Exhibition, Interpretation, Preservation

My second semester of graduate school is in full swing (except for being on a snow hiatus today and tomorrow) and it is going to be a busy semester. The three words above (Exhibition, Interpretation, and Preservation) sum up the major topics I am learning about this semester. I am taking two courses: Museum Exhibition and Topics in Public History: House Museums. I am also fulfilling the program’s internship requirement by interning with the Historic Wilmington Foundation, a local preservation non-profit. Along with continuing my position as a teaching assistant, class and internship keep me busy, but this semester promises many hands on learning opportunities.

The museum exhibition course continues the Volga to Cape Fear Project, began last semester in the collections course, by taking the objects we researched and the oral histories we conducted and using them (plus more research, some audience research, and design concepts) to create an exhibit on Russian and Eastern European migration to the region. So far, we have discussed possible themes and have conducted surveys of potential exhibit audiences in order to find out what people know, don’t know, and want to know about our topic. Soon we will develop interpretive plans which will compile our research and be our guides to designing and fabricating the exhibit (which will open at the end of April!).

While the concept of interpretation is inherently wrapped up in exhibition, it is also a major topic under discussion in the course on house museums. House museums are a peculiar institution, different from stand-alone museums in that the space directly affects what can be interpreted. Thus far, we have explored thematic tours (what makes a good tour, how themes are developed to support a storyline) and how house museums are physical manifestations of microhistories, a genre of history scholarship that, when successful, combines biography, narrative, and context in an accessible and engaging way. (See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, an excellent example of microhistory.) The course involves tours of real historic homes in order to be exposed to tours and to be better able to discuss the various ways to interpret historic homes. Already we have toured Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC and have a trip lined up to tour homes in Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. I’m very excited to learn more about historic homes and the best ways to share these historical resources with the public.

Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC. Photo by author.
Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC. Photo by author.

Finally, preservation is a topic that I’m fairly acquainted with from my previous internship experience with Preservation Chapel Hill (and of course is directly related to house museums). Through my internship I am learning more about the intricacies of operating a preservation non-profit at the Historic Wilmington Foundation. The organization has a staff of only 4; however, it carries out a relatively vast number of events, services, tours, and preservation projects. So far, I have assisted in preparation for the Annual Meeting, for which I helped update the presentation with this years’ highlights, projects, committees, etc. I also prepared the program’s insert listing membership opportunities and upcoming events. I am also assisting with preparation for the upcoming Board Retreat, assembling materials for board members to use over the next year. In addition to assisting with these kinds of events as they arise, my ongoing project is researching the houses on this year’s Home Tour, which will take place in April. I am researching each home to uncover its story and explain its architectural significance in its historical moment.

Being only three weeks into the semester, I am sure there is much left to learn and share. Updates on all projects to come!

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