Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: The Wider World (page 1 of 3)

Self-Care for Museum Students

March is going to be a very, very busy month for me. So busy that I’m writing and pre-scheduling this post in January so that I don’t have to think about it. Since January is also kind of busy, this is post going to be lighter on analysis than most, but it’s also going to be on-topic. How do we take care of ourselves as museum professionals and grad students?

- I have learned from other grad students that it’s important to stock up on frozen meals for a few weeks before final papers and projects are due each semester. I often feel guilty about it at the time, thinking that I’m setting myself up to be unhealthy by not buying fresh foods, but during the couple of weeks that are really crunch time, it helps a lot to have well-rounded meals on hand. Remember you can always eat a salad and save the TV dinner for another time if the mood strikes, but you can’t save a salad for after the semester if you’ve already bought the ingredients.

- Don’t forget to take at least one session off every time you go to a conference (I learned this one the hard way). If you are at a hotel, chill in your room or go to the hotel pool or gym. If you’re commuting to the conference, take a walk or go to a nearby cafe. The amount that you’ll feel rejuvenated will be well worth the “missed” time.

- Speaking of taking time off, it’s important to take time for yourself when juggling school, work, and homework, too! Almost everyone will tell you this. I still struggle with feeling guilty for taking time for myself, some of the time, but I know that it works. I watch TV, swim, knit, or spend time with friends. Find the activities that help you take your mind off your to-do list and the things that you get excited about, and prioritize not losing touch with those things.
- Last but not least, go to museums for fun! It can be hard to turn work-brain off, and of course it’s valuable to analyze the exhibits that you see in other museums, but I think that having positive, non-work-related experiences in museums can be really restorative and energizing for museum professionals. After all, these are the places we’re passionate about.
Update from actual March: I am, as predicted, quite busy right now, and I have been for over a month and don’t see myself getting less busy for a while. In the interest of taking some things off of my plate, I’m going to stop posting The Wider World posts for a few months. The rest of the blog will update as normal!

Does the Status Quo Myth Hold Us Back? Part 1 of 2

Recent events, including Ferguson, the killing of Eric Garner, and the Black Lives Matter movement, have reminded many museums and museum professionals that we are situated in communities, and we need to figure out how to respond when our community is in crisis. For some, it’s not a reminder but a wake-up call. if you haven’t yet read the “Museums Respond to Ferguson” joint statement a number of voices in the field circulated a few weeks ago, I highly recommend it.

There are excellent resources out there for museums that want to embrace being a safe space to explore community issues of the past or the present.*  Many of them offer advice on working with museum leadership, boards, or stakeholders who are reluctant for the museum to do anything that could be perceived as political. Museum success stories demonstrate how many institutions find that addressing difficult issues can help meet their larger goals. But despite all this, many museum seem to have a hard time taking the plunge into meaningful, meaty engagement with community problems. Museums and their staff may be afraid to address community issues because they are afraid of mission creep, they worry that their funders will withdraw support, or they don’t know how. I want to suggest one more reason museums and their staff hesitate, one that I have seen in other conversations about political engagement but don’t hear discussed in museum circles often enough.
We believe that the status quo is apolitical. Getting involved in community issues, even as a forum for multi-sided discussion, is considered a political statement, while inaction or adhering to the status quo is not considered a political statement.

People have a natural tendency to believe that the way things currently are, the status quo, is the natural way for things to be. We also have a tendency to believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and believe that the status quo implies that something is not broken. For a somewhat technical explanation, look at Wikipedia’s section on “Irrational Routes to the Status Quo Bias” within the Status Quo article and the economics and psychology articles cited there. This translates to believing that the way things are is not political. We see certain things in society as a baseline which exists because of human nature and not because people made choices that led to these things. **

Because museums and museum professionals fall into the trap of believing that the status quo is apolitical, it’s easy to avoid engaging with community issues. It appears to be the safe route. As Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied points out in the second chapter of Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy, many museum professionals incorrectly think that we can’t advocate on political issues because of our museum’s nonprofit status. Within the museum workplace, the myth of the apolitical status quo can prevent even hypothetical conversations about exhibitions or programming around tough issues. Young professionals especially are taught that at work, you should avoid any topics you wouldn’t talk about at an extended family dinner, like religion, your love life, or politics. It’s solid advice, but it’s possible some of our caution is misplaced. We shouldn’t be afraid to “talk politics” if we can leave our party affiliations at home. Community issues happen around our museums whether we engage with them or not.


In Part 2 of this post, I’ll explore what museums and museum professionals may be able to do about this problem. For now, I’ll leave you with the first and probably only time I will illustrate a post on this blog with a GIF.




* To name a few:

** Since I teach field trips about Boston in the American Revolution, I’ll use it as an example. Opponents of the American Revolution accused Patriots of stirring up trouble and being disloyal to English government. They argued that English subjects inherently owed a duty of respect to the King and Parliament. Patriots, on the other hand, argued that deference to the British government was not part of the natural order. Thomas Paine wrote, “There is another and great distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS.” Yet many loyalists would not have described themselves as taking a political stance. They felt they were just being good subjects.

