My Adventures at the Mariners’ Museum

In addition to coursework and research, William and Mary students are expected to complete an assistantship every year. Many of these take the form of teaching, but there are also opportunities to work in museums, archives, publications, and other places. Given my curatorial background, I’ve been working two days a week at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News. Today, I’ll talk about some of the projects I worked on there.

Compared to my job at Roswell, my position at the Mariners’ was low-key because I wasn’t in charge of the department and was able to spend all of my time with the collection. I worked with the map collection, which contains about 1400 objects spanning from the sixteenth into the twentieth centuries. The maps represent a small facet of a much larger object collection, but there was more than enough material to keep me busy.

During the fall, I primarily worked on inventorying the objects to make sure the locations in the computer database corresponded with what I actually found in the drawers. Once I completed that, I worked on rehousing maps in newer, more archivally appropriate folders, choosing maps to be photographed for the database, and cataloging maps found in the collection, among other things.

https://marinersmuseum.widencollective.com/thumbnail/a05adbbd-f791-4e19-8e8b-e520c1b24625/av/250px/MSM%201---0009.jpg?t=1553012468003&s=d399838b121ccbd11f21ecf16e762645ea76889b
Example of the kind of map you might see in my exhibition next year.

I spent most of my time working on an exhibition proposal, Changing World Views: World Maps from the Mariners’ Museum. Here’s the introduction I wrote for it:

When it comes to maps, representations of the world are among the most recognizable, whether we hang them in classrooms, see them on the evening news, or look them up online. Yet world maps are not just visual renderings of continents. From allegorical illustrations to the outlines of political borders, the details we see on maps can tell us a lot about their creators’ expectations and interests. Changing World Views explores how world maps express political and social content while showcasing various examples from the Mariners’ Museum collection.

This exhibition won’t open until 2020, but since my internship just ended, I needed to present as complete a package of a show as possible. In addition to including an illustrated checklist and exhibition text, then, I provided measurements for the works, recommended mat and frame sizes, and completed a layout of the show for the proposed space, Gallery Six. Since I’ll be living in Williamsburg for the foreseeable future, I also offered to help out when it comes time to put the show together.

Overall, I enjoyed my time here, as it was a good transition space. Having spent almost a decade working museums, it was nice to still have a connection to that environment as I readjusted to being a student again. It’ll also be good to expand my exhibition experience beyond the Roswell Museum, as the vast majority of the shows I curated were staged there.

All that said, however, I’m ultimately here to expand and grow my skill set, so I’ll look forward to having the opportunity to try out a new position next year.

On Failure

Failure is a peculiar thing. Chances are you’ve encountered articles and other media telling you to embrace it as a learning experience. Yet we’re also terrified of failure for the repercussions it may bring, whether it’s getting fired from a job, being considered a bad parent, losing a relationship, and so on.

Well today, I’m going to talk about one of my failures, and how it ultimately helped me get to where I am now.

Giving a lecture on Magical and Real at the Roswell Museum. To complete this project I had to fail in other things first.

 

In 2016, I failed to get into graduate school.

Let me explain. I applied to William and Mary and a few other schools in 2017, but that was not my first attempt at getting into a PhD program. That happened two years earlier, in the fall of 2015. I had several reasons for applying, but the main reason was that I was unhappy in my job. The Roswell Museum had been going through a rough administrative transition since my arrival in 2013, and after two years I didn’t want to be in the thick of it anymore.

Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_tower_of_used_books_-_8443.jpg

I meticulously prepared for the application. I studied for the GRE for three months, usually in the evenings after work. I dedicated even more time to working on my statement of purpose and preparing a writing sample. I eventually applied to six programs, figuring at least one of them would accept me, if not more. My close friends and family were confident that I would get in, and so was I.

Imagine my surprise then, when I only got into one program. That was fine, until they offered me no funding. With no money on the table, I reluctantly turned the offer down because I knew it wasn’t worth it. The plan that I had carefully plotted out over the previous year had suddenly disintegrated.

In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious why I didn’t get in (or more accurately, an offer with money). My writing sample wasn’t great, I didn’t have a clear focus in terms of research, and I was pretty distracted with everything going on at the museum. At the time though, it was a blow to my ego, and the prospect of staying in Roswell for another year or two felt pretty overwhelming.

Magical and Real, 2018

I got through it though. With no school or job prospects on the horizon, I realized I had to make the most of my situation. I volunteered for the director search committee and helped find a leader who has stabilized the museum and enabled it to thrive. A major co-curated retrospective for 2018, Magical and Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, became the focal point of my curatorial work, and remains one of my proudest accomplishments. On the financial side of things, I targeted my student loans and paid them off three years ahead of schedule.

