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By Catherine White

The Springfield Museums recently purchased Theodor Geisel’s, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, childhood home. Known as the “Seuss House,” it is surprisingly not on Mulberry Street. Their intention is to turn the house into a historic house museum (HHM) that explores Springfield and the Geisels’ lives in the early 20th century. At the Seuss house, nothing will be off limits to visitors. Embracing interactivity and inclusivity, visitors will be able to touch things, sit on the furniture, and engage with the house and its content in unique ways.

Black and white photograph of a large clapboard house with front porch and awning. Three people in white sit in the lefthand corner of the image.
Theodor Geisel’s childhood home in Springfield, MA, circa 1906. Courtesy Springfield Museums.

Issues of inclusion, particularly accessibility, are contentious at HHMs, which are notoriously exempt from many Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Questions of access in HHMs will become more pressing as museums realize the ways they have failed to be inclusive spaces. HHMs must consider inclusion in terms of physical accessibility for all abilities, as well as various learning preferences and who is represented in the museum.   

During my internship at the Seuss House, I try to consider all aspects of inclusivity and accessibility as I develop an exhibit proposal about Anna Lindner, the Geisels’ live-in housekeeper for 18 years. Including the histories of domestic workers and the “servant’s tours” in HHMs allows us to shift focus from the wealthier homeowners to underrepresented groups and individuals. The challenge with building the history of domestic workers is that the evidence that documents these lives is not always found in archives and the usual historical repositories. This was certainly the case with Anna Lindner. 

I was fortunate on this project because some preliminary research had already been done. In earlier partnerships with the museum, Marla Miller’s “History and its Publics” Fall 2018 undergraduate class and UMass Public History graduate Katherine Fecteau had researched the neighborhood and developed maps and demographic information for the street. The students enrolled in “History and its Publics” initially recommended featuring Anna in the museum.

But Anna Lindner was not in any of the other Geisel records that I had access to. She does not appear in any photographs that Ted Owens, Ted Geisel’s grand nephew, has and she is mentioned in passing only twice in the Ted Geisel memoir/biography. Dutifully noting each instance, I started my research with a basic search of census documents. Anna is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records in Springfield, but in 1910 her name was misspelled. Further research found her in ship manifests for her initial voyage to the U.S. in 1903 as well as a four-month trip back to Germany in 1913. The Springfield Republican also listed her name along with the other Springfield residents who sailed over to Germany in 1913.

  • Black and white scan of handwritten 1910 census record.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Contemporary photo of a brown wooden cabinet with the doors open.

And that was it. Scraps of information and her name listed as one of many. The question became how to put these scraps together. I decided to contextualize the aspects of her life that I knew, focusing on her labor as a domestic worker, life as a Springfield resident, and experience as an immigrant.

I used what I learned about domestic work from Jennifer Pustz’s book, Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servant’s Lives in Historic House Museums, and other articles about domestic workers to examine Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1900s. A critical reading revealed the duties and social status of domestic workers, racial portrayals of domestic workers, and their living and working conditions.

Maggie, Cliff, and Zoe over at the Springfield History Library and Archives were unbelievably knowledgeable and helpful in finding information about Springfield.

Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land was one of many informative books on immigration, particularly for interpreting ship manifests. Anna’s ship manifests are fascinating to examine as they reflect the changing requirements for entry into the country and reasons for exclusion from the country. We will provide these documents for visitors to inspect and pose questions about why certain information is collected. Because we have manifests from both 1903 and 1913, visitors will be able to compare the changes as well.

To engage the different ways people create meaning, visitors will be able to pick up and touch all objects and parts of the exhibit. There will be maps, photographs and documents, objects and appliances, panels, and a brief video. Visitors who wish to explore a topic further can scan a QR code to connect to further resources. The exhibit will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English with video captioning and the museum is exploring additional translations. Any digital content will be compatible with the most commonly used assistive technologies, and we will invite feedback for improvement.

I also want to open up the process of “doing history” and offer a way for visitors to participate in that process if they choose. A wall panel highlights the challenges of researching the history of Anna Lindner and the many gaps in evidence that we have about her life. Another panel invites visitors to think about who or what else may have been “lost” to history. This panel will have a place where people can write or draw something about their own history that they want included in the public’s memory. This effort will also include a social media aspect where people can share stories, photos, or documents and the museums can help people develop and record their histories.

