A new semester is well underway and that means a new project for the academic year. Still Standing is the working name of a project that will culminate in an exhibit about the history and preservation of slave dwellings and will open at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, which has recently completed the restoration of its slave quarters on the site. As an introduction to the Still Standing project, the program took a field trip to Historic Stagville in Durham, NC. We met there with Jeremiah DeGennaro, the assistant site manager, who showed us where and how the site interprets slavery and African American history. Especially effective were the ways that the tour makes emotional and personal connections to the enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation. The site is an example of a successful interpretation of this history, an interpretation that inspires thought, dialogue, and maybe even new perspectives on issues of today. A big part of the site’s ability to do this is the remaining slave quarters on site. Unfortunately, slave quarters were not always preserved when a historic house was made a museum. This is one of the issues related to the Still Standing project–the history and preservation of slave quarters tells an interesting story in and of itself about popular perspectives in the time period that many museums were created. Today’s sites are faced with challenges and decisions about interpretation of slave quarters or restoration, recreation, or interpretation of the absence of slave quarters.
The Still Standing project spans both of my courses for the semester, Museum Education and Museum Administration in various forms; however, right now the project is in front-end visitor evaluation stage. We are conducting focus groups with different interest groups who might have a special interest in or insight into the topic, including African American genealogists, preservation professionals, teachers, and students at various levels. I am conducting two focus groups, one with African American community leaders and one with museum and historic site professionals who work at sites that interpret the history of slavery. Slavery is a sensitive topic in public history and one that gets a lot of attention in scholarship, but it is one that is so important to get visitor feedback on and one that is important to engage in conversation with. In addition to the focus groups we are conducting visitor surveys with visitors to the Bellamy Mansion Museum. The results of these conversations and surveys will be described in detail in a visitor study. This visitor study will then inform next semester’s exhibition class.
Last year’s exhibit, Push and Pull, will soon close in Randall Library at UNCW and move to Pender County Public Library’s branch in Burgaw, NC. It is exciting for the exhibit to move on to another location where it will hopefully reach a new and broader public audience, sharing the story of the county’s past and encouraging dialogue about immigration. The exhibit will also hopefully inspire some interesting conversations in St. Paul, Minnesota where Jayd, Leslie,and I will be presenting our poster about the exhibit and the process of curating it with our community advisory committee’s support, input, artifacts, and stories.
I have also started a new job–graduate assistant in the University Archives. I assist the archivist with a variety of things from installing an exhibit, researching and scanning documents for research requests, monitoring environmental dataloggers, and other organizing, sorting, rehousing, and pulling and shelving the collections. The archival collections include a surprising (to me) number of objects. Through this position I am learning a great deal about archival standards and practices as well as the University’s history.
In addition to my courses and assistantship I am also continuing work on my thesis and studying for my comprehensive exams. I am currently researching for my thesis, which seeks to determine what resources the Cape Fear Museum has for the interpretation of women’s and gender history and how it could make use of those resources. I am focusing on what their own collection has to offer and how objects could be approached differently both in collections practices and in exhibition in order to tell a more complete story of women and gender. So far I am going through past exhibit records to learn a baseline of the types of women’s history included in the past and I am looking at the museum’s collection policies and practices to see if there might be ways of illuminating women more through altering the information recorded upon accessioning. Of course, this research is still in flux and conclusions could certainly change. So far I am finding that women have been included in many of the museum’s past exhibits but the category of gender has not necessarily been fully explored. Hopefully, my thesis project can introduce some ideas of why including gender is important and how it might be done. My next step in the thesis research process is to conduct a visitor survey to see what current visitors think about women’s history in the current exhibits and if and what they would like to see more of when it comes to women’s history.
I am excited about both the Still Standing project and my thesis project for their potential and ability to relate history to the present, to inspire tolerance and understanding, and to help others understand the impact of the past on the present. These projects remind me of why I love public history–it’s ability to connect the past to the present. More updates to come!