Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Museums’ Category

An Interview with Jessica Richardson Smith, Museum Anthropologist and Research Services Librarian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Jessica Richardson Smith is the Research Services Librarian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. She pursued three majors—Anthropology, Latin and Greek, and Geology for her Indiana University BA degree from the College of Arts and Sciences. While at Indiana, she used the museum practicum course in the Department of Anthropology to gain a range of experiences working in the Midwest Archaeological Laboratory. That work resulted in a published paper—Tools of the Trade: Chipped Lithic Assemblages from the Hovey Lake (12Po10) and Ries-Hasting (12Po590) Archaeological Sites, Posey County, Indiana (with Cheryl Ann Munson, Meredith B. McCabe and Dean J. Reed). She earned a master’s degree from the Department of Anthropology at the George Washington University and leads the Wymer’s DC project.

Jason Baird Jackson (JJ): Before we circle back and discuss your experiences at Indiana University and George Washington University, I’d love to begin by finding out about the mission of the Historical Society of Washington and your role there. What are your core responsibilities as a Research Service Librarian?

Jessica Richardson Smith (JRS): Sure! The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is a 122-year old educational and research institution that collects and shares the history of Washington, D.C., emphasizing the local community over the federal city. We are a team of seven who strive to produce diverse public programming and exhibitions, as well as public access to our collections. That’s where I come in as the Research Services Librarian. The core of the Historical Society is our research library which houses over 100,000 photographs, over 800 manuscript collections, and hundreds of maps, prints, and objects—all on D.C. history.

My day-to-day duties consist of working with researchers in our library to help them find the information they need. Whether they are writing a scholarly article or just bought a house and want to learn about its history and their new neighborhood, my job is to help facilitate their needs with what our library can offer. Another facet of my job is to know what the other repositories in the city have. If the Historical Society doesn’t have some piece of information, I want to know where I can direct them.

I love my job—I never do the same thing twice and each day I am learning more and more about this city, our collections, and our members. On any given day, I may meet members of our community and learn about their projects and passions, research a topic in our collection for a researcher working remotely, or help troubleshoot a long-shot research query that someone submits based on a decades-old memory. Every day is something new and every day is something interesting. The best part is when I can apply what I learn one day to a question we get the following week. That’s great. It makes you feel like you are making real headway into learning the complex history of a city like D.C.

Also, because we are a small institution with a big mission, my colleagues and I are expected to wear many hats. In addition to my librarian duties, I also participate in shaping our public programming and exhibitions; I conduct photo research for our publications; I digitize material and tackle rights assessment questions; and I track our library statistics. Each of these things are being juggled on a day-to-day basis, which can be demanding but also very fulfilling.

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is located in Washington's historic Carnegie Library, dedicated in 1903.

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is located in Washington’s historic Carnegie Library, dedicated in 1903.

JJ: It sounds like you are in a sweet-spot in terms of scale. Your institution is big enough to be doing important, interesting work but small enough that you have not gotten trapped in a specialist silo in which you do only one task over and over again.

Washington is such an incredible place for museums, libraries, and archives. What is it like to work in a small-but-old museum/library in a city of large-but-old museums/libraries? Do you feel connected with GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archives, and Museums) professionals around the city or, like many of our colleagues elsewhere, do the day-to-day demands of the job keep you from connecting to colleagues around the city?

JRS: I can’t speak for what it is like at other institutions, but I think we do a good job of collaborating with our fellow institutions in the city, particularly those with a local focus. The D.C. Public Library, National Archives, Library of Congress, National Building Museum, the newest Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture—these are all institutions we work alongside and collaborate with in order to forward our mission of preserving local D.C. history.

As the Research Services Librarian, my daily duties are often intra-institution focused but I regularly refer our library patrons to other institutions around the city when we don’t have particular resources. While this means I don’t personally interact on a daily basis with my GLAM colleagues, there is mutual awareness of our work through referrals. At the Historical Society, our main collaboration with our GLAM colleagues is through joint public programming, from conference plenaries to archival fairs, workshops, exhibitions, etc.

