Conferences, Guest Blogging, and Thesis Revisions…oh my!

Over the last month or so my UNCW public history colleagues and I have been busy. Those still in coursework have been busy at work on the Still Standing project, taking the visitor evaluation data we gathered last semester and applying it to a new exhibit opening next month at the Bellamy Mansion. While they’ve been hard at work on that, I have been working on thesis revisions and continuing my positions as assistant in University Archives and as archivist at the Bellamy Mansion. However, even in the midst of all of this, we have also found time to attend a couple of conferences and write some guest blog posts about our work.

Jayd Buteaux, Beth Bullock (author), Caitlin Butler, and Bonnie Soper at the poster session at North Carolina Museums Council Annual Meeting, March 30, 2015, Durham, NC.
Jayd Buteaux, Beth Bullock (author), Caitlin Butler, and Bonnie Soper at the poster session at North Carolina Museums Council Annual Meeting, March 30, 2015, Durham, NC.

At the end of March a group of us attended the North Carolina Museums Council annual meeting in Durham, NC where we presented a poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation project and attended sessions on a variety of topics, including collections management, graduate training and job skills, and exhibit techniques and collaboration. The conference and the poster session offered excellent opportunities to meet other North Carolina museum professionals and share our work while learning about other successful projects across the state. While there we were asked by North Carolina Connecting to Collections to turn our poster presentation into a guest blog post. The post can be read here: Collections Conversations Guest Blog Post. Both the poster presentation and the blog post described our methods and results in the visitor evaluation project conducted last semester. The visitor surveys and focus group interviews revealed a need to interpret slavery and slave dwellings more fully, better contextualizing the wide variety of experiences of slavery. Many visitors had a limited view of slavery and slave dwellings based on movie portrayals of large, rural plantations. Slavery in other locations, such as urban areas, looked a lot different. Our visitor evaluation data points to this issue as a gap in need of being filled. We were happy to share our project at the poster session where we had many engaging conversations and to expand the conversation via the Connecting to Collections blog.

American Tobacco Campus, Durham, NC. Enjoyed a great networking dinner at Tyler's Taproom during NCMC's Durham conference. Photo by author.
American Tobacco Campus, Durham, NC. Enjoyed a great networking dinner at Tyler’s Taproom during NCMC’s Durham conference. Photo by author.

More recently, several of us also attended the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. This national conference offered many interesting sessions and the opportunity to meet renowned public historians from all across the U.S. and Canada. I attended several interesting sessions, including one entitled “Edging in Women’s History” which offered case studies of museums and sites working to further their inclusion of women’s history in collections, exhibits, and programming. This session offered some inspiration and interesting ideas for me to ponder as I finish my thesis on women’s history in the collections and exhibits at the Cape Fear Museum here in Wilmington. Most interesting to me was a presentation on finding women in collections, which pointed to some similar challenges as I have noticed at the Cape Fear Museum, including cataloging methods that focus on the obvious physical description or donor without acknowledging more nuanced connections to women or issues of gender.

Another session explored issues of race and gender in leisure culture and how histories of segregated recreation spaces or histories of concert venues can be used to highlight and better understand these issues. Recreation and leisure activities offer easy access points to today’s visitors. These topics and spaces offer a way to make history of race and gender relatable to today’s public.

Public Historians in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. The conference's public plenary featured a discussion between a former Freedom Rider and the woman behind the documentary about the Freedom Rides. The plenary was held in this beautiful Egyptian Revival church.
Public Historians in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. The conference’s public plenary featured a discussion between a former Freedom Rider and the woman behind the documentary about the Freedom Rides. The plenary was held in this beautiful Egyptian Revival church.

At the conference Leslie Randle-Morton and I were also able to accept the NCPH Student Project Award Honorable Mention for our work with Jayd Buteaux on Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region. Prior to the conference we were also given the opportunity to write about the exhibit development process and share our experience working with the community who helped bring the project to life. That post can be read here: NCPH Guest Blog – Push and Pull.

Our award for Push and Pull. We were so honored to receive this at the Awards Breakfast in Nashville. Photo by Leslie Randle-Morton.
Our award for Push and Pull. We were so honored to receive this at the Awards Breakfast in Nashville. Photo by Leslie Randle-Morton.