In my personal life, I started talking to one of the museum’s new security guards, Brandon. Those conversations turned into a relationship, and nearly three years later, we’re still together.

Out at the City of Rocks in New Mexico

I also started perusing the museum’s WPA archive, and discovered a whole new topic that captivated my imagination. Not only that, this was the archive that helped me figure out what I wanted to focus on in the future. When I applied to graduate schools in 2017 then, the outcome was very different. I had learned from my mistakes, and submitted a much more focused application.

I rebounded from my failure, but to do that I needed to recognize it as a learning opportunity. Not everything we touch will turn to gold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reap something worthwhile from it. I didn’t get into graduate school in 2016. And if I had? I wouldn’t have finished my work on Magical and Real. I wouldn’t have gone through the museum’s WPA archive. I wouldn’t have met Brandon.

I failed, and it hurt. But my life is all the richer for it.

How I Look After My Well-Being

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed between being in graduate school in 2019 and being a student a decade ago is a greater emphasis on self-care. Part of this simply reflects the proliferation of material avaialble on social media now. Instagram didn’t exist when I was in school, and Facebook was still primarily a repository for college party pictures. There’s simply more media out there now, so you’re bound to encounter more material on just about any topic.

But I’ve also noticed a slight change in the culture itself. When I was a Master’s student, my classmates and I talked about stress over papers and so forth, but there wasn’t much emphasis on overall well-being, or acknowledging the toxicity of academia itself. These days, however, wellness seems to be on everyone’s radar. Mind you, academia can still be a toxic place that drains your lifeforce if you allow it, but the people who live and work in it are more open to admitting its dangers and taking precautions. Here at William and Mary, for instance, we’ve just launched a whole series of workshops aimed at the well-being of graduate students. And more generally, there are comics, Instagram accounts, and other forums where students share how they maintain their sanity.

But what about me? How do I tend to my emotional and mental well-being? Today, I thought I’d share some of the things I do.

Making art every day, even if it’s a small study like these 2″ x 3″ abstractions, is an important way I maintain my well-being.
  1. Exercise: Sana in corpore sano, or a sound mind in a sound body. Regular exercise is one way I accomplish this. It’s easy to get antsy or restless when you read all the time, so getting up and moving is a great way to dispel nervous energy.
  2. Sleep: When I was grad student at Williams, I bought into the idea that I had to stay up late and get up early in order to do well. It wasn’t unusual for me to work until 1 pm, sometimes later, and get up by 7. Not anymore.
  3. Acknowledging my emotions: Growing up, I loved Star Trek, and my favorite character was Mr. Spock because I admired how he was able to control his feelings (for the most part). As an adult though, I’ve learned that bottling your emotions backfires in the long term, so rather than deny my feelings, I acknowledge and experience them.
  4. Talk to myself: This relates to #3. Whenever I’m feeling upset, I’ll talk through my feelings. Sometimes I’ll talk with Brandon, other times I’ll talk with myself, but it’s a similar process either way. I’ll ask myself what I’m feeling, why I’m feeling that way, tell myself it’s okay to feel that way, and then figure out what I need to do to change how I’m feeling. I do this out loud because naming my emotions enables me to ultimately let them go. I find this technique is particularly effective when I go on walks, as the movement of my body both releases endorphins and becomes a physical analogy to the process of working through my feelings.
  5. Maintain my hobbies: I am not solely my research. I not only have other interests, but I insist on pursuing them, even if it’s only a few minutes a day.
  6. Maintain my relationships: Once again, I am not solely my research. I am connected to other people, and I need to maintain and develop those relationships. This means that I call my parents regularly, talk to my sister and friends, and spend quality time with Brandon.
  7. Watch the kitties: because there’s really nothing more entertaining than watching the antics of Iris and Gustave.
  8. Remember my priorities: Six months after I graduated from Williams, a young music professor I had known there died of complications from pneumonia while working on a major music festival. His death jolted me into reevaluate my priorities, and as a result, I refuse to let any job or project take over my life. Whether it’s a book, a dissertation, an exhibition, or a career, it’s not worth dying over, and no one is going to convince me otherwise.

In essence, you’re a human, not a robot, so don’t expect yourself to work like a machine. Do your best, but don’t take life too seriously, because ultimately no one gets out of it alive.

