Working in museum collections is a fun and challenging job. Every day I get to work with objects that have witnessed countless lives, events and stories. I strive to continuously expand my knowledge and expertise so that I can do my job better. One way that I do this is by attending professional conferences.
I recently attended the 2015 Smithsonian Affiliations National Conference in Washington, DC. What is the Smithsonian Affiliation? I had the same question before I attended the conference! The Smithsonian Affiliation is a national outreach program sponsored by—you guessed it—the Smithsonian. The affiliation helps its members, like the Ohio History Connection, to connect with one another to develop or participate in collaborative programs, exhibits and other projects. There are currently 200 Smithsonian Affiliates from across the United States, Puerto Rico and Panama.
The conference brings together staff from affiliate institutions to learn more about affiliation membership, successful projects and plans for the future. The three-day conference kicked off with individual meetings between attendees and Smithsonian staff. I had the pleasure of meeting first with Margaret Vining and Bart Hacker, curators in the Division of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History. Margaret and Bart met with me to talk about the upcoming 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I. We shared information about our institutions’ plans for the anniversary and talked about ways that we could contribute to each other’s projects. I was particularly interested in Margaret and Bart’s research and writing on women in uniform. Not women in military uniform, but women who donned uniforms for their civilian service during the First World War. Margaret and Bart hope to mount an online exhibit about the uniforms and the unique women who wore them. I am eager to comb the Ohio History Connection collections to see if we have any of these great uniforms!
Bridget Callahan, coordinator of the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, met with me in the afternoon. The Luce Center is what we in the museum world call visible storage. Objects are displayed on shelves with no interpretive labels, as if visitors had accidentally walked into collections storage. The idea behind the Luce Center is to provide visitors with access to the objects in the collection. What Bridget and her staff do so well is design programming that helps visitors to engage with the objects in the space. Visitors can follow the clues to complete a scavenger hunt, take one of several themed tours, create their own works of art during a sketching program and even interact with local artists working in the center. Her praise for visible storage and the countless educational programs that it has generated has gotten me really excited for our object-dense displays that will open at the Ohio History Center this fall.
Days two and three brought me under the National Mall to the conference rooms at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Seriously, I was UNDER the National Mall! Devon Akmon at the Arab American National Museum gave a fabulous talk on a military exhibit at his museum in a session on engaging difficult subjects in museums. The exhibit was preceded by four years of conversations between staff, stakeholders and audience members to decide how to portray Arab American experiences in the military, a very sensitive and controversial subject. Several other sessions detailed partnerships between affiliates on great science and history programs. Don Young and Dean MacLeod, of the Center for Asian American Media and the Greensboro Historical Museum, respectively, described a very rewarding project in which local students created documentaries and oral histories through the Young Historians, Living Histories program. I also loved the Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos program through which local students could use telescopes to explore space. This session led to a particularly engaging conversation about creating opportunities for affiliates to mentor one another as we often face similar challenges.
A highlight for me was the exhibit tour led by Rhea Combs, PhD, museum curator at the new National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC. Dr. Combs gave a tour of her museum’s exhibit at the National Museum of American History, “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” and shared information about the new museum’s organization and content. Her stories about the objects on display and the families who donated them were truly touching. I can’t wait to see the museum when it opens in 2016!
The conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet other museum professionals and learn about their institutions. I returned to Columbus full of ideas for how the affiliations can enhance our collections work and as excited as ever about the strange career I have working in museums.