Archive for May, 2015

Exploring Museums at the Crossroads

Mid-career professionals don’t often have the luxury of retreating from day-to-day demands and reflecting on the larger meaning of their work. Yet, that’s exactly what I was able to do earlier this month. The Indiana University School of Global and International Studies and the Mathers Museum of World Cultures teamed up to host “Museums at the Crossroads: Local Knowledge, Global Encounters,” an eight-day summer institute held May 14-21, 2015. And I had the privilege of being one of the selected participants.

Casts of Heads

A glimpse into the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

The idea behind Museums at the Crossroads was to gather museum professionals from around the world to explore the various intersections museums currently occupy. Most of the delegates were from the United States, although we also had participants from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. The disciplinary expertise of the group focused on anthropology, folklore, and history, reflecting the emphasis of the Mathers Museum, where the institute took place.

The symposium centered around three professional “crossroads” for museums, described as follows:

  • Cultural Crossroads: the challenge of understanding interconnected, global cultures that are no longer easily categorized, as they were in the era in which many of the world’s most prominent museums came into being, along a traditional normative scale ranging from “civilized” to “primitive”
  • Disciplinary Crossroads: the challenge of adapting institutions steeped in disciplinary tradition (as sites for the practice of history, anthropology, natural history, etc.) to the new work of scholarly disciplines increasingly inclined to draw upon one another’s methods and sources in their shared pursuit of understanding of the human condition
  • Artifactual Crossroads: the challenge of adapting to the blurred lines that now separate traditionally defined categories of “virtual” and “real” in our encounters with the material world
Group gathered around a museum display of a historic plow

Museums at the Crossroads participants grapple with innovative ways to understand the tools of the pioneer era.

The various crossroads provided a great framework for our explorations, though in reality our process was more free-wheeling than the above description implies. We heard keynotes from some amazing thinkers—Steven Lubar, Michael Brown, Stephan Fuchs, and Haidy Geismar. We visited numerous local museums. We spent two days exploring the collections of the Mathers Museum and brainstorming about how we might use the crossroads to inspire new ways of interpreting the objects. And we engaged in hundreds of conversations large and small—over dinners, over coffee, on walks through this sleepy college town—about how we might use these ideas in our own work, so that in the aggregate we might have some small influence on the museum gumbo that is emerging in our global, digital age.

From the beginning, the institute’s organizers (the incomparable Jason Baird Jackson, Eric Sandweiss, and Sarah Hatcher) were clear that there would be no formal objective to our wanderings, no deliverable to be hammered out. Instead, they envisioned something more organic: seeds planted, relationships formed. I believe they more than realized that vision.

The Value of Conferences

Early spring is conference season in my field, and even though it can make for an intense few weeks, I usually attend two or three conferences during the months of March, April, and May. I’m a big believer in the value of conferences. I consistently return from these gatherings inspired by new ideas and having developed new skills. In addition, I find these events rewarding on an interpersonal level; they allow me an opportunity to catch up with professional colleagues and meet new people working in content areas similar to mine. I’ve developed a wide network over decades of conference-going, and these folks provide crucial input for me as I brainstorm ideas for new projects, seek informational resources on difficult questions, or weigh in on the challenging public history issues of the moment.


A sign from historic Printer’s Alley in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

My first conference of 2015 took place in mid-April when I attended the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (twitter hashtag: #NCPH2015) in Nashville, Tennessee. Happily, a number of NCPH sessions intersected with my own current projects, and I was particularly energized by sessions exploring ways to increase the representation of women at historic sites and advocating for public historians to embrace the role of “History Communicators” who engage the public with a historical perspective on contemporary issues.

The week after NCPH, I was again on the conference trail, this time heading to Kokomo, Indiana, for the Indiana Preserving Historic Places Conference (Twitter hashtag: #INPHP2015). I am an semi-regular attendee of this gathering of Indiana historic preservation professionals, usually making it to the conference every two or three years. Much of this year’s conference revolved around the theme of preserving industrial heritage, and Kokomo–with its history as a site of glass manufacturing and its ongoing role in automobile production–provided an excellent backdrop to the exploration of these issues.

Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory, Kokomo, Indiana. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory, Kokomo, Indiana. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Industrial sites present unique challenges to preservationists. Their physical scale is far greater than many other historic sites and can make re-use a challenge. The presence of heavy machinery and other potentially dangerous features increases liability issues, and often the brownfields left behind require particular government-mandated procedures during preservation efforts. Nevertheless, one cannot adequately understand the history of the United States without considering the role of manufacture in the country’s economic development. In my own experience, I have had some of my most powerful experiences as a historian while touring such monuments to this heritage as Lowell National Historic Site in Massachusetts and the Sloss Iron Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Kokomo trip brought an end to my spring-time traveling for conferences, but the exposure to new ideas and the networking continues. A virtual conference on PhD’s working outside of the academy, Beyond the Professoriate 2015 (Twitter hashtag: #BeyondProf), took place online May 2 and 9. Such discussions, which often fall under the umbrella term “Alt-Ac” (Twitter hashtag: #altac), tend to focus on the initial transition of graduate students from their academic training into the wider world. Despite being well along in my own career, I attended this conference as a means of learning about other people’s experiences. For the 2014-2015 academic year, I have been working with graduate students at Indiana University, helping them prepare for a broad job search that is not confined to academic positions. The Beyond the Professoriate conference provided a nice block of time to gather my thoughts about the alt-ac process, while taking part in a larger conversation about the topic.

All told, I covered a broad range of professional interests during my spring 2015 conference season. I predict I’ll be implementing ideas spurred by these travels for months to come.


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