Semester Project #3: Independent Study

Last week, I told you about the paper I wrote for Ethnic Modernism, which took a deep dive at one of the exhibitions shown at the Roswell Museum. Today, I’ll talk about the essay I wrote for my Independent Study. Whereas my Ethnic Modernism project performed a close reading of the documents pertaining to one show, this project took a broader look at the Roswell Museum’s programming initiative.

This paper focused on an ongoing conflict between the Roswell Museum’s federal personnel and its local sponsors at the Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society. Although the museum successfully completed numerous exhibitions, classes, and special programs, the FAP and the A&H Society could never quite agree on focus. While the FAP wanted to concentrate on art education and appreciation, the A&H Society was more interested in promoting local history. Eventually, the museum would part ways from both the FAP and the A&H Society, forging its own path based in both collections management and public education, but throughout the WPA period, the debate was ongoing.

I explored this conflict through the lens of the FAP’s educational focus. Influenced by the writings of Progressive-era educators and philosophers such as John Cotton Dana and John Dewey, FAP administrators advocated for more classes, demonstrations, and other participatory forms of education. They often criticized museums, arguing that their focus on collections management limited their abilities as educational facilities.

Yet as the conflict in Roswell indicates, not everyone involved in museums considered their role as a collections repository incompatible with public education. While the FAP criticized the A&H Society for a lack of interest in hosting studio classes and a preference for permanent displays rather than rotating exhibitions, the Roswell Museum’s local sponsors regularly hosted lectures, talks, and other events, indicating their interest in public education even as they disregarded federal models.

Focusing on the dialogue between museums and public education during the interwar period allowed me to contextualize my work on the Roswell Museum with some of the readings I’d done in the Independent Study. The texts that I focused on the most included Victoria Grieve’s The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, Neil Harris’ Cultural Excursions, and Lauren Kroiz’s Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. Basically, I argued that the role of museums in public education was complicated and that their wholesale dismissal as outdated and unable to meet the educational needs of modern audiences is overly simplistic. In the case of the Roswell Museum, the A&H Society and FAP did collaborate even as they disagreed with each one another, and both shared an interest in public education even if it manifested in different ways or topics. The A&H Society consistently held lectures on history, for instance, so even if it didn’t agree with the FAP’s approach, it didn’t disregard education altogether.

I don’t consider this a finished project per se as I do a preliminary exploration of what I intend to become a major theme in my dissertation: the reception of art center exhibition and educational programs. It’s one thing to read what the FAP had in mind with the art centers, but as Roswell demonstrates, federal programming was interpreted differently among the individual centers, with varying results. Moving forward, the tension between local and national interests is a topic I’d like to continue analyzing, with the final dissertation combining the microhistories of specific regions and places with a more national narrative on the Community Art Center Project itself.

Semester Project #2: Ethnic Modernism

Last month I talked about the historiographic essay I worked on for Modern US. Today, I’ll talk about the essay I’ve been working on for Ethnic Modernism. As I mentioned in a previous post, this has primarily been a literature course, but I’ve been using this paper as an opportunity to take a closer look at exhibition schedule of the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, and more specifically one show called FAP-#560, Two Chinese American Artists. Here’s a condensed version of the introduction:

“In May 1941, a watercolor exhibition organized by the Federal Art Project (FAP) traveled by train from Washington, DC, to the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center in New Mexico. Referred to as FAP #560 in federal paperwork, the watercolor show was one of many traveling exhibitions associated with the Federal Community Art Center Project. For the Roswell Museum, the prospect of receiving and exhibiting a contemporary watercolor show from the FAP had become a regular part of its operations, and if nothing else, the framed paintings would be among the easier group of objects to unpack and hang.

Fay Chong, Mt. Vernon, Washington, 1940s, watercolor on paper.

What made FAP #560 unusual as a traveling exhibition, however, was not the objects constituting its checklist, but its emphasis on the ethnicity of its contributing artists. It featured the work of two watercolorists, Dong Kingman of Oakland, California, and Fay Chong of Seattle, Washington, both of whom worked for the FAP and achieved critical success as watercolorists. Even more strikingly, the exhibition description accompanying the show asserted the positive contributions of immigrants to the American art scene, stating that “The contributions of the emigrant is vast and varied and scarcely to be estimated.” In a political climate often noted for its isolationist, xenophobic policies, the FAP’s decision to both highlight work from Asian Americans and call attention to their ethnicity as such initially seems radical. A closer consideration of this emphasis, however, underscores the ambivalence underpinning the FAP’s navigation of America’s ethnic art scenes.