Working on this project has been very rewarding because Anna Lindner is important. Anna Lindner offers us the opportunity to expand the historical narrative and include diverse perspectives and experiences. Through Anna’s story we can examine issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and more, that wouldn’t be possible if we only discussed the Geisels. Inclusive museums need to represent these stories and need to be presented in ways that allow access to all abilities and learning styles. I have tried to make room within the exhibit for all abilities and learning preferences as best as I could, though I look forward to feedback from my supervisor and the diversity and inclusivity team, as well as ongoing feedback from visitors. 

  1. Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  2. Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Catherine White is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.

Samuel Redman, Assistant Professor, UMass History

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A mysterious set of 9,000-year-old bones, unearthed nearly 20 years ago in Washington, is finally going home. Following bitter disputes, five Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest have come together to facilitate the reburial of an individual they know as “Ancient One.” One of the most complete prehistoric human skeletons discovered in North America, “Kennewick Man” also became the most controversial.

Two teenagers searching out a better view of a Columbia River speedboat race in 1996 were the first to spot Kennewick Man’s remains. Since then, the bones have mostly been stored away from public view, carefully preserved in museum storerooms while subject to hotly contested legal battles.

Some anthropologists were eager to scientifically test the bones hoping for clues about who the first Americans were and where they came from. But many Native Americans hesitated to support this scientific scrutiny (including tests which permanently destroy or damage the original bone), arguing it was disrespectful to their ancient ancestor. They wanted him laid to rest.

Kennewick Man’s remains had rested in the Columbia River Gorge for millennia.
Bleeding Skies, CC BY

This high-profile discovery served as an important, if maddening, test case for a significant new law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It aimed to address the problematic history behind museum human remains collections. First it mandated inventories – many museums, in fact, were unaware how large their skeletal collections really were. Then, in certain cases, it called for returning skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since NAGPRA passed in 1990, the National Park Service estimates over 50,000 sets of human remains have been repatriated in the United States. Read More

Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Before I came to UMass, I spent a season working as a historical interpreter at a living history museum. Every morning I put on two petticoats, my dress, and a bustle, and drove to work. Throughout the day, I talked with visitors about the temperance movement and women’s rights in the 19th century. During breaks, I took pictures of juneberry pies that I had just baked in the wood stove. I brought out the coffee container in the museum’s collections that came from my hometown, 530 miles away, but visitors rarely saw. After I swept the dust off of the front porch and let the embers die down in the stove, I posted the pictures to Twitter, using the hashtag #ITweetMuseums. On my days off, I visited local historical societies and museums, tweeting all the while. By tagging my tweets with the hashtag #ITweetMuseums, my museum experiences became accessible to people who ordinarily would not have had a chance to visit these museums. When I couldn’t venture out to new museums, I scrolled through my own Twitter feed, searching for #ITweetMuseums tweets that transported me to museum exhibits miles and continents away.

Throughout Professor Marla Miller’s “Writing History Beyond the Academy” seminar, we have discussed the ways in which historians can use Twitter to their best advantage. From a visit by Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass and author of The Public Professor, we discovered that being on Twitter can be beneficial in making connections, and those connections can be essential in discovering ways to make your research benefit the greater good. From talking with Rebecca Onion, Slate.com’s history writer and the department’s Writer-in-Residence (whose public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” can be viewed here), we’ve learned that people are engaging with history in all sorts of new ways on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

Earlier this semester, the department hosted Mark Schlemmer, the founder of I Tweet Museums. I Tweet Museums’ mission is to “encourage and support museum staff to tweet museo-relevant content from their personal Twitter accounts.” Schlemmer, the registrar at the New York Historical Society, is inspired both by his own work and the work other museum professionals do on a daily basis. He created I Tweet Museums as a platform for museum professionals to share what they are naturally impassioned about in their day-to-day work.

IMG_5940

Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

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Julie Peterson, Public History M.A., UMass History

On July 16, 2015, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison.  While at the El Reno medium-security facility in Oklahoma, Obama remarked on the unprecedented boom in the US prison population, and called for major sentencing reform.  This event is a defining moment of our times.  Amid police violence primarily perpetrated against people of color, and increasing rates of incarceration despite overall reduction of crime rates, the time for a frank national conversation about mass incarceration and its impacts has definitely come.  While Obama’s prison visit indicates that politicians are willing and ready to approach this conversation, museums and other cultural institutions are also making strides toward addressing these critical issues.

