Andrzej Kamiński, the President of the Institute of National Remembrance. It was a great experience to welcome Dr. Kaminski and his colleagues to the museum and to Indiana University.

The IU Polish Studies Center, led by Padraic Kenney, was the leader of this local effort and the MMWC is thankful for the opportunity to pursue this partnership.

Bourke-White Exhibition Opening

Congratulations to exhibition curator Alex Lichtenstein on the very successful opening, this evening, of “Photos in Black and White: Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid in South Africa.” More than 130 students, community members, photography enthusiasts, faculty members, Mathers Museum boosters, and Mellon Innovating International Research, Teaching and Collaboration (MIIRT) conference participants converged on the MMWC from 4 to 6 pm today to see, and learn from, Alex’s exhibition, to discuss South Africa, past and present, and to hear from Alex and two special guests from South Africa–Dudu Madonsela, Chief Curator at the Bensusan Museum of Photography in Johannesburg, and leading contemporary photographer Cedric Nunn. Thanks to everyone who participated in the opening and who lent support to the exhibition and its associated activities.

If you missed the opening, or just want to go further with it, you can check out the companion website, attend the upcoming symposium or film series, and, for the truly ambitious, see the exhibition when it travels to South Africa next year. The exhibition can, of course, be seen at the MMWC throughout the rest of 2013.

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