Dong Kingman, Sketch 11-A, 1930s-1940s, watercolor on paper. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

This paper considers the significance of Two Chinese American Artists in relation to the exhibition practices of the FAP and the perception of Asian American artists in the United States. In comparison to the FAP’s other traveling exhibitions, FAP #560’s emphasis on the Chinese heritage and immigrant affiliations of Kingman and Chong suggest a willingness to acknowledge the positive contributions of ethnic artists to the American art scene. The predominantly American subject matter of the works themselves, moreover, which all feature titles in English rather than Chinese, suggest the successful assimilation of the two artists into the American art scene, with Kingman and Chong both creating place-based work reflecting the tenets of contemporary Regionalist movements. At the same time, however, the FAP’s emphasis on Kingman and Chong’s ethnic background highlights their otherness as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Additionally, the FAP’s description, intentionally or not, elides the regionally distinct California and Seattle art circles in which they worked into a single Asian American art scene, with ethnicity being the defining visual characteristic. While the exhibition’s tone is ultimately celebratory, it presents Kingman and Chong as foreigners first, American regionalists second. “

Exhibition checklist for FAP-#560, Roswell Museum and Art Center Library and Archive.

This has been a fun project to work on for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, it’s been a good opportunity to begin analyzing the content of the exhibition content of the Community Art Center Project, and to start thinking critically about the kinds of works featured in thee shows. It’s also allowed me to begin confronting the kinds of challenges I’ll be dealing with as I start looking at the Community Art Center Project exhibitions. Although I have a checklist for FAP-#560, for instance, I don’t have any images of the works, I don’t know their current whereabouts, and I’m not sure that they still go by the titles listed in the museum paperwork. In other words, works exhibited through the Community Art Center Project will likely be tricky to track down. While I’ll have more time to track down pieces when I’m working on the actual dissertation, in the meantime I’ve been looking up comparable examples for Kingman and Chong in collections online, books, and other places. They may not be the exact pieces on the checklist, but they’re close.

I’ve been thinking about speculative history since attending a lecture by Krista Thompson about artist and activist Tom Lloyd earlier this spring. Toward the end of the lecture, she posed several questions, not about Lloyd’s work as we know it, but rather his unfinished or incomplete projects, and invited the audience to speculate about these pieces with her. She also asked about us to think about the kinds of documents that hadn’t been preserved over the years, and what such an archive would look like if these lost documents were to be recovered. Ultimately it was all speculative, but thinking about invisible archives encouraged us to think beyond conventional archives and consider the kinds of sources that don’t get preserved in them.

I don’t know how this essay will exactly play into my dissertation, but it’s definitely been a good exercise in thinking about framing it. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn more about the work of two artists I had never heard of before now, as well as become acquainted with some of the art scenes in California and Seattle. All in all, I’d consider it a success.

Excursions: Michigan

Last week I talked about a wonderful conference I attended in Michigan. Today I’ll tell you more about my adventures in Michigan itself.

I spent most of my time in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. With its funky restaurants and eclectic shops, it reminded me of a larger version of Burlington, Vermont, a city I frequented during my days at Shelburne Museum. It’s more than twice the size of Burlington with a population of 100,000 though, so there was a lot to see and do.

The campus itself, at least what I saw of it, is also quite lovely, with lots of old building in a variety of architectural styles. You’ve got plenty of neoclassical facades, of course, as at the art museum, but you’ve also got more eclectic Victorian styles such as Richardsonian Romanesque, as is the case with the Archaeology Department at Newberry Hall. Lake Forest College, my alma mater, has an anthropology department housed in a building similar to this one.

And did I mention there are multiple used bookstores?

As fun as Ann Arbor was to explore, however, the real highlight of my trip outside of the conference itself was my excursion to Detroit to see its Institute of Arts. I hadn’t initially planned on going, but when one of my fellow presenters reminded me it was less than an hour away, I knew I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

Golly, am I glad I went; what a collection!

