Alumni in the World


Recently, UMass Amherst Public History Professor Marla Miller interviewed Jessie MacLeod (M.A., 2012),  Assistant Curator, Historic Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, about their new slavery exhibit “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” (October 1, 2016 – September 30, 2018 ) and how her education and training in the UMass Amherst Public History Program prepared her for this challenging project.

MM: Jessie, you’ve served as the lead curator for the exhibition “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” Tell us a little bit about the exhibition’s history. When did the staff start planning for this?

JM: Since our museum facility opened in 2006, we have had a series of temporary exhibitions. In 2013, staff voted on what the topic of next show should be, and slavery was the unanimous choice. Slavery wasn’t a new topic—Mount Vernon staff have been doing research on slavery for decades, and it is part of the interpretation in the historic area—but this was the first large-scale exhibition on the subject.

In 2014, about a year into the planning, we decided to expand the exhibit from one 1,100 square foot gallery to the entire museum: seven galleries encompassing almost 5,000 square feet. Expanding the footprint was critical because we had so much information and so many powerful stories to tell.


MM: Tell us a little bit about the exhibition itself. What were some of the project’s biggest challenges?

JM: The exhibition explores how the lives of George Washington and the men, women, and children enslaved at Mount Vernon were deeply interconnected. We examine the labor, living conditions, and personal lives of enslaved people, as well as Washington’s changing views on slavery. Visitors see original furnishings, artwork, archaeological artifacts, documents, and interactives that help interpret these topics. The show opened on October 1 and will be up through the fall of 2018.

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Emily Oswald, Alumna, UMass History

17. mai i Slottsparken (May 17th in Castle Park), c. 1975. From the Oslo Museum collections available on

17. mai i Slottsparken (May 17th in Castle Park), c. 1975. From the Oslo Museum collections available on

“Oh look,” one of the elderly women said, pointing towards the image projected on the screen. “He decided to lie down because, you know, you get so tired standing all day to watch the parade.” It was a recent Tuesday in May, and my presentation of historical photographs of May 17th, Norway’s national day, was winding down. The other women around the table nodded. “That’s right, you do get tired,” another said. We paused for a moment, and I could almost see the memory of aching feet and tired legs travel around the table.

Since January 2015, I’ve been coming to a senior center on the east side of Oslo every other Tuesday evening. I bring a USB drive with a PowerPoint slideshow and my best Norwegian grammar to sit down with men and women in the 70s and 80s. We spend about an hour together, looking at historic photographs from the digital archive,, projected onto the wall of the senior center’s cafe. We’ve seen pictures of Oslo winter from the 1890s and more recently Oslo in spring from the 1970s. We’ve flipped through images that document the working lives of Oslo residents, and photographs of the city’s schools and breweries and newspaper kiosks.

Overselling this program is easy: imagine a grant application that declares ‘Historic photographs inspire reminiscing and conversation, and build community among nursing home residents! Use digital resources to draw out analog memories!’ In reality, I’m not sure how to measure the success or the impact of the program. The number of participants varies according to so-far indiscernible rhythms of life in an assisted living facility: as many as 15 and as few as three participants have showed up. It’s often not clear who came knowing there would be pictures, and who happened to wander in for some company or a snack before bed. Sometimes, the people who do come think the pictures are boring (one woman said as much on the evening we looked at pictures of Oslo cinemas). Sometimes, everyone is in a bad mood because the weather is rotten or there was a funeral earlier in the day.

But what I do find exciting and satisfying about the project is the way it solves a real problem. The project meets the only explicitly articulated goal that I and the senior center’s activity director laid out when we first talked about collaborating. “We’re really happy for just about any kind of evening programming,” I remember her saying. “It can be easy for conversation to get stuck on what they didn’t like about the lunch menu.” I want to recognize what’s been accomplished with modest resources at a small scale. For five months, elderly people at the senior center have continued to show up, smile as I turn on the projector, and say thank you at the end of the presentation. I know a bit more about their lives and the city I now live in, and they seem to appreciate that I keep coming back, even if the pictures I bring are sometimes boring.

It can be easy for community-oriented public history projects to get wrapped up outsized objectives (reach all the kindergarten-aged children in the city) or abstract measures of success (participants will experience a new connection to the history of their neighborhood). Such objectives and measures of success have their place, but volunteering at the senior center in Oslo has been a good reminder of another way we can approach public history programming. A public historian’s skills, like curating images and facilitating conversations, and resources, like online historical photo databases, can meet concrete, everyday challenges, and solve small-scale, intimate problems. We can give people something to talk about besides the food.

Emily Oswald is a 2013 graduate of the Public History program. She has lived in Oslo, Norway, since August 2014.

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, alumna, UMass Public History

Almost ten years ago now, I heard Linda Friedlander from the Yale Center for British Art talk about the museum’s innovative program for first-year medical students. Using visual thinking strategies well-known to art historians, this class aimed to help future physicians hone their ability to correctly assess patients and clinical situations. Museums as labs for medical students? Or training grounds for police officers? Sign me up. The idea remained lodged in the back of my mind – I, too, wanted to take on the challenge of collapsing disciplinary boundaries in the museum setting.

The opportunity finally presented itself while I was working at the Taubman Museum of Art, developing programs for college students and adults. The Taubman is located in Roanoke, Virginia, where Carilion Clinic is big business. This network of hospitals and providers stretches across rural southwestern Virginia, providing care to over one million Virginians and acting as one of the largest employers in the region. The museum had recently formed a young professionals group to help us organize events and encourage membership; several people in the group had ties to Carilion.