JJ: I am especially glad to hear that you have not only pathways to connect with colleagues, but that your institution is well-situated enough to support, and to see the value in, outreach, research dissemination, and professional development activities like those you have just mentioned. One of my reasons for being interested in your connectedness to the cultural institutions of DC is that you were trained at the MA level there, at George Washington University. That institution has a unique advantage in that it trains students in a city with so many public collections and so many collections-oriented professionals. Before we turn to your undergraduate experiences at Indiana, could you describe your graduate studies? What did you study? What role did hands-on work play in your career? Read more

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.

***

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.

website

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.

15446

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.

Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education, and AIDS in South Africa

Get all the details by checking out the new press release announcing the Mathers Museum of World Cultures’ programs and activities in support of the exhibition Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education, and AIDS in South Africa. This wonderful exhibition is part of a great fall at the museum, now underway. I hope to see everyone at the opening at the museum right after the First Thursdays Festival. Thanks to Themester 2016 and the School of Public Health for supporting this exhibition and its programs and to the Michigan State University Museum for curating it.

Siyazama Release

Plethora of Patrons and Programs Prompts Parking Progress

(Sorry about that headline. I could not control myself.) This fall there will be an extraordinary number of programs at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. We hope to see you here for many of them. The wave begins in the week ahead. Before we get there, I want to reach out especially to Bloomington and Indiana friends who do not work at Indiana University and who sometimes find visiting the museum difficult for lack of close-to-the-museum parking. This is especially a concern for those with mobility issues. The museum has consistently advocated for increased near-museum visitor parking and I am happy to note that–with quite engaged support from the relevant university offices–we have recently made some solid progress forward.

IMG_2186

Until recently, the museum and the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology shared five visitors spaces on the west side of the lab and museum, on the circular drive that is entered northbound on Indiana Avenue (and that one exits westbound on 9th Street). There were five IU staff spaces also located on this drive. Those staff spaces have been moved a bit north to the McCalla School lot (between 9th and 10th, off Indiana) and converted to five more Museum/Lab visitor spaces. In addition to doubling the near-museum parking, happily all of the metered visitor spaces at the McCalla School lot remain in service.

The number of events that we are hosting–especially since the move of Traditional Arts Indiana–to the museum and the increased numbers of people who are joining us (or who express a desire to join us, if they could just park more easily)–is a key factor in the addition of these spaces, but I note quickly here that work is underway to make the museum building more accessible and that the increased parking is part of a larger effort in that realm. More on that asap.

Of course, we would love for you to walk, bus, bike, skateboard, etc. to the museum. That is great for the earth and great for you and for the museum too. When you take a scooter to the museum instead of driving, you are freeing up one of those spaces for a person who can only get here by car. Even if they do not know to appreciate your effort, I appreciate it on their behalf. Carpooling helps too for the same reason. And if you are an IU person with an IU parking pass, you can help as well by parking in staff spaces around the museum rather than taking one of the visitor spots.

We are going to continue working to make the museum easier to visit. You can help us by spreading the word. It is sad when people say to me that they have never come to the museum because they just don’t want to fool with the parking issues. If you know someone who says such things, tell them the good news and encourage them to make their first visit. We’ll be glad to see them–and you.

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.

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.

Unknown
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).

An Interview with Sterling Jenson of the March Field Air Museum

20160704_133838[4]

Sterling Jenson is the Collections Manager at the March Field Air Museum in Riverside, California. He earned a B.A. degree in folklore and an M.A. degree in arts administration at Indiana University. While at IU, he was graduate assistant in the registration department at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures (MMWC) and a volunteer in its education department. He was also an intern at Traditional Arts Indiana, which is now a department of the MMWC.