Visitor Studies in the Wild?

Raise your hand if you expect to be asked, “So, what do you do?” or “What are you studying?” more than once in the next couple of weeks. This is the season for parties with people you don’t know very well, friends of friends and friends of family. Personally, I’m still figuring out how to answer these questions in a way that satisfies both me and the asker. I’ve run into a fair number of people who think that the only jobs in museums are curator and tour guide, and don’t understand that I’m not currently either of those. However, a lot of my friends and some recent acquaintances also like to ask me my professional opinion on this or that museum they have visited – and while it’s fun to be asked, it’s hard for me to find an answer between launching into a full exhibit review and just saying “oh, it was cool.”

"He's an expert at the art of small talking." [In very small letters:] "Very nice weather we have today."

I want to share with you a new approach I’ve been trying out. As soon as I can, I turn the conversation to be about the other person’s experiences. I know, recommending that makes me sound like a networking coach, but there is a reason beyond the truism that people like to talk about themselves. I like to ask, “What do you think of that museum?” If they hesitate, I explain that I am really interested to know, because museum exhibits aren’t made for museum professionals,* they are made for everyone else, so it’s their opinion that matters. Sometimes this question is far too broad, so I ask, “What was your favorite part?” or “Was there anything in particular that stuck with you?” Recently I had friends tell me that they love the way the Museum of the American Indian is divided into small sections, each telling a story that’s fully independent of the others. I was surprised because the element my friends liked was the center of many critiques of that museum. I wouldn’t use one conversation as a formal exhibit evaluation strategy, but it gave me new information to think about.


Another question I’m learning to use is “What’s your favorite museum?” or “What’s the most memorable museum you’ve been to?” This can also be a fun icebreaker when you are suddenly making small talk with a small group of people. But beware, the last time I did this, I learned a lot more about an – um, anatomically-focused – museum in Iceland than I ever thought I would know. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to ask someone who says they don’t like museums what they don’t like about them. I want to ask, “Are there any exceptions? What’s different about them?” I also want to ask, “What do you think of when you think of museums?” The problem, of course, is that I have usually already blown my cover, and the other person knows they are talking to a museum-lover.


Have you tried this type of question in a social setting? What have you learned?


*Don’t tell that one very old-fashioned and inward-focused staff or board member at your organization that I said that. There’s one in every family (or museum).

Darkness Illuminates — Guest Post by Tufts Undergraduate Jenny Allison

A little over a month ago, I posted some of my own reactions to participating in the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.

Accuracy vs. Authenticity in Slave Quarters — Reflections and A Call To Action

Now, as the year draws to a close, The Slave Dwelling Project has posted a great 2014 wrap-up including descriptions of the many sites that Joe McGill, the project’s founder and leader, visited.

Below is a response to the Royall House and Slave Quarters overnight by Jenny Allison, a Tufts undergraduate who also participated.


“Okay, everybody ready? Turn your lights off.”


The darkness is absolute. Everyone in the room falls silent; our breaths are raggedy from the cold scratching at our throats. The only illumination is a hazy purple-ish color, seeping in from the neighbor’s porch lights.


“The family who lived here wouldn’t have even had this amount of light,” Gracelaw, one of my companions, mentions. “They had no neighbors. It was just their family for 500 square acres.”


If anyone would know, Gracelaw would. She serves on the volunteer board of the Royall House, a preserved colonial estate and corresponding slave quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. The estate is a working museum; local area residents can visit and learn about the Royall family, who inhabited the mansion over multiple generations.


But at night, the rooms are cold and dark. No electric lights cast illumination over the sparse wooden furniture. In the small kitchen, our flashlights gleam eerily over rows of identical engraved silver plates. In the pale reflected light, I stare at the boxy wooden table and wonder who might have sat there on other cold nights, staring at a candle or speaking in hushed tones.


“The slaves were here every night long after their masters had retired to bed,” Gracelaw continues. “They were always the last to go to bed and the first to rise.” She gestures to a meager pile of what looks like scratchy cotton pillows, lumped haphazardly in one corner. “One or two might have even slept in here.”


My breath steams in the light of my headlamp, and I wonder how people were able to sleep when it was so chilly every night. After all, I am here, at least in part, to commemorate their experience: I am here to honor the hundreds of slaves who slept every night in these very spaces. And I do mean hundreds—the Royall family documented roughly 500 slaves in their possession over the course of a few decades.


In the slave quarters themselves, there is electric light and heat; our actual sleeping experience is quite comfortable. Lying in the darkness, surrounded by the quiet breathing of a handful of other Tufts students and our adult companions, I do not feel distressed. Though the history below my sleeping bag is sobering, it is difficult to feel agitated when so many people surround me. Being able to share a heavy experience with even one companion lightens its burden. Part of this makes me hopeful—hopeful that slaves were able to find true comfort in their enslaved companions, their families, their children. There is power in sharing, especially when it comes to pain, and that power should not be overlooked.


As I stare up into the blackness, trying to make out the ceiling, I marvel at how significant my experience would be to someone descended from slaves. For as captivating, and as meaningful, as this space is to me, it is more personally meaningful to somebody else.