One such site with a growing commitment to interpreting contemporary criminal justice issues is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The institution has embarked on a multi-year journey to incorporate the story of mass incarceration into its interpretive plan.  Originally built in the 1820s as the first penitentiary in the world to inspire true penitence in the individuals incarcerated there, Eastern State Penitentiary functioned as a prison until 1971, when it was abandoned for a number of years.  The former penitentiary began operating as an historic site with guided tours in 1994.  Since those early days of interpretation, the site has grown increasingly popular; today, Eastern State receives over 180,000 visitors per year.

This May, Eastern State Penitentiary will open a new exhibit called “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”  The exhibit builds on information reflected in the Big Graph, a dramatic sculptural feature installed in the prison’s courtyard in 2014.  This graph depicts on a huge scale the rise of incarceration rates in the U.S., how this country compares to others throughout the world, and how race is reflected in rates of incarceration.  The exhibit expands on this data, seeking to place the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration in historical context, exploring criminal justice policy over the past forty years and encouraging visitors to consider their own relationship to the criminal justice system.

Photo 1

The Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Photo courtesy of Sean Kelley.

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Samuel Redman, Assistant Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst

When Dr. Gunther von Hagens started using “plastination“ in the 1970s to preserve human bodies, he likely did not anticipate the wild success of the Body Worlds exhibitions that stem from his creation. Body Worlds has since hosted millions of visitors to its exhibits, including six spin-offs. The offshoots include a version on vital organs and another featuring plastinated animal remains. The process replaces natural bodily fluids with polymers that harden to create odorless and dry “specimens.”

Frozen in place, plastinated remains in the exhibits are rigidly posed – both for dramatic effect and to illustrate specific bodily features. Over 40 million museum visitors have encountered these exhibitions in more than 100 different locations worldwide. Even copycat exhibits have taken off, eschewing accredited museums in favor of places like the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

But Body Worlds – though seemingly an entirely modern phenomenon only made possible with futuristic plastic technology – emerges from a long tradition of popular exhibits featuring actual and simulated human remains. What continues to draw so many people to human body exhibitions – even today?

Early exhibits of human bodies

For nearly as long as physicians and anatomists have attempted to understand the body, they have attempted to preserve, illustrate and present it. Cabinets of curiosities displayed in the homes of European nobility in the 16th century frequently included human skulls. As civic museums emerged in cities throughout Europe and the United States, some began to formally organize collections around anatomical questions.

The Hyrtl Skull Collection at the Mütter Museum continues to be displayed together. Recently, the museum organized a ‘Save Our Skulls’ fundraising campaign in order to better conserve the collection.
George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Medical museums were often more interested in pathologies – abnormal medical conditions or disease. They also collected thousands of skulls and bones, attempting to address basic questions about race. Early on, medical museums were generally closed to the public, instead focusing on training medical students through hands-on experience with specimens. Almost reluctantly, they began opening their doors to the public. Once they did, they were surprised by the relatively large number of visitors curiously entering their galleries.

Medical museums were not the sole institutions housing and displaying remains, however. Collections aimed more squarely at the general public often included such items as well. The Army Medical Museum, for instance, located along the National Mall, exhibited human remains between 1887 and the 1960s (living on as the National Museum of Health and Medicine). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History built its own large body collections, especially during the early 20th century. Popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History exhibited human remains in New York City just steps from Central Park.

Notable exhibits featuring human remains or innovative reproductions were also wildly popular at World’s Fairs, including Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915), among many others. People crowded galleries even as these exhibits proved vexing to critics.

Troubling transition from person to specimen

In the quest to rapidly build collections, remains were sometimes collected under highly questionable ethical circumstances. Bodies were removed from graves and sold, gathered from hospitals near exhibitions reminiscent of human zoos, and rounded up haphazardly from battlefields.

In the United States, the human body in the late 19th and early 20th century was racialized in almost every respect imaginable. Many people became obsessed with the supposed differentiations between Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans – occasionally stretching claims into rigid hierarchies of humankind. The exhibitions dehumanized bodies by casting them as observable data points rather than actual human beings.