Jason Baird Jackson (JJ): Thank you Sterling for your willingness to talk to me about your work as a museum professional and Indiana University alumnus. We’ll go back in time shortly, but could you tell me a bit about the March Field Air Museum and your work as its Collections Manager?

Sterling Jenson (SJ): The March Field Air Museum celebrates the history of aviation with a focus on one of the historical military airfields of the United States, the March Air Reserve Base. March Field was founded in 1918 and since that time has been an important part of the history of the [U.S.] Air Force and the Air Force Reserves, which means that the museum has an important legacy to present to the public. The museum has on display over seventy aircraft, including one of the two A-9s in existence, a SR-71 Blackbird, and, a PT-6 biplane trainer from 1930. The collections range in size from a B-52 on our flight line to ribbons awarded to airmen for their service. In order to house these objects, the museum has two hangars, an exhibit hall, and a library.

As Collections Manager, I am in charge of the processing of the objects, loan paperwork, and ensuring that the collections are organized. Currently, I am building upon my predecessor’s work in order to make the collections more accessible. Prior to my arrival, the museum was using an [Microsoft] Access database to keep track of the objects and the books in our library. In order to better serve the museum, I am migrating the database from Access to CollectiveAccess in the case of objects and to Koha for the library books. Both programs are open source software that we will be able to upload to the museum’s website in order to make the collections more accessible. I am also in the process of overseeing an inventory and standardizing the disposition system, both of which I learned from my time working as a Graduate Assistant at the MMWC.

JJ: A B-52! I know that you did not get experience in caring for a 132-ton bomber during your time at the MMWC! How did your experience as a student at IU prepare you for the challenging museum work that you are doing now?

SJ: At Indiana University, I studied folklore as an undergraduate and then went back to get my Masters of Arts in arts administration. Due to my studies in folklore, I love collecting information that describes the context of the object, especially personal narratives or biographies. While I never know if these stories will ever be utilized in the exhibits, trying to collect them when the objects arrive is the best time to get this kind of documentation. For one donation, the son emailed me a document he created for his father’s funeral, which helps explain the history of the man who wore the uniform.

My studies in arts administration have helped me immensely because the program focused on both the practical components as well as the theoretical ones. I have been working on preparing grant proposals in order to better manage the objects within the collections. The course [MMWC Assistant Director] Judy Kirk taught on Museum Management will be helpful in the near future as I go through and update the collections policies, plans, and procedures. During my graduate studies, I worked at MMWC in the Registrar’s office as the Graduate Assistant. I loved my time there because [Registrar] Terry Harley-Wilson gave me hands-on projects, including working with loan agreements and working with an inventory.

At my current position, I am try to emulate Terry by giving my interns and volunteers important tasks and seeking their opinions to better improve the department. As many of our aircraft are on loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force, including the B-52, I am using what I learned at MMWC regarding loans frequently. I am grateful we have a Restoration Department to deal with repairs to the aircraft, so my focus can be on the smaller objects within the collection. In short, my experience dealing with loans and other institutions at MMWC has been valuable in this position.

JJ: I am a big advocate for the combination of disciplinary training in folklore studies and professional training in arts administration, thus it is great for me to hear how you bring them together everyday in your current role. I am, of course, also thrilled that your work with MMWC Registrar Terry Harley-Wilson has proved to be so valuable in your current efforts. Courses like Judy Kirk’s combined with hands-on experiences at the museum are a big part of our mission. Is there something about your current role that has surprised you or that you initially felt less prepared to address? We are all, of course, constantly learning new things on the job.

SJ: One of the areas that I feel less prepared for is needing to explain why all of my projects in my department need to be so thorough and why they take so long. As you know, the standards in the museum world have been set high because of past mistakes in the field. In order to achieve these standards takes work, care, and persistence. I hope that I am slowly making progress in explaining the importance of collections care.