My thoughts on this matter naturally shift to musings about the importance—perhaps even the cultural necessity—of historical space. Knowing a history, a personal story, is one step, but being in a place where such a thing really happened feels different entirely. The cold and the darkness make the experience more real than objects in glass cases ever could.


My fingertips are cold. I wonder how slaves slept to keep warm—curled up in a little ball?


And what about people who do not have such spaces? What of Native Americans who cannot return to well-preserved dwellings and connect to their ancestors that way? How can they preserve their history in an equally compelling and meaningful way? I do not know.


The questions swirl in my brain—and I know deep down that we may never find their answers. But we do know how to ensure that we keep asking these questions—we do it by doing what we are doing, by doing what Joe McGill is doing. We bring attention to these spaces, and we interact with them, and we revive them and fill them with our energy, creating a sort of bond arcing back through the centuries to touch the people who were enslaved here so many years ago.


And as I lie there, curled in a little ball, my eyes sinking shut, I do truly feel as if I have gained insight tonight. Because even though I will never be able to know what it really felt like to go to bed each night a slave, I can begin somewhere.


We have begun here.

Jenny Allison

Tufts University 2017

Accuracy vs. Authenticity in Slave Quarters — Reflections and A Call To Action

On Friday, October 10, I had the unusual privilege of spending the night in the slave quarters of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA as a part of The Slave Dwelling Project, organized by Joseph McGill. This project is intended in part to raise awareness about slave quarters that still exist, and it got me thinking about what it means to have a former slave quarters as part of a historic house museum, what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a difficult subject to write about, because the past is full of powerful emotions and the future is full of hard work, but I do have some thoughts I want to share.


There is very little information about the slave quarters on the Royall estate. There is no surviving inventory and few or no description, so much of what is known has been determined through an extensive archaeology project and the evidence in the physical structure of the building. However, the building had been modernized by previous owners, which is probably the reason it is still standing, but also meant a loss of information and historical accuracy. The first floor was probably once three rooms and a kitchen, used by enslaved workers for their daily duties but not for sleeping. Now, it’s all one room except for the kitchen, and it’s used by the Royall House Association for talks, events, and other large gatherings of people. Often these events help visitors go deeper with the history of the site.The second floor of the slave quarters is a private residence. The first time I visited the museum, my friend who I had gone with told me afterwards that she was very disappointed, because she expected the slave quarters to be the big finish of the tour. On this visit, I learned that the space is used as the residence for a caretaker of the site.


The Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters has come a very long way in telling the story of all of the inhabitants from the period they are interpreting, but there’s still a lot that visitors are missing. The overnight I spent there helped me understanding just how huge the gaps in the story are. On a typical tour, visitors are guided through the colonial mansion on the property and told the story of the intertwined lives of the Royall family and the people they held as their slaves, and that’s an important story to tell, but it’s one that a historic site can tell whether or not the site includes still-standing slave quarters.


The colonial mansion is a different story; every room is filled with period furnishings, some owned by the Royalls. The contrast between the slave quarters and the mansion illustrates a familiar problem in museum work, which is that the belongings of wealthy and privileged people have been preserved over time, and the belongings of the poor and enslaved were used until they fell apart or were discarded. There simply isn’t the same stuff available. Yet, a few years ago, the Royall House Association transformed two rooms in the mansion from a colonial revival treatment they had used for decades into historically accurate spaces. Using an inventory of the house written as part of the executing of the first owner’s will, the Association started bRH_winter_kitchen_loan_exhibitiony taking erroneous items out of the chamber above the kitchen, and talking to visitors in an empty room. Once they secured the funding, they added the objects that would have actually been there (mostly replicas). Through an incredible amount of work and dedication, the house is now quite accurate to the inventory.



Accuracy takes on a different meaning when you are sleeping in the place that was once the site of someone’s captivity. The whole Slave Dwelling Project takes a lot of imagination. Each participant works to imagine ourselves in the past, even though we cannot recreate the enslaved Africans’ experience. So in the spirit of the project, imagine with me: what if recreating the slave quarters to look and feel as it did in the mid-eighteenth century were a priority? A lot would be conjecture, of course. The project leaders might find it difficult to spend time and money installing an exhibit when they knew how much research there was still to be done, but there will always be more research to do. Historic house museums have always relied at least a little bit on conjecture. A few generations ago, many historic house museums were downright fanciful, with highly romanticized visions of the past influencing every element. It would be a shame to let trends toward accuracy hold the museum field back from achieving more authenticity. After all, the purpose of making historic houses accurate is to make them represent the past authentically, isn’t it? Every museum finds a balance between presenting only what they can confirm and presenting their best guesses about the past in order to fill in the gaps in the documented story.
Museums need to take the initiative to tell the stories of enslaved workers more concretely. I don’t fault the Royall House for the fact that the “slave quarters” I slept in for one night was a well-insulated room with a hardwood floor. They have already done amazing work transforming their interpretation into something more honest than it had been. Now, other museums should emulate them but take it a step further. Of course, this work is time-consuming and expensive, so maybe I should be calling on funders and foundations to get on board.  Who is up to the challenge?


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