Some exhibits blended medical science and racial science in a bizarrely inaccurate manner. Medical doctors supported eugenics groups organizing temporary exhibits comparing hair and skulls from different apes and nonwhite humans, underscoring popular notions about the supposedly primitive nature of those outside of Western civilization. To our modern eyes, these attempts are obviously stained by scientific racism.

Eventually, the racialized science that had led to collecting thousands of skulls and other bones from people around the world came under increased scrutiny. The comparative study of race – dominating many early displays of human remains – was largely discredited.

Indigenous activists, tired of seeing their ancestors viewed as “specimens,” also began pushing back against their display. Some exhibit planners began seeking other methods – including more sophisticated models – and exhibiting actual human remains became less prominent.

By midcentury it was less common to display actual human remains in museum exhibits. The occasional Egyptian mummy notwithstanding, museum remains were largely relegated behind the scenes to bone rooms.

Specimen exhibits fade, temporarily

With largely unfounded concern, museum administrators, curators and other critics worried audiences would be disgusted when shown vivid details about human anatomy. Gradually, as medical illustrations became better and easier to reproduce in textbooks, the need for demonstrations with real “specimens” seemed to dissipate.

Popular Science described a model from the 1939 World’s Fair, an alternative to real human specimens.
Popular Science, CC BY-NC

First displayed at a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, see-through models of the human body became a favorite attraction at medical exhibits in years to come. Models replicated actual human body parts rather than displaying them in preserved form. Exhibits were sometimes animated with light shows and synchronized lectures.

Later, in the 1960s, new transparent models were created for popular education. Eventually, some of the many transparent medical models wound up in science museums. Although popular, it remains unclear how effective the models were in either teaching visitors or inspiring them to learn more about the human body.

Over the years, methods for teaching anatomy shifted. Many medical museums even closed permanently. Those that could not dispose of collections by destroying them donated or sold them. Human body exhibits generally faded from public consciousness.

But after decades of declining visitor numbers, something surprising started happening at one of the nation’s most important medical museums. The Mütter Museum’s displays continued to draw heavily from its human remains collections even as similar institutions moved away from such exhibits. From the mid-1980s to 2007, the number of visitors entering the Mütter’s galleries grew from roughly 5,000 visitors per year to more than 60,000. Today, the museum is the most visited small museum in Philadelphia, hosting over 130,000 visitors annually.

When Body Worlds began touring museums in the mid-1990s, it tapped into a curiosity in the U.S. that has probably always existed – a fascination with death and the human body.

It can be hard to remember this was once a living, breathing person.
Paul Stevenson, CC BY

Adding a gloss of scientization to the dead

People are very often unsettled by seeing what were once living, breathing, human beings – people with emotions and families – turned into scientific specimens intended for public consumption. Despite whatever discomfort emerges, however, the curious appeal of medicalized body displays at public museums lingers, enough so to make them consistently appealing as fodder for popular exhibitions.

Body Worlds states “health education” is its “primary goal,” elaborating that the bodies in exhibits are posed to suggest that we as humans are “naturally fragile in a mechanized world.”

The exhibits are partially successful in achieving that mission. In tension with the message about human fragility, though, is the desire to preserve them by preventing their natural decay through technology.

With public schools cutting health programs in classrooms around the United States, it stands to reason people might seek this kind of body knowledge elsewhere. Models are never quite as uniquely appealing as actual flesh and bone.

But while charged emotional responses have the potential to heighten curiosity, they can also inhibit learning. While museum administrators voiced concern that visitors would be horrified viewing actual human bodies on exhibit, the public has instead proven to have an almost insatiable thirst for seeing scientized dead.

In the face of this popularity, museums must fully consider the special implications and problems with these exhibitions when choosing to display human bodies.

One basic concern relates to the exact origins of these bodies. Criticisms elicited an official response from von Hagens. Major ethical differences exist between exhibitions including human remains where permission has been granted in advance by the deceased or through descendants and museum displays revealing bodies of individuals offered no choice in the matter.

Spiritually sacred objects and the remains of past people present unique issues which must be dealt with sensitively and on an individual basis. Cultural and historical context is important. Consulting with living ancestors is critical.

