Collaborating with consultants

The historical society was sparsely decorated when it opened in 1975. Photo credit: Courtesy of Morgen Young.

The historical society was sparsely decorated when it opened in 1975. Photo credit: Morgen Young

In early 2014, a small historical society outside of Portland, Oregon, circulated a request for proposals (RFP). Having received a grant from their local government, they sought to hire a curator for a one-year contract. The duties of the curator included: inventorying and assessing collections, developing and implementing a policy and procedural structures for managing collections, creating an interpretative plan, developing a public services strategy, and staffing the museum every weekend. Continue reading

Graduate student project award: The Lost Museum

Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by the students of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums, creator of a unique exhibition in the Brown Public Humanities Program.

J.W.P. Jenks with his taxidermy students, 1875.  Photo credit: John Hay Library and Brown University Archives.

J.W.P. Jenks with his taxidermy students, 1875. Photo credit: John Hay Library and Brown University Archives

It circulated as a bit of campus lore: the curious tale of the Jenks Museum of Natural History, which once existed at Brown University.

As graduate students in Brown’s Public Humanities program, we were intrigued when we first heard about the long-gone Jenks Museum. We spend much of our time thinking about preservation and memory, so the idea of a lost museum at our university resonated with us. We began to imagine recreating the museum as a class project on the occasion of Brown’s 250th anniversary. In the fall of 2013, a group of ten students with a range of backgrounds in the arts and humanities joined forces to carry out this work. We called ourselves the Jenks Society for Lost Museums. Continue reading

Treading on hallowed ground: Football Hallelujah! at the Amsterdam Museum

This post is the second in a series on the Amsterdam Museum. To read the first post, click here.

The exhibit’s leading image, Argentina’s legendary Diego Maradona in his classic praying pose, introduced a striking thematic juxtaposition. Photo Credit: Caro Bonink/Amsterdam Museum

The exhibit’s leading image, Argentina’s legendary Diego Maradona in his classic praying pose, introduced a striking thematic juxtaposition. Photo Credit: Caro Bonink/Amsterdam Museum

“The stadiums are getting fuller and the churches emptier.”

This observation, from Amsterdam Museum director Paul Spies, served as the inspiration for the museum’s intriguing, controversial, and, at times, humorous temporary exhibit Football Hallelujah! On view September 2014 through January 2015, the exhibit explored the ways in which international football (soccer) fandom parallels a religious experience. While attending the first annual conference of the International Federation of Public History I visited the exhibit, intrigued to see the approach taken by a curatorial staff that dared to tread on sports fans’ hallowed ground. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Lakota Emergence

PrintThe Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) in South Dakota will present an innovative exhibit in early May 2015 called “Lakota Emergence.” The exhibit focuses entirely on the short Lakota emergence narrative titled “How the Lakota Came Upon the World,” published in 1917. The exhibit divides the 1,251-word narrative into 16 “passages,” and pairs each passage with an outstanding example of a practical or artistic object from the Sioux Indian Museum (one of the three Indian Arts and Crafts Board museums in the United States). The selected objects span a period of time from before the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty all the way to the early 1970s. All were created by Lakotas and were collected from within the boundaries of the 1868 Treaty, including what is now Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock Reservations, as well as the community of Rapid City.

In addition to the passages and museum objects, original artworks by distinguished and emerging contemporary Lakota artists will be featured, thereby creating what are called “vignettes.” These 16 vignettes will recount the Lakota emergence narrative in written words, museum collections, and contemporary artworks. Dr. Craig Howe, director of CAIRNS and curator of Lakota Emergence, says “the exhibit was conceived to illustrate that the emergence narrative continues to be a source of creativity, and that Wind Cave was and always will remain a landscape of special significance in Lakota cosmology.”

Developing your synthetic powers

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer.

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer

Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.

When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.

Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading

Making a pop-up museum: Dusting off the Dark Ages

Photo credit: Ellen F. Arnold

Student exhibit panel. Photo credit: Ellen F. Arnold

At Ohio Wesleyan University, I teach an upper-level medieval history course, “Constantine to Charlemagne.” This is an undergraduate class, with 18 students of varying backgrounds. The course addresses a time period (ca. 300-850) often slandered as barbaric and backwards, so my goal is for students to see the richness, texture, and vibrancy of the period along with the political and economic troubles that befell certain areas. Over the course of the semester, as we work to understand a period famous for both its lack of historical sources and its network of diverging and converging cultures, we work together on how to explain and re-frame this period for a public audience.

A public history project like the one my students are embarking on this semester is unusual for medieval history courses. Though some medieval history professors and graduate students do discuss and practice public engagement through K-12 classroom visits, and libraries with important medieval manuscript collections are also reaching out to schools, the relative dearth of medieval history in American public history programs does not encourage many of us to think about the practice. Also, at many small schools like Ohio Wesleyan, there are no separate courses in public history. Yet more and more of my students are interested in public history, museum studies, and archival work. This project developed as a way to introduce students to the basic issues of museum design and audience engagement and to help them imagine a space for history that extends beyond the classroom. In our case, we are dusting off the ages and making a pop-up museum.

Continue reading