14-Day Writing Challenge

As a second-time graduate student returning to academia after several years in the workforce, I’m always interested in increasing my work efficiency. Spending nearly every waking moment on homework caused me to burn out on school eight years ago, after all, so I’d like to avoid that again. I’ve also got friendships, relationships, and hobbies to maintain, so increasing my efficiency so that I can spend more time doing these other things is important for me. To paraphrase one of my former coworkers at Roswell, I’m not interested in working harder anymore, but smarter.

Which is why I recently participated in a 14-day writing bootcamp online. The premise is that you set a timer for 30 minutes and do nothing but write during that time. No email, no social media, no cat videos, no movie reviews, no random Wikipedia articles, nothing but writing or looking at the notes or sources you need for writing. Preferably you should be consistent with the time of day you choose to write, whether it’s first thing in the morning or late at night, but the point is that you make 30 minutes of uninterrupted writing a habit.

Timer-based productivity sessions are nothing new. Arguably the most famous is the Pomodoro Techique (which, if you’re wondering, is the Italian word for tomato).

This bootcamp is a variation on the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes + 5 minute break + 15-30 minutes break after every fourth break), and more broadly reflects a multitude of studies demonstrating that humans tend to work better in short bursts rather than long stretches. I read about the Pomodoro Technique a few years ago when I was working in Roswell, but wasn’t especially keen on the idea of timers then. I thought it overemphasized quantifying time and would interrupt my writing flow.

If I’ve learned anything about being in grad school again though, it’s that I’m prone to distraction. Part of it is simply the proliferation and availability of material online, but my previous job also influenced my working habits. Since there were always a thousand things going on at the museum that needed to get done, I rarely had an uninterrupted afternoon at my desk to write. More often than not, I would have to wedge in short blocks of writing time in between meetings, exhibition installations, or impromptu tours. Yet in spite of all that, I still managed to get my writing done within a 40-hour work week, and rarely took anything home.

Being back in grad school has forced me to be honest about my working habits. Without the museum to structure my day, I’m prone to create my own interruptions. I’m productive, but I don’t have the self-discipline to work for several hours without distracting myself. I really do want to spend my free time with Brandon, my friends, and my hobbies rather than fritter it away on the Internet, but on my own, that’s what happens. I signed up for the workshop, then, because I realized that my working sessions could use more structure.

I know I need to work, but…cat videos! All right, here’s the link.

The workshop was set up as an online forum, with several other people participating. I’m an early riser and tend to be most focused in the mornings, so I set 6:00 am as my start time. With the exception of one day when I let myself write for an hour, I stuck to the 30-minute limit, as the point was to see what I could accomplish in a short amount of time. Every day after writing, I would go to the login page, write down what I accomplished, the internal and external resistance I experienced, and what had gone especially well. Finally, I would go to the group page, check in on the progress of the other participants, and leave positive feedback on one of them. The only time I didn’t check in was on the weekends, which we were encouraged to take off (well, as much as you can let yourself).

So how did it go? Actually, I’m really pleased with how it turned out. Because I only had to work for 30 minutes, I was able to stay on track and didn’t feel the need to distract myself. Knowing I only had to work for a half-hour instead of three or four hours also meant I was more willing to tackle challenging parts of my writing, those spots where you know what you need to say but just can’t find the right way to do it. While 30 minutes may not seem like much time to spend writing, over the course of two weeks it added up. I managed to write and revise a conference paper I’m giving next month, write an assessment of an article I’d been asked to peer review, and write two precis for my Modern US class, all while having the benefit of starting my day on a productive note.

On reflection, this 30-minute timer method reminded me of the way I used to write in college. As an undergraduate, I listened to classical music when I wrote. When I’d go write or revise a text (I’m not so much a writer as I am a re-writer), I’d put on a CD, and work until the disc had finished. Each CD I had was more or less an hour, so I knew that I’d get an hour’s worth of work in by the time I had gone through the disc’s playlist.

This was one of my favorite CDs to listen to in college. I still have them, though nowadays they live in my car.

This habit started to change the first time I went to graduate school, when I got tired of the CDs I had and started listening to streaming services instead. Since I no longer knew the duration of my music, it became harder to keep track of how long I’d been working. I then stopped listening to music altogether when I started working in museums, initially because I worked in open office environments and I don’t like wearing headphones, but later because my day kept getting too interrupted to make listening worthwhile. Gradually, the timer system I had unintentionally set up for myself eroded, and my working time became increasingly cluttered with self-imposed distractions.