One of the salient points of the collection is its fresco cycle from Diego Rivera. Painted between 1932-1933 and commissioned for the museum by Edsel Ford, the cycle depicts modern manufacturing in Detroit, specifically the famed assembly line at the Ford factories. Rivera was fascinated with modern industry and it really shows in this piece, with the artist carefully weaving complex yet legible compositions from steel, rubber, and other modern materials. Rivera being Rivera, there’s also class commentary and critiques of capitalism going on here, as he reflects on both the positive and negative products of modern manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to poison gas, to workers who become increasingly indistinguishable from the machinery they work.

Given the size of the museum, it has over 65,000 objects, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see everything, but of what I did see, I was impressed. I was really excited to encounter this Charles Sheeler, for instance. While probably best known today for his Precisionist renderings of industrial cityscapes, he also painted several interiors of his historical farmhouse in Bucks County. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others praised his paintings for embodying a modern interpretation of vernacular America. After only encountering these paintings in photographic form, it was really exciting to see one in person. What struck me, aside from the variety of abstract patterns going on in the rugs and the repetition of shapes in furniture and cast shadows, is the sense of warmth from the painting. He does an excellent job of using reflected light and imperfect brushstrokes as rendered in the some of the rugs to both convey the texture of woven fibers and a sense of invitation. This may be a Precisionist-inspired composition, but it is by no means cold or unfeeling.

The contemporary collections are also outstanding, particularly the contemporary African American material, shown in the bottom image. The same fellow presenter who recommended I check out the museum had suggested this gallery to me, and again, I’m glad I went. The pieces in this gallery all conveyed a variety of complex emotions and experiences, from the grief of losing a loved one to resilience in the face of systemic racism and oppression. Anyone interested in American art, especially contemporary materials, should definitely check out this space.

There’s also plenty of material for more visitors with more historical tastes, as is the case with this Gothic family chapel, brought over from France in the years immediately following WWI. Brandon especially enjoyed this picture when I showed it to him, so if we ever go to Detroit together we’ll definitely be spending some time here.

What’s funny is that I could have worked here at one point. In 2017, when I was still at Roswell and beginning to research graduate programs, one of the curators reached out to me to apply for the Prints and Drawings Curator position, then open at the time. She had seen my CV on the Association of Print Scholars website and contacted me. After thinking it over I went ahead and applied, had a phone interview, and got invited out for an on-site session. I turned it down, however, because the Hurd/Wyeth retrospective I was working on at the time was less than a year from opening and I didn’t want to abandon the project.

In retrospect, I’m glad I went through with the graduate school applications. I’ve no doubt that working at the DIA would be immensely rewarding, but I probably would have also shelved my research on art centers indefinitely and not gone back for my PhD. The great thing about museums, however, is that no position is ever occupied forever, so who knows, maybe our paths will cross again. And if not, it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit and I heartily recommend it.

All in all, this was a great trip, and I got a lot out of it both professionally and personally.

Conference in Ann Arbor

I have a habit of ending my academic year somewhat frantically. At the end of my first year at Williams, I turned in all my papers a week early so that I could start a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society. The following year, barely a week after graduating, I moved from New England to Wyoming to commence an internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. This year, I drove 12 hours to Michigan the day after I turned in my last paper to present at a conference.

But what a conference! As harried as I may have felt preparing for it, I’m really glad I went.

The conference in question was “Making History Public(s): Presenting the Collective,” sponsored by the University of Michigan’s History Department. The topic of the conference, as the title suggests, was public history. Many of the papers addressed the practical side of teaching public history, with examples including a paper describing the collaborative process of reinterpreting of a historic farm space on a limited budget, or a paper describing a potential class syllabus on police brutality. Others dealt with more historical instances of public-building, as was the case in a paper describing the infrastructure needed to transport live giraffes to the United States during the 19th century, or a presentation exploring the racial and gender implications of teeth whitening during the 18th century.

Looking into the main galley. The exhibition on view includes plates from the Index of American Design, on loan from the FAP, with antiques from local residents, giving the community a role and presence in exhibition content.

My paper fell into the latter camp, as I was talking about the Roswell Museum’s public building during the WPA era. Essentially I explored federal art centers as venues for both art education and community-building through a case study of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, as it’s the art center I still know best at this point. I argued that from its inception, the Roswell Museum navigated ongoing tensions between the expectations of its local sponsors and federal staff regarding public outreach and engagement, as federal personnel and local supporters often had different expectations for the museum. Despite these disagreements, the museum consistently attempted to address multiple audiences by inviting visitors to contribute objects to exhibitions, offering classes at different locations in town, and acting as a performance space. After providing an overview of these activities, I then shared a few pages from my Scalar book as a means of showing how digital scholarship can begin to render the publics affiliated with these institutions more readily visible.