JJ: I have been there with you, for sure. Unfortunately we live in an impatient moment in which time is money, talent is money, attention is money, and money is money. We are expected to be good stewards of all of them but it is often hard to explain to those not working alongside us why being careful the first time is so crucial. We cannot un-break an ancient Greek vase or recover an un-digitized analog oral history recording destroyed in a fire or flood or misplaced and discarded through careless handling. As you note so well, past mistakes haunt us and we want and need to get it right the first time.

In closing, can you tell me about your favorite item or collection at the March Field Air Museum?

SJ: My favorite items are part of the Collection relating to Orla Bridges and as you can see in the photograph (Figure 1), the curator decided that these items were important enough to put right into the cases. Wagoner Orla Bridges’ uniform and Victory in Europe Medal from the Great War for Civilization were donated to our museum within the last year. Mr. Bridges was stationed at March Field about the time when it opened in 1918 and his family owned the farm across the street from the front gates of the base. He is a great example of someone who has ties to both local history as well as international history.

JJ: Well said. That is a great example of what we do—connecting the little and the big, the local and the global. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about your work and your career. Good luck with all that you and your March Field Air Museum colleagues are pursuing.

BridgesFigure 1. A uniform coat and military medal from the collection of Wagoner Orla Bridges, now in the collections of the March Field Air Museum.

An Interview with Dr. Lori Hall-Araujo, Curator and Assistant Professor at Stephens College

In fall 2016, Lori Hall-Araujo will begin a position as Assistant Professor and Curator in the School of Design and the Costume Museum at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. She recently concluded a year as Anawalt Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for the Study of Regional Dress at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, California. She holds the Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from Indiana University as well as an M.A. in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Michigan State University. She has extensive experience as a museum professional and, during her time in Bloomington, she curated the exhibition Clothes, Collections, and Culture . . . What is a Curator? for the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Learn more about her work at http://www.lorihallaraujo.com/.

Jason Baird Jackson (JJ): Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I know I will want to ask about the varied things that you have been doing in the museum world since you left Bloomington, but I have to begin with a big CONGRATULATIONS on the news of your tenure-track position at Stephens College. As you look ahead to moving to Missouri and getting started there, can you describe your new position?

Lori Hall-Araujo (LH-A): Thanks so much for the well wishes. I’m absolutely thrilled about embarking on this next phase of my career and feel very fortunate. The Atlantic recently published an article about how colleges and universities are offering buyouts to senior faculty and staff to encourage retirement and save on spending. While Oberlin, the story’s featured college, is promising not to replace its tenured faculty with part-time instructors and non-tenure-track faculty, that’s the direction many colleges and universities are heading. Most academic jobs now are either part-time or non-tenure track so I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been on the job market just as the Stephens position opened up.

My role at Stephens College calls on me to wear two hats, one as professor in the fashion program and the other as curator for the Costume Museum and Research Library (CMRL). Stephens’ fashion program emphasizes practice within a liberal arts environment. The classes I teach will tend towards the academic side. This year I teach writing intensive courses on dress history that situate changing modes of dress within their cultural and sociopolitical contexts. For my course on 20th century dress I plan to use the Costume Museum’s collections in my teaching.

The Costume Museum and Research Library at Stephens has over 13,000 objects from the mid-18th century to the present and includes designer and everyday attire. As curator I am responsible for mounting two exhibitions each academic year though my ambitions for the CMRL go well beyond that. This fall I will work with staff to conduct an overall assessment of the facilities and collections to determine ways we can improve storage and increase access for students, faculty, and outside researchers. Finding ways to incorporate the collections into the curriculum is a top priority. The fashion program recently earned an affiliation with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). This is a highly coveted and prestigious affiliation as it provides students with scholarships as well as industry opportunities. The CFDA tapped Stephens to participate in its scholarship competition based on the strength of student portfolios and the Costume Museum’s collections so the work I do as curator has real potential to resonate in our students’ futures.

