Since my last update, I have attended the North Carolina Museums Council Annual Conference, visited Charleston and Savannah with my house museums class, continued working at my internship with the Historic Wilmington Foundation, and nearly completed the exhibit for the Volga to Cape Fear Project. Needless to say, April has been extremely busy. So one update at a time: First up, the NCMC Conference.
The NCMC Conference in New Bern, NC was my first professional conference. Fellow grad student Jayd Buteaux and I traveled to New Bern for 2 days of learning and networking. This small, local conference was a perfect first experience. Smaller sessions and more opportunities for conversation with those around made it more accessible for a first year grad student with little to no experience networking (that would be me). We attended a session just for graduate students and new professionals about resumes, cover letters, applications, and interviews (oh my!), which was extremely helpful. I also attended a session on successful recent projects. One museum exhibit very successfully recycled exhibit materials from another museum to make a cost (and environment) friendly new exhibit that provided a more engaging atmosphere. This project brought some fresh ideas about how small museums with little funding can still be dynamic. Finally, a session about collections care and insurance opened my mind to the many things that can go wrong in the collections department of a museum (my planned area to pursue), but it also taught me about how to prevent, avoid, and handle such catastrophes. Overall, the conference broadened my mind and introduced me to new ideas and new people. I was especially able to meet a lot of students in other graduate programs in the state. To hear about the projects they were working on was interesting and it was exciting to share what we are up to at UNCW. The conference also allowed a little more exploring of New Bern, a place I had only been to a couple of times.
Shortly after the conference, it was time for another excursion; this time, it was off to Charleston and Savannah for a whirlwind tour of 6 house museums in the 2 cities over a 3 day period. While a lot to take in, touring so many different house museums allowed for more direct comparisons. We saw 3 sites in each city. In Charleston we went to Drayton Hall, the Manigault House, and the Aiken-Rhett House. In Savannah, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the Isaiah Davenport House, and the Owens-Thomas House.
These six places were operated by various organizations ranging from preservation non-profits to decorative arts museums. Our experiences in Charleston and Savannah are the basis for a paper and a presentation about how house museums can more effectively engage with their audiences and be more relevant or meaningful. My specific angle on this topic is the interpretation of gender in house museums. Alarmingly, only 3 out of the 6 museums even included information about women’s lives beyond mere mentions. Two of those were the most inclusive of women’s voices. Even so, none of the houses actually interpreted gender history in that none discussed the relationships between men and women or explained the underlying reasons for differences between men’s and women’s lived experiences. If house museums can more effectively explain women’s lives in the past, women in the present are more likely to see themselves represented in the story of the house, something not always guaranteed on a visit to a house museum, many of which bear the name of the man who owned it rather than the women who lived or worked in it. Similar issues are involved in the interpretation of other social history issues like class and race. However, these two topics, especially class, seemed to be more integrated than gender. Issues of race and slavery, after being a hot-button issue at historic sites for so long, were included at all sites from the period of slavery. However, as with gender, mere inclusion does not equal integration. Some sites merely mentioned slaves, while others segregated information about enslaved people to certain spaces rather than integrating them throughout the house.
In addition to fueling my interest in the need for interpretation of gender, the trip to Charleston and Savannah was a great experience where we were able to see various approaches to interpreting the past. Aside from a lack of completely satisfactory gender interpretation, a few of the sites were quite successful in their interpretive goals and it was interesting to see that tours with different approaches could still be similarly successful and enjoyable. And of course, both cities are beautiful and full of interesting history and waterfront views, so that didn’t hurt.
The semester is winding down–my next updates will discuss the exhibit which opens in a matter of days and reflect on my internship this semester. Stay tuned!