In addition to the engaging sessions and the opportunities to hear from and meet interesting public historians, NCPH offered a chance to see Nashville. Rich in history and music, it was a great host city for the conference.

Ryman Auditorium, The Mother Church of Country Music, Nashville, NC. Photo by Author.
Ryman Auditorium, The Mother Church of Country Music, Nashville, NC. Photo by Author.
Downtown Nashville. Photo by author.
Downtown Nashville. Photo by author.
Boubon Street Blues and Boogie Bar - where we had a delicious lunch and heard some great live blues music. Photo by author.
Boubon Street Blues and Boogie Bar – where we had a delicious lunch and heard some great live blues music. Photo by author.

Both conferences were such wonderful experiences. Moving forward, I am focusing on my thesis revisions and preparing for my summer thesis defense and graduation. I am also wrapping up my time as graduate assistant in University Archives, a position that ends with the semester next week. However, I will be continuing to work at the Bellamy while I complete my thesis this summer and continue my search for a full-time position.

Women’s History in Museums

In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I would share a bit more information on my thesis. My research began as a resource evaluation for the local history museum in Wilmington. I was aiming to discover what kind of materials the museum already had in its collection that could be used to improve its interpretation of women’s history. The current exhibit, while inclusive of women in some parts, does not present a balanced interpretation. Women are largely missing from the earliest sections of the permanent exhibition on colonial and Revolutionary era Wilmington and remain marginalized in the interpretation of the 19th century. The only sections of the exhibition that include women in more balanced numbers are those interpreting the 20th century. However, even then women’s roles are not placed in their gendered context. Differences between men’s and women’s lives aren’t explored. Furthermore, the 20th-century exhibit sections focus on women’s public roles rather than also including their domestic roles.

My earliest theory as to why the museum lacked a more balanced or in-depth interpretation of women was that perhaps the collection was lacking in artifacts that could offer insight into women’s lives. This led me to assess the collection. I found instead that the collection was full of possibilities; however, the collection also needs more research and a clearer collecting focus on gender in order to fill in gaps and better understand the materials that are available.

As a small part of my research, I also conducted a visitor survey with 20 visitors to the museum over the months of December 2014 and January 2015, collecting data on about 5 different days in that time span. While this is not a large sample, it does provide some insight into what visitors know about women’s history and what they would like to know more about. The survey revealed that visitors are interested in women’s history and would like to see more of it at the museum. When asked to rate their interest in women’s history on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being not interested and 5 being very interested the overall average interest level was 3.85. Women made up 11 out of the 20 visitors surveyed and their average interest level of 4.45 clearly indicates that seeing the history of people they can relate to is important. The nine men surveyed, however, still came up with an average interest level of 3.1. Those who commented on why they rated their interest level as they did mentioned their female relatives and one explained his daughters’ interests in sports and science. Furthermore, when asked if they would like to see this museum specifically include more information on women’s lives, 15 visitors gave an affirmative answer (ranging from “sure” and “yes” to “absolutely”) with only 2 visitors giving negative responses and 3 visitors being unsure. Of those 15 visitors who wanted to see more about women, 10 were women and five were men. Those who did not want to see more were both men and two out of the 3 who were unsure were men. Only one person described their impression of the museum’s current interpretation as “balanced” while most others were able to name topics they would like to know more about or weren’t included in the museum. When asked to give words or images they associated with women’s history visitors commonly spoke about women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and specific notable women from history. Also noted often were women’s accomplishments and how women’s lives had changed over time. However, when asked to give words or images they associated with the word gender, most visitors felt unsure or simply stated “male/female” or “men/women,” indicating a lack of understanding of the concept of gender. Five visitors gave no associations only stating that they were unsure or could think of nothing. Based on the findings of the survey, it seems that visitors could benefit from exhibits that discuss the daily lives of both men and women and explain how ideas about gender informed these lives and how those ideas changed over time. Overall, museums need to better incorporate women’s experiences in the past but also place those experiences in context of gender. It is no longer enough to just add women to the mix.