JJ: That sounds great on every front. I love my dual museum-faculty role and I feel confident that you will really thrive in that environment too. Before we get to what you have been doing most recently, can you reflect a bit about the ways that your studies at Indiana contributed to the work that you are being called to do at Stephens? This matters not only in a MMWC context, where we are always seeking to be more impactful in the careers of museum professionals-in-training, but also in the context of Indiana University’s new School of Art and Design, where students and faculty share so many interests in common with you. You came to IU with a lot of museum background. What did IU add to the equation?

LH-A: I had been Collection Manager for Costume and Textiles at the Chicago History Museum before enrolling in my IU doctoral program. One of the reasons I chose IU was for its museums. I wanted to dip my feet into curatorial waters and the Mathers Museum gave me that opportunity. Working closely with [MMWC Chief Curator] Ellen Sieber and other Mathers staff, I was able to experience first hand how a well run university museum operates. The Mathers offers credit-granting practica for students, which are a great way to learn about the collections and to gain hands-on supervised museum experience. At Stephens the Costume Museum offers work-study positions in its collections. In the future I’d like to see us offer museum practica along the lines of the year-long cataloging and curating project I worked on at the Mathers.

JJ: You came to IU as a doctoral student in the Department of Communication and Culture. As a Ph.D. student you thus had a research agenda that you hoped to establish and then carry forward into your career. Do you feel that you were able to integrate your training as a researcher and your museum interests? One of your foci is dress in Latin American contexts. How did this interest mature at IU and how has it carried forward through your work at the Fowler Museum and up to the present?

LH-A: While there was no museum studies track in my department per se, I was able to get the support I needed. Before his retirement, Dick Bauman was my advisor and he really pointed me in the right direction as far as coursework and training went. Beverly Stoeltje in Folklore was my earliest advocate for writing a dissertation that incorporated my interests in dress theory, film, performance studies, and museum studies. I took a short exploratory visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in my second year at IU and it was Beverly who urged me to check out the Carmen Miranda Museum there. From that kernel of an idea my research and dissertation bloomed.

Dick encouraged me to do a practicum at the Mathers, which I did thanks to the faculty sponsorship of Pravina Shukla. Several years before enrolling at IU I had spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico making art and learning about indigenous textiles. When I met with Ellen Sieber I expressed my interest in Latin American textiles and she suggested I work with one of two sizable collections. I chose to work with the Royce Collection as it includes Zapotec clothing and objects from Juchitán, Oaxaca. My work on that project was incredibly rewarding in terms of the intellectual and creative freedom it provided. My exhibition was highly reflexive and examined how the meaning of objects changes depending on context–art, wearable garment, museum object, and so on.

The themes I addressed for the Mathers practicum have informed my research at the Fowler Museum where I have been studying two significant collections of objects collected in Mesoamerica throughout the 20th century. I ask questions such as, “Why does the collector collect what she collects? What does it mean for outsiders to come into indigenous Mesoamerican communities and buy clothing? What happens when the collector’s cultural biases cause her to misinterpret or misrepresent other cultures?” These are difficult and sensitive topics but I think there’s a way for productive dialogue to emerge from this project. Ideally these issues would be addressed not just between academics but also in a more public way such as a museum exhibition.

JJ: Needless to say, hearing you recount your experience at IU is very gratifying. We can’t let your Carmen Miranda research go unexplored, but you have just referred to your Mesoamerican clothing research, including your earlier visits to Oaxaca, your work with Chancellor’s Professor Anya Royce’s collection at the MMWC, and your more recent work on such collections at the Fowler Museum. In my corner of the field, the Fowler Museum has a strong reputation as a leading university museum of world cultures. When administrators here ask me to identify aspirational peers for the MMWC, it is always on my list. How did you secure a postdoctoral fellowship there? What was it like to work there? What’s next for you Mesoamerican research?