If nothing else, this writing workshop has reminded me of the importance of structuring my time. If I want to spend more time with Brandon or my artwork, then I need to make sure I use my work time efficiently and not let my distractions stretch it out into the evening. Instead of expecting myself to work uninterrupted, I’ve accepted that I work better in shorter blocks, with little breaks in between. We all know that time is arbitrary, but measuring it can really help with staying focused. Whether it’s setting a timer, playing a CD, or some other quantifying method, I know now that I need to track my time and set goals for myself, not only for writing, but all facets of my academic work. Setting time limits and meeting them consistently not only helps me stay on track, but also enables me to more easily chart my progress.

Timer-based writing isn’t for everyone, but after seeing what I’ve been able to do with it, I think it’ll work just fine for me.

Things You Think About While Reading

Every semester is different. I spent last semester working on projects relating to my work with the Roswell Museum archive, but this time I’ve been focusing on reading a variety of books relating to my more general interests, particularly the history of museums. As a scholar, I’m keen on connecting my practical experiences as a curator to my scholarly work, as I believe it enables me to examine the history of museums and related institutions from different perspectives.

I found myself thinking about my previous experiences when reading Bone Rooms, which looks at the history of human remains in museums. While I’ve never worked at a museum with human remains in its collections, its stories about collectors did resonate with me, more specifically the anonymous ones.

When it comes to collectors in America, we tend to concentrate on the big names: JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Havemeyer. Visit major museums such as the Met or the MFA in Boston and you’ll find their names all over exhibit labels and galleries. Museums such as Shelburne in Vermont or the Gardner in Boston were instigated by wealthy, eccentric collectors. Even Roswell Museum owes most of its collection to a handful of powerful collectors and philanthropists, most notably Donald B. Anderson.

Just as I tend not to focus on major artists, however, I found myself wondering about donors of more modest means while reading Bone Rooms. According to author Samuel Redman, numerous amateur collectors sent in human remains to museums during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were not wealthy or powerful, and today remain largely anonymous, yet they contributed substantially to these collections, and as a result influenced the development of anthropology as a field.

From there, I started thinking about my own experiences with donors. With one or two exceptions, I’ve rarely dealt with significant donors. More often, I’ve handled phone calls and inquiries from people of more modest means, often folks cleaning out their parent’s attics or downsizing their own homes. They’re not extensive collectors, but people who happen to have objects they consider interesting or worthy of preservation, whether it’s a quilt, a painting, or even a bar of soap.

The most unusual donation offer I’ve received to date was for an old bar of soap for Shelburne Museum. We politely declined.

I then started asking myself questions about these donors. Who were these people?What was their economic background? Did they tend to come from particular professions or income levels? What about gender identities? Did they identify as men, women, or other? How about race? What kinds of objects did they tend to donate? Why did they believe the museum was the best option for rehousing their possessions? In other words, was there any kind of pattern to these non-elite donors?

The one feature that stands out to me is narrative. When I think of all the prospective donations I’ve handled, the would-be donor had a story to share. Sometimes the object in question belonged to a parent, or the donor wanted to share how they acquired it. In Roswell, locals liked to share their Peter Hurd drawings with me and often had recollections about personal encounters with him. As a curator, my job was as much about listening as it was anything else.

This emphasis on narrative and sharing underscores the significance of objects to memory, whether individual or collective. While museums have certainly elevated the sacrality of objects, their importance is underscored in other ways as well, with one of the most formative in my opinion being show-and-tell (speaking of which, is there a book on that?)

Apparently there is a book on show-and-tell, at least a children’s book. Image courtesy of
https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/books/show-and-tell-day-by-anne-rockwell/

As Peter Trentmann observed in his massive book, Empire of Things, people often express and articulate their personalities through the acquisition and consumption of things, so ascribing such importance to objects is perhaps not surprising. Especially when we consider the transient nature of our own bodies, knowing that our things will outlive us is comforting. They become contact relics, enabling us to connect with those who have gone while providing a link to future generations.

I was fascinated with the cult of saints in college, so it’s not altogether surprising that I’m interested in the correlation between museum objects and relics. Image courtesy of https://www.thedailybeast.com/sienas-disembodied-saint-at-the-basilica-di-san-domenico

As repositories of objects, perhaps it only makes sense then, that these would-be donors would reach out to us. Who else would be better qualified to preserve the stories behind objects than a museum?

One thing is for certain: if a study hasn’t been done on non-elite donors, it should be. And perhaps I’ll do it.