In my case study I point out the wealth of resources available and offer specific examples of objects and topics to consider integrating into the exhibits. I also explore past exhibits, collections policies, and collections planning materials in order to try to determine the museum’s institutional relationship with women’s history, finding that the topic of gender has not been explicitly included in planning. Ultimately, I argue that women’s and gender history need to be more explicitly considered in museum collections planning, research, and exhibitions in order to fully consider the impact of gendered expectations on women’s and men’s lived experiences. This case study also offers a road map for other museums, outlining the steps necessary to improving interpretation including assessing the existing collection, critiquing current exhibits, and taking stock of local primary sources. I think most museums will find that more materials are available than they think for interpreting the diversity of women’s history.

My thesis is still undergoing revisions, but ultimately I hope it helps museums to advance their interpretation of women and gender and demonstrate the need for a more balanced representation of women as well as the need for making better use of available resources. And while it’s Women’s History Month, I hope museums will consider making women’s history a priority all throughout the year, integrated throughout their exhibitions.

This coming weekend is the North Carolina Museums Council conference in Durham. I’m looking forward to some great sessions on collections and my classmates and I will be presenting our poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation about slave dwellings. Wish us luck!

Thesis Drafts, Archives, and Conferences – Updates

Since my last post, I’ve been busy at work on my thesis, continuing my work in University Archives, starting a new archivist job, and preparing to attend a couple of conferences in the spring.

First up, my thesis. I have officially drafted a complete thesis, from introduction through conclusion. I am now officially in the revision process, working to make my central argument stronger and clean up my prose. My next post will share a bit of the insights of my thesis, which is about the need for improved interpretation of women’s and gender history in museums. As it is Women’s History Month in March, I will celebrate by sharing more on my thesis in its own post. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, my work in University Archives continues. I recently had the opportunity to curate a small exhibit on the history of the Honors Program at UNCW. I worked with the Archivist, Adina Riggins, and the head of the Honors Program to identify items we could use to tell the story of 50 years of Departmental Honors and 20 years of a cohesive Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit drew on documents and objects representing major milestones, such as the first honors thesis, a photo of the first graduate of the Honors Scholars Program, and the dedication of Honors College, renamed to emphasize the success of the Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit also showcases the various activities and endeavors that students in Honors participate in including a research journal, a literary publication, an award-winning newsletter, research conferences, and field trips. The exhibit is located on the second floor of Randall Library between Honors’ offices and University Archives. You can read more about it in a post I wrote for Archives/Special Collections’ blog, Dub Collections: Honors Exhibit.

In addition to my position as graduate assistant in University Archives I have begun working as the part-time archivist at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in downtown Wilmington. This position entails reorganizing the museum’s archival and artifact collections for better use by researchers. Some of the items will be deaccessioned or put on long-term loan to other institutions so that they can be better cared for and more easily accessed by researchers. Also, items not in line with the museum’s mission will be deaccessioned. An archive relating to the museum as an institution and its history will also be organized and set up. So far, I have been taking stock of the various materials and arranging the documents into categories for easier processing, removing damaging attachments, duplicates, and unnecessary materials.

Besides starting a new job, I have a couple of other announcements. First of all, my classmates and co-curators on the Push and Pull exhibit project and I received honorable mention for the National Council on Public History’s Student Project Award and we will be traveling to Nashville in April to attend the annual conference and awards breakfast! We are very excited to be acknowledged for our work and so thankful for all of the community members who shared their stories, artifacts, and expertise with us so that we could curate such a wonderful exhibit that has now been shared so widely. It’s amazing the feedback and interest the project has received. The news of our award was shared by UNCW. You can read more about it here: UNCW News – Public History Students’ Project Receives Honorable Mention from National Organization. 

Another project from the UNCW Public History program will be getting some attention at the North Carolina Museums Council conference later this month. My classmates and I will be presenting Still Standing, our visitor evaluation project on the preservation of slave dwellings, at the conference’s poster session, sharing our process and the results of the visitor evaluation. Those still enrolled in courses have used that information to work on an exhibit this semester that will open in April. We look forward to sharing the first part of the project’s insights with the North Carolina museum community.

I’m looking forward to attending the conferences and meeting other public historians, finishing my thesis, and continuing my work in archives.