Exhibitors also need to do more to put these displays into greater historical context for visitors. Without it, visitors might mistake artfully posed cadavers as art pieces, which they most assuredly are not.

These are all issues we will likely be grappling with for years to come. If past history is suggestive of future trends, visitors will continue to be drawn to these exhibits as long as the human body remains mysterious and alluring.

The Conversation

Samuel Redman, Assistant Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Chelsea Miller, Public History M.A., UMass History

This blog post originally appeared on The Harold, and is part of a series of essays, opinions, and reviews written by students, faculty, and staff of the Institute for Curatorial Practice.

As an intern for the Institute for Curatorial Practice, I am particularly struck by ICP’s ability to bring a wide range of collections into one conversation. I saw this in action during the ICP’s summer program. I received a graduate fellowship that enabled me to attend the five-week program and to lead a co-curated digital exhibition, BODY [IN/AS] LANDSCAPE. My teammates and I created an exhibition that explores how human forms and activities transform landscapes, and what new landscapes are produced by an artist’s intervention in the landscape. The exhibition draws from several collections, including the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Hampshire College Special Collections, Smith College Museum of Art, the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Mead Art Museum. While these collections are part of the Five College Consortium, they remain separate. But the ICP opens up the possibility of bringing them together. After this summer, I felt inspired by the concept of digital exhibitions.

The medium of a digital exhibition prompts questions about the possibilities and anxieties surrounding digital reproductions. Since the emergence of mechanical means of reproduction, specifically photography, there has been debate over whether the reproduced image can substitute for the original work of art. But what I hope to argue is that the digital reproduction is a useful tool for learning, teaching, and preserving objects.

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“…The stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action.” Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History

The New England Museum Association (NEMA) held its annual conference in Portland, ME, on November 4th-6th. This year’s theme was “the language of museums,” and many sessions explored the importance of communication. Students, faculty, and alumni from the UMass Amherst Public History program attended the conference, and several of us maintained an active presence in the conference’s Twitter conversation, #NEMA2015 (click the link to see our tweets on Storify).

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

Many sessions that we attended focused on making museums inclusive spaces that combat systems of oppression, but there were also sessions on visitor engagement and photographing museum collections. Other members of the UMass Amherst Public History cohort attended sessions on objects and emotion, creating empathetic experiences, legislative advocacy, statewide collaborations, having difficult conversations in museum workplaces, and graphic design.

Here are some reflections from faculty and students on #NEMA2015:

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This post originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s blog O Say Can You See

Smithsonian Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. The blogs are part of the celebrations commemorating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act.

Charles Weisenberger, Ph.D. Student, UMass History Department

 

3D model of Mt. Vernon with red roof, white walls, green grass. Many columns and windows.

Tactile model of George Washington’s Mount Vernon from the late 1930s. This object is in the museum’s Division of Medicine and Science.

Don’t touch the objects! Many people who have visited a museum have encountered this awful phrase. Charged with preserving the condition of museum collections, curators and museum staff strive at all costs to ensure the safety of the objects in their exhibitions. This usually means concealing priceless artifacts behind glass cases, far from the hands of the public. But what if the public cannot access the information without their sense of touch? Thousands of visually impaired visitors need alternative methods for accessing the objects and information featured in museum exhibitions.

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By Amanda Goodheart Parks, ABD Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History

This past November, I had the privilege of participating in the first ever NEMA Career Growth Studio. Due to work conflicts, I wasn’t able to attend this year’s conference, so as hundreds of my fellow museum folk headed home after three days of NEMA, I wandered into the Cambridge Hyatt feeling as though I had walked in late to a really great party. However, my fears of feeling left out were quickly assuaged when I was greeted by Dan Yaeger, Marieke Van Damme, and Sarah Marcoux Franke, my guides for this exciting new Career Growth Studio experiment.

We began with a cocktail hour, a welcomed opportunity for the twenty-five or so attendees to meet and mingle. Topics of conversation varied. Some dove straight into networking mode, while others debriefed about conference sessions. I chose the “get to know you” route, and quickly discovered I had much in common with my fellow CGSers. Most of us were women in our 20s and 30s with graduate degrees, and though our respective jobs, institutions, and life goals varied, a common theme began to emerge in one conversation after another— “I love working in the museum field, but…” More on that in a bit.