LH-A: From 2014 to 2015 I worked on the Hollywood Costume exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum and hosted in Los Angeles by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Just prior to the exhibition’s closing, the curator, Deborah Nadoolman Landis (professor in UCLA’s Theater, Film and Television Department and founding director and chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design), invited the Fowler staff to come check out the exhibition. That was when I first met the Fowler director, Marla Berns, who suggested I stay in touch. After Hollywood Costume closed I visited the Fowler and got to see their many treasures in storage. Marla told me they were planning to offer their first ever post doc fellowship and invited me to apply. Happily they offered me the fellowship and in September I hit the ground running.

During my time at the Fowler I’ve been impressed by how much they accomplish with such a small staff. They have an incredibly full exhibition schedule for their own galleries and of course have any number of objects out on loan at any given time. The first six months were magical when I got to throw myself fully into research. Then from March to June I had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate class for the World Arts and Cultures Department, “Collecting Indigenous Mesoamerican Dress.” The class was essentially the research I’d been working on in the preceding six months. Every week we looked at objects from the collections and addressed issues of collecting practices, interpretation, and different theme-driven exhibitions. My students were amazing. Their final projects asked them to conduct original research in the Fowler archives and to discuss the objects. The questions they raised and the discoveries they made have been so helpful to me as I write about my own research.

This past January I had the opportunity to look at pieces in the Fowler collections with the Oaxaca Textile Museum‘s founder, Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg. He’s been an ideal colleague, so generous. He’s invited me to attend a textile conference in Oaxaca this October so I’ll be there and plan to do a little exploratory research while in Mexico.

JJ: That is great to hear. I hope that you can continue your work with Oaxacan textiles while based at Stephens. People are understandably passionate about them and they both raise and help address so many key questions, as your comments reflect. Selfishly, we would love for you to weave our collections into your ongoing work. Happily, I can report that Professor Royce is continuing to add new works to our collections on the basis of her still active research and her strong relationships with friends in Oaxaca.

While many of your projects are getting short changed here, we can’t conclude without giving your dissertation research and its famous subject—Carmen Miranda—its due. Brazil is about to host the world for the 2016 Summer Olympics. I recently heard an interview with vocalist Carla Hassett. She was discussing Carmen Miranda on NPR and cited Brazilian composer “Caetano Veloso [whom she said] said, [she] is the original tropicalista, meaning she was really the first artist to leave Brazil and influence and bring the culture to outside of Brazil. She was really our pioneer of that.” Hearing that interview, I immediately thought of your work and how you have tried to understand the role of dress in how the world made sense of Carmen Miranda and, by extension, all of Brazil. As Brazil is now a focus of much global attention for so many reasons, what does your research tell us about Carmen Miranda’s legacy?

LH-A: What can I say?  I could fill a book addressing your question and am in the midst of doing so!

As far as Carmen Miranda being the original tropicalista goes, I can say this. The tropicalistas of the late 1960s and early 1970s inherited a Brazilian tradition of “cultural cannibalism.” Brazilians have long understood that their land and people have been acted upon whether via slavery or environmental or cultural exploitation. Yet rather than allow themselves to simply be the passive subjects of external fantasies and oppression, they have taken those external fantasies and turned them on their heads. Carmen was European born but she fully embraced the Brazilian feijoada and considered herself a Brazilian. When Caetano Veloso called her the original tropicalista he was saying that she wasn’t a sell-out to Hollywood as some suggested but instead was consuming Hollywood versions of Brazilians and regurgitating them in unique and distinctly Brazilian ways to create a kind of cultural chaos for global audiences. I’ve no doubt Brazil and its culture will surprise and confuse Olympics tourists this summer.

JJ: That is good food for thought as we all gather around screens to consume the spectacle in Brazil this summer. We can watch and look forward to your book. You will face the challenge of moving to Missouri and getting situated in your new post while also taking notes on those themes in the Brazil context. I can hardly imagine that the costumes worn in the opening and closing ceremonies won’t be ringing these bells and playing again off the tradition of cultural cannibalism you note.
 