One building, many publics.

This was a great conference for me for several reasons. From a topical standpoint, this was the first time I participated in a conference in a discipline other than art history or museum studies, so it was a good way to test whether my work really is interdisciplinary enough to engage other academic fields. It had also been about two years since I last presented in this type of academic setting, so it was a good opportunity to refamiliarize myself with that process.

The museum’s role as a meeting and performance space offered some of the most interesting efforts in public-building.

Most importantly, I got some good feedback about my work, received helpful suggestions or recommendations for moving forward, and made some great new contacts. As I mentioned in a previous post, I participated in a lot of conferences when I was working, but the papers usually related to an exhibition I was working on at the time. As soon as the show opened, my research on it usually ceased so that I could move on to the next thing. I’m going to be living with my art center work for a long time though, so conferences will be a good way to present ongoing work and new ideas as I keep digging into the subject. If nothing else, the reception I got at this conference was a good reminder that the work I’m doing is interesting and worthwhile to people other than myself.

C:\Users\s.woodbury\Desktop\Los Pastores 3.jpg
Among the most significant performances to take place at the Roswell Museum during the WPA era was the staging of a Mystery Play, Los Pastores, by Roswell residents, all in Spanish. Here’s a picture from the cast, late 1938.

The conference was good for more than academics, however. Stay tuned next week to learn about my adventures in Michigan itself.

Semester Project #1: Modern US

My last day of classes was on April 26th, and I turned in the last of my projects on May 8th, so I’ve officially wrapped up my first year at William and Mary. Even though I’ve turned everything in, I’d like to tell you what I worked on, beginning with today’s post for Modern US.

In addition to completing all of the class readings, for our final project we had to pick a topic pertaining to Modern US history, read several books addressing it, and write a historiographic essay analyzing the works we read and how they related to one another. Since the objective of this course wasn’t just to read about historical topics, but to analyze how historians construct their arguments, this assignment is an exercise in seeing how history is practiced as an academic discipline. After all, history is never simply a review of facts, but an argument about the past and how it influences us today.

For my essay, I decided to focus on the development of highways and related roads. Since I’m interested in travel infrastructures more broadly, I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some more background information on this subject, as well as learn about some of the key social and economic questions associated with it.

The books that I read approached roads from a variety of angles. Some texts, such as Mark Rose’s Interstate, explore the federal government’s role in developing the federal highway system, one of the largest public works projects ever completed. Other books such as Eric Avila’s Folklore of the Freeway consider the ethnic communities impacted by highway infrastructure, and how they have used artwork and other forms of creative expression to reassert a sense of agency over their community structures. Still other works such as Christopher Wells’ Car Country approach highways from an environmental perspective and examine how interstates have shaped human ecology in the twentieth century. A related work, Paul S. Sutter’s Driven Wild, looks at the idea of roadlessness and its significance in defining the modern wilderness. All of these texts are interested in examining how interstates have shaped American society, but they approach the question from different perspectives, resulting in a rich variety of answers to the same basic inquiry.

One question or topic can go in many directions, it’s a matter of deciding where you’d like to go.

What all of these books taught me is that there is no singular history of the interstate system, and that the interests and concerns of the historians who wrote these texts resulted in significantly different works. I know it sounds obvious, but it was good to read about the same topic from these different vantage points because it underscored for me the different ways I can approach my own research. Regardless of how my final dissertation turns out, it will not be the definitive, final work on community art centers. Rather, the angle I’ll take will simply provide opportunities for other scholars to approach them from different perspectives and further enrich their scholarship.

Compared to the other two essays I’ve been working on, this one is least concerned with my own research, but it’s still been a very valuable project for me. From a purely informational standpoint, it’s been a great opportunity to learn about an infrastructure system I didn’t know very much about. More importantly, perhaps, it’s encouraged me to think about different angles for my own work. While this project may not have addressed my interest in art centers directly, it has been a valuable exercise in exploring research questions from different vantage points.

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.
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

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

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

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.