After a few meetings, I learned that one group member directed the Roanoke Brain Study at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; the project focuses on human decision-making and the ways in which cultural messages affect our decisions. Her research examines the ways our brain assigns value to abstract concepts, and how, for example, these valuations – monetary, social, etc. – might influence our interpretation of art (among other things). A collaboration was born. Not only did this seem like an ideal entry point to explore the connections between visual thinking, medical practice, and neuroscience, but our development office found the possibility of attracting a whole new audience to the museum quite appealing.


– A functional MRI shows increased brain activity in certain areas while volunteers make decisions about certain works of art. (Roanoke Brain Study)

We called our first event “This Is Your Brain on Art.” It was part of a series of programs entitled “Conversations,” designed to bring together people from different backgrounds to share their unique perspective on a particular exhibition. Up to this point, we paired experts in different fields – maybe photography and history, say – but not different disciplines entirely. For this event, Dr. Harvey provided the scientific narrative; our education staff and audience served as the counterfoil, by participating in an interactive exercise assigning value to paintings in galleries. The program got rave reviews from the audience, although the balance of the conversation skewed towards the neuroscience.

Our next step was to develop a more focused set of programs, which we referred to as the Science Café. Admittedly, our project was much smaller in scope than those that served as my initial inspiration. There are so many ways in which the visual arts and biological sciences overlap, and although our constituency included a sizable population of people in both fields, they weren’t talking to each other – and certainly not within the walls of the museum. Our modest goal was to create a space where they could have a regular dialogue, thereby influencing each other’s thinking and methodology. (Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this model shares some similarities with medical humanities programs. These new initiatives teach medical students to employ narrative or historical context, for example, to enrich their training.) We were concerned about a number of things that could impede the success of the Science Café, but mostly, I wanted our choice of topics and presenters to be very precise. The most crucial component, in my mind, was that we select issues for discussion that were neither squarely in the field of neuroscience (like our first event) nor purely art historical in nature. Our initial slate of topics included an examination of color theory (central in both fields, but conceived of differently) and a discussion about the varied meanings of elegance (elegant design, elegant solutions, etc.).

The Science Café didn’t quite get off the ground. Financial considerations and a changing executive structure meant certain initiatives were benched for a bit. And yet, our initial program had some legs. This spring, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine turned the Science Café on its head and created a mini medical school targeted towards non-professionals, called “Anatomy for Artists and Other Curious Sorts.” The opening seminar for the program was drawn from our very first event, proving that both communities continue to be interested in finding opportunities to bridge the disciplinary divide.

Later this month, the New England Museum Association will be highlighting these kinds of programs (and many, many others) during their annual conference; the theme is “Picture of Health: Museums, Wellness, and Healthy Communities.” In addition to the presentations from the MFA and other art museums about medical-museum collaborations, I plan to attend a few of the talks that speak even more directly to public historians. I am eager to hear about the myriad creative ways in which museums across the region are meeting new and interdisciplinary goals and serving as a laboratory for students in a variety of professions. Two sessions focus on reading objects; bringing historical analysis to bear with visual thinking skills is an important piece of the puzzle for museums with object-based collections. I am also looking forward to hearing about issues-based exhibitions and programs, like those at the Culinary Arts Museum, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Yale Peabody Museum, as I am convinced history museums are poised to develop partnerships with medical schools that could simultaneously benefit both medical students and the museum’s own audiences. (Think explorations of historical foodways paired with dietician training or pop-up object analysis on a medical school campus.) Lots of food for thought – I hope to see you there.

By Margo Shea, Alumna, Department of History

Margo Shea completed an M.A. in Public History in 2005 and a Ph.D. in History in 2010 (both from UMass Amherst), with specializations in public history and memory, Irish history and Urban history. She is currently an assistant professor in the History Department at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts. Shea is currently revising her doctoral dissertation, “Once Again it Happens: Collective Memory and Irish Identity in Derry, (Northern) Ireland 1896-2008,” for publication.

“Return to Sender” originally appeared on Shea’s personal blog. See Shea’s blog here.

On Tuesday, May 6th, Boston College’s Director of Public Affairs, Jack Dunn, announced that “The Belfast Project” oral history initiative would honor all requests from participants to return recordings and transcripts of interviews not currently in use as evidence in the murder investigation of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972. The college will keep no copies. The information in the interviews will remain known only to the interviewers, a few Boston College employees, and William Young — a federal district court judge who read the transcripts to determine which ones should be delivered to Northern Irish authorities under a treaty governing exchanges of information between nations for the purposes of law enforcement. Read More

By Kate Preissler, Digital Media Marketing Manager at the Berkshire Museum and Alumna, Department of History

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

–President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013

kindergarten 2
In Kindergarten was distributed to all new kindergartners in Berkshire County

There is currently a movement amongst some museums to become involved in the development of our very youngest citizens. Spending significant resources to create opportunities for toddlers used to be the exclusive realm of children’s and maybe science museums, but now many more institutions — historical, arts, music — are getting into the game. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1903 by Zenas Crane to be the Berkshires’ version of a Metropolitan Museum of Art or Smithsonian, is one of them. Finding ways to integrate early learners into a setting designed for adults presents many challenges but also makes for some very innovative programming. As a part of this initiative, titled WeeMuse, the Museum has added an Early Childhood Specialist staff position in the Education Department, started a series of programs and activities in the Museum for kids 18 months to 3 years, increased networking and direct outreach to early childhood education and care providers, and become a partner in the Pittsfield Transition Team — a group of educators, school administrators and organizational representatives who meet to address the needs of young children, especially as they transition from home or daycare to the public school system.

Out of the Museum’s participation in the Transition Team came the newest WeeMuse offering: In Kindergarten, a book for parents and children that addresses many of the things that kids will experience when starting school for the first time. It’s not a manual, but appears in the style of a storybook with engaging graphic images, activity pages, and even stickers. Read More