I want to thank you so much for sharing these glimpses of some of your work in progress. Good luck with your new position and with your exciting research. We hope you are able to get back to the MMWC very soon.

Summer 2015 Roundup

Sherds and Patches has been neglected. My summers are always busy, but this year has been really busy. As the fall semester is about to begin, I feel like I should at least take stock of where I have been. A surprising number of folks visit this site and seemingly find something that they are looking for. In hopes of leading online visitors to some of the exhibitions, projects, etc. that I have been involved in this summer, I offer this roundup with relevant links. Packing a summer into one post, please excuse the length (about 1600 words). Skimmers welcome.

When the spring semester ended, my Mathers Museum of World Cultures colleagues and I, together with MMWC Policy Committee Chair Eric Sandweiss, poured our energies into hosting Museums at the Crossroads: Local Encounters, Global Knowledge. Held at the museum between May 14 and 21, the workshop was supported by the IU School of Global and International Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences. It gathered museum professionals and other scholars from numerous institutions and various countries for generative discussions and activities aimed at considering the state of museums in changing social contexts around the world. I am thankful for all who journeyed to Bloomington to join the discussion. Thanks too go to the MMWC staff members who helped organize the gathering and to the School and College for their generous support. Learn a bit more about Museums at the Crossroads from this IU press release. SGIS published a wrap-up story about Crossroads.

Before and after Museums at the Crossroads, I worked as a lead investigator on a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded research/planning project considering the viability of alternative, sustainable financial models for university press monograph publishing in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. This is a project being pursued concurrently on the University of Michigan and Indiana University campuses. I am the researcher for the IU component of the project. A glimpse of the project is available in this IU press release (where our project is the second of two being discussed). A story last summer in the Chronicle of Higher Education provides additional context for the models that I have been discussing with IU faculty and administrators as well as with our UM/IU, research team.

Another big project that came to fruition in the days after Museums at the Crossroads is the Mathers Museum of World Cultures exhibition Cherokee Craft, 1973. This is an exhibition that I have looked forward to doing since the early 1990s. As I student, I first studied the museum’s collections made among the Eastern Cherokee. I knew then that they would make a great exhibition. That moment came this summer. Originally, I was going to curate the exhibition with help from graduate students Emily Buhrow Rogers and Kelley Totten but by the time we finished, it was Kelly and I helping Emily with her exhibition. What Kelly and Emily came up with is infinitely better than the simple exhibition that I had originally imagined. Cherokee Craft, 1973 opened June 16. Here is how we have described the exhibition in promotional materials.

Cherokee Craft, 1973 offers a snapshot of craft production among the Eastern Band Cherokee at a key moment in both an ongoing Appalachian craft revival and the specific cultural and economic life of the Cherokee people in western North Carolina. The exhibition showcases woodcarvings, masks, ceramics, finger woven textiles, basketry, and dolls. The works presented are all rooted in Cherokee cultural tradition but all also bear the imprint of the specific individuals who crafted them and the particular circumstances in which these craftspeople made and circulated their handwork.

What that description does not explain is that the presentation for the exhibition creatively evokes the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. gallery (ca. 1973), from which the museum obtained its collection. Come by and see the exhibition at MMWC and find the real co-op as it is today on its website.

After a quick but wonderful visit to Oklahoma for Green Corn, I headed off to the Smithsonian Institution to again serve as a visiting faculty member at the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology, which is led by Candace Greene and funded by the National Science Foundation. I have discussed SIMA previously. It is a great program and this was a another great year. If you are new to SIMA, check out the SIMA information page. On top of the great SIMA stuff, I even had a bit of time to see the Chinese basketry in the NMNH collections!

A basket cataloged as Chinese in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. ET08510

A basket cataloged as Chinese in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. ET08510

SIMA was followed by a quick family trip to Santa Fe, where I got to attend the International Folk Art Market (which was great as always) and see the exhibition “The Red that Colored the World” at the Museum of International Folk Art. The “Red” exhibition is a tour de force. Simply amazing. I hope that many many more people get to see it in Santa Fe or on the tour to come. You can read about the Red exhibition in many places, including this NEH story by Peter BG Shoemaker in Humanities magazine.