After we ventured upstairs to the penthouse suite overlooking the Charles River, I sat down at a table of CGSers I hadn’t met during the cocktail hour, and over a fantastic spread of seasonal delights such as butternut squash bisque (the food was spectacular!), we began chatting. Sure enough, that pesky refrain began to crop up again— “I love working in the museum field, but…” Shortly thereafter, Marieke joined our table and talked about her Joyful Museums project, an initiative dedicated to inspiring positive workplace culture in museums…and then the floodgates opened. Suddenly, our friendly dinner conversation transformed into a confessional for overworked, underpaid, emerging museum professionals. Comments ranged from, “…I’m grateful for my full time museum job, but I feel trapped and undervalued in my current position,” to “…Every job posting requires 5-7 years of full time experience. How will I ever get hired?” to “…On the outside, my organization looks like a great place to work, but our director’s management style is toxic…”

At first, we feared it was just our table. We feared we were the only ones caught up in a seemingly endless venting session — it wasn’t just us. Sure enough, all four tables of CGSers were using our first meal together as a forum to voice gripes, fears, and guilt relating to working in the museum field. Luckily, Dan, Marieke and Sarah sensed our need to voice these frustrations, so our first activity was filling an entire flip chart with our concerns in an act that seemed more like group therapy than career growth. Afterward, we took our first of many “mindfulness pauses” to reflect and jot down our homework before calling it a night. Yes, I said homework. We were assigned the task of committing the following things to paper: Our biggest professional regret, our proudest professional moment, and a goal we wanted the Career Growth Studio to help us achieve.

Career Growth Studio Blog Photo

When we reconvened the following morning over an array of breakfast delights (did I mention the food was spectacular?), the mood was one of relief and excitement. Relief because we had unburdened ourselves of our worries the night before, and excitement because we were looking forward to gaining new skills and knowledge to help quell said worries. Through a series of modules on topics ranging from Networking to Leadership, we spent the morning getting to know one another’s work situations, identifying solutions to our challenges, as well as sharing tips and best practices. Our facilitators offered points of departure for discussion, but for the most part, the best conversations stemmed from the group itself. Dan, Marieke, and Sarah jokingly referred to us as guinea pigs at the start of our time together, and to some extent, we were, but their willingness to structure the workshop around our specific needs, rather than stick to a pre-determined agenda, was what made the Career Growth Studio so beneficial. After an amazing lunch and some wrap up conversations (seriously, did I mention the food?), we ended with an agreement to create a private Facebook group to continue our conversations. We also plan to meet at next year’s NEMA conference in Portland, just as NEMA welcomes a second cohort of CGSers into the fold.

While the best part of the Career Growth Studio was working toward my individual professional goals, here are a few universal takeaways from my CGS experience:

1. Lead by example regardless of your position in your institutional hierarchy.
2. It can take up to two days for your body to recover from a stressful event, so find a stress management technique that works for you and stick with it!
3. Two words: Elevator Speech. Write it, memorize it, but most importantly, be it! You should have a different elevator speech for each of the following situations: Networking, Social Events, Representing Your Institution, and most importantly, Representing Yourself.
4. Reflective practice isn’t just a conference buzz word! Incorporate reflection and mindfulness into your daily life to inspire creative thinking and positivity.
5. And finally, never underestimate the power of a hand written thank you note.

In conclusion, as a museum professional in the early stages of my career, I found the NEMA Career Growth Studio to be equal parts catharsis and inspiration. In my opinion, the opportunity to talk to colleagues from other museums is the best part of NEMA conferences and workshops. The Career Growth Studio took this one step further. By granting my fellow attendees and I a safe, encouraging, and supportive environment to speak frankly about our professional challenges, goals, and dreams, NEMA allowed us the opportunity to not only better ourselves as museum professionals, but our New England museum community as a whole.

Amanda Goodheart Parks earned her M.A. in Public History from UMass in 2010. Currently an ABD Ph.D. candidate, Amanda works full time in the Education Department at the Springfield Museums in addition to her ongoing work on her dissertation which focuses on gender in the New England whaling industry.

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.

brain3-2

– 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.