While in Santa Fe, I purchased (at the market) two willow baskets by Blaise Cayol, a remarkable French basket maker. Learn about his basketry on his website Celui qui Tresse.

I collected Blaise Cayol’s baskets for a lot of reasons, including wanting them to help expand on the story that the Mathers Museum of World Cultures is telling in the exhibition Willow Work: Viki Graber, Basketmaker, which opens tomorrow. It is a great exhibition focused on the work of a great basket maker. Quoting from our exhibition announcement:

Willow Work: Viki Graber, Basketmaker presents a weaver of willow baskets from the Mennonite community of Goshen, Indiana, where she has lived for 25 years. Graber learned willow basket weaving at the age of twelve from her father, who was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a 2009 National Heritage Fellow. Where once her family plied their talents to make utilitarian workbaskets, today she works full-time weaving baskets for collectors and to sell at art shows and galleries. While using the same tools and methods as her great-grandfather, Graber’s keen sense of color and innovative designs have elevated her family’s craft to a new aesthetic level.

Jon Kay curated Willow Work, drawing upon work done for Traditional Arts Indiana. Get details on the exhibition on the MMWC website. Learn more about Viki’s basketry on her website, Confluence of Willows.

Willow Work: Viki Graber, Basketmaker is one of three exhibitions that we (MMWC) are organizing for Themester. I will post (I hope) about the two that are still to come, but I note here that a second one has been curated by Jon Kay. Here is the description. Working Wood opens on September 8.

Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana presents the work of the Hovis and Bohall families of Brown County, Indiana, who made distinctive white-oak baskets for their neighbors to carry everyday items and to gather corn. However, by the 1930s, the interest of urban tourists transformed these sturdy workbaskets into desirable souvenirs and art objects. In recent years, these baskets have come to be called “Brown County” and “Bohall” baskets, perhaps because of the great number of baskets made by the Bohall family in Brown county during the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, the history of this craft is more complex these names reveal. Using artifacts and historic photographs, this exhibit explores the shifts in the uses and meanings of these baskets as they changed from obsolete, agricultural implements, into a tourist commodity. Using the lens of work, this exhibition tells the story of these oak-rod baskets and the people who made and used them, and how local makers strived to find a new audience for their old craft, and how ultimately the lure of steady work in the city contributed to the end of this tradition.

Between now and then, we will be working to finalize an third basketry exhibition that I have co-curated with Lijun Zhang of the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities. Opening September 1, It focuses on work baskets in Southwestern China. We describe it in this way.

Putting Baskets to Work in Southwestern China explores the contemporary the use of basketry in urban and rural labor in contemporary China drawing upon a newly acquired representative collection of bamboo baskets documented as active tools of labor in the region around Dali, in Yunnan province, and in Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. The collection was acquired and documented by Jason Baird Jackson, Director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, who will co-curate the exhibit with Lijun Zhang, Research Curator at the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities in Guangxi, China.

All three of these work-related basketry exhibitions have been organized for the Fall 2015 Themester, which is themed “@Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet.” Our museum programs are organized under the rubric “@Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet.” The College of Arts and Sciences at IU has contributed to these projects and the public programs that will accompany them. Learn more about Themester 2015 on the Themester website. Learn more about the exhibitions and programs on the MMWC website.

In the background, Emily Buhrow Rogers and I have been finalizing a double issue of Museum Anthropology Review. We look forward to sharing it in the next couple of weeks. See some of its content online in preview mode at the journal website.

In the midst of all of this, I have—with the support of numerous friends and colleagues—been preparing my faculty promotion case. Time will tell how that turns out.

This is just some of the high points. Its been a busy summer. Whether relaxing or busy, I hope that your summer was excellent.

%d bloggers like this: