Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Lucy R. Wickstrom (page 1 of 4)

Looking for a *Revolutionary* Summer Job in Boston?

As I approach my graduation from the History and Museum Studies program here at Tufts, I’m reflecting on the past two years — on all I have learned and experienced, the ways I’ve grown, the incredible people I’ve met, the powerful museums I’ve visited. I’m also reflecting on my time as an editor on this blog, which, all too quickly, is also coming to an end.

Astute readers may remember that my first post as History editor, way back in June 2021, was about one of my favorite museum experiences in Boston: an afternoon at the Old State House. Most commonly known as the building that loomed over a group of British soldiers and American colonists on March 5th, 1770 during the infamous Boston Massacre, it’s an impactful place even just to see in person.

The Old State House — one of my favorite places in Boston.

One can imagine, then, what a thrill it is to be at this museum every day, surrounded by its rich history and immersed in its vision for the future, characterized by true equality and the fulfillment of the American Revolution’s promises for, at last, all people.

For the past several weeks, that has been my experience — I’m working as a supervisor on the retail team at Revolutionary Spaces — and it could be yours, too. I feel as though I have come full circle, from writing about this museum I love to working in it. And the good news is that they are still looking for many more people to join the team! In preparation for their always-busy summer season, Revolutionary Spaces is currently hiring people in numerous departments.

The beautifully reverent Old South Meeting House, where famous congregants included Phillis Wheatley, Ben Franklin, and Sam Adams — and where the latter gave the signal for the Sons of Liberty to storm the harbor and commence the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

An organization that formed in early 2020 when the Bostonian Society and the Old South Association merged, Revolutionary Spaces seeks to bring “people together to explore the American struggle to create and sustain a free society” by stewarding both the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House. As the seat of colonial British governance and a chosen gathering place of American revolutionaries, respectively, these two historic buildings exist in perpetual conversation with one another. Visitors gain admission to both sites when they buy tickets, allowing them to explore reverent, engaging exhibits and talk with passionate, knowledgable staff. Through interpretation of the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House, Revolutionary Spaces provides a truly unique Bostonian and American experience.

If you are interested in becoming a part of this special organization, consider applying to one of the many positions they have open this summer! Check out these links to learn more about how to apply for the positions of Retail SupervisorRetail Staff, Development Manager, and Development of Marketing & Communications. On the historic interpretation side, the visitor experience staff is also hiring!

Not a bad view on the walk to work, in my opinion.

I have only been working at Revolutionary Spaces for a few weeks, but I already feel so welcome and inspired by the special community they have created. If you like the idea of spending every day immersed in the world of the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House, I highly recommend applying to Revolutionary Spaces.

The JFK Library: A Man and His Children

It’s an image etched into our national consciousness as Americans, perhaps from before we even know its context: that of a toddler John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s casket. It was November 25th, 1963, making it the little boy’s third birthday, and while standing beside his grieving mother and sister he raised his right hand and made the gesture that has since become an inseparable part of American collective memory.

John Jr.’s famous salute at his father’s funeral. It was his third birthday.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve been simultaneously entranced and haunted by the moment since childhood. My mom has loved studying Kennedy history since she was a teenager, so I don’t remember a time when I was not acutely aware of such images of their famous political family — the joyous and the triumphant, the solemn and the heartbreaking. Yet John Jr.’s innocent, imitative expression of respect at his father’s funeral has always been, by far, the most powerful to me.

At the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, the untimely loss of the thirty-fifth president of the United States is not dwelled upon: one hallway, set apart from all other galleries with its stark black walls, features a handful of monitors that play news footage of the funeral, and that is the extent of it. After all, this is the part of the story everyone already knows with painful intimacy.

“The sea he loved”: a beautiful day, right outside the JFK Library. Taken 5 March 2022.

Instead, the museum makes its mission to “engage with citizens of all ages and nationalities through JFK’s life story and the ideals he championed,” and it certainly accomplishes this. I visited with my sister last weekend, and we were deeply struck by the careful detail in which the library leads visitors through Kennedy’s campaign, his actions as president, and his continuing legacy to our present day. His wife Jacqueline is recognized for her work as First Lady and her efforts in historical preservation; his brother Bobby’s role as Attorney General and his sister Eunice’s advocacy for intellectually disabled individuals are highlighted; and a whole cast of international leaders like Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union, Félix and Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, and Charles de Gaulle of France (to name just a few!) illustrate the complex political climate of the early 1960s. The library’s location, overlooking “the sea that he loved and the city that launched him into greatness,” helps to complete the picture of JFK and his world.

A magazine article revealing Caroline’s nickname for her little brother — “the kissing baby.” On display at “First Children.”

And then, of course, there are his children. When the Kennedys moved into the White House, they brought with them the first youngsters to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Caroline, just 3, and John Jr., two months old, became instant icons of pop culture, absolutely captivating the American public with their every step, babble, and baby tooth. 

Finger-painting by John Jr., 1963. On display at “First Children.”

There is a gallery dedicated to JFK as a family man in the library’s permanent collection, but in August of last year, a temporary exhibit examining Caroline and John Jr.’s celebrity status opened in the special exhibition gallery. Titled “First Children: Caroline and John Jr. in the Kennedy White House,” it was, perhaps, my favorite part of the experience this visit.

JFK often invited the children to play in the presence of photographers when their mother wasn’t there to express her disapproval — hence the existence of such iconic photos as this one, of John Jr. playing under the Oval Office desk.

Revealing their mother’s determination to shield her children from the international spotlight — while, at the same time, her husband was well aware of the humanizing effect his toddlers had on public image and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of it — “First Children” weaves a story of the innocence of childhood even in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. A highlight for me was the recreation behind glass of Caroline’s White House bedroom, filled with gifts from international leaders, and the display of her dolls (of which she received about 75 from foreign dignitaries across the globe). Close by, the exhibit cycled through a slideshow of photos depicting the room as it appeared at the time, complete with one of John Jr. grinning by his sister’s couch, where countless dolls are set up lovingly. 

Caroline’s Christmas List, December 1962. On display at “First Children.”

Pieces of artwork by both children and a letter to Santa from the last Christmas they spent with their father (wherein Caroline requests a “real pet reindeer” for herself and “interesting planes…or something he can push and pull” for her little brother) were other particularly special moments. These children lived lives that were anything but ordinary, in any sense of the word — yet they were still just children. It was a striking experience: these youngsters who we all feel we know so well, because American culture is so saturated with their likenesses, becoming so real.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. and cousin Patrick at the dedication of the JFK Library in Boston, October 1979.

When the John F. Kennedy Library opened in 1979, the children — by this time 21 and 18 — were, of course, present at the dedication. John Jr., in fact, read a poem by Stephen Spender in honor of his father. “I think continually of those who were truly great,” it opens, ending with the lines “Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun / And left the vivid air signed with their honour.”

Interestingly, in a moment that has since become famous, an adult John Kennedy Jr. told a friend that everyone expected him to become a great man, as his father had been. “I think,” he said, “it would be a much more interesting challenge to see if I could make myself into a good man.”

Memorial outside JFK Jr.’s apartment, 1999.

Taking my cues from the JFK Library, I won’t dwell on the unfair and untimely losses of either John Jr. or his father. But I believe this image — of a memorial outside the younger Kennedy’s apartment in 1999, including a sculpture of that famous moment — is too powerful not to include. It bridges two tragedies, two eras, two men, a little boy and his father — whether good or great. That’s up to history, and our collective memory. That’s up to museums.

The JFK Library is currently open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 AM to 2 PM; click here to reserve tickets online. “First Children: Caroline and John Jr. in the Kennedy White House” is on view through January 2023; learn about the special exhibit here.

Weekly Job Roundup

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s roundup of exciting opportunities in museums!

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Teaching About Mental Illness at the Museum

“It disgusted me even to move,” wrote an artist to his younger brother, “and nothing would have been so agreeable to me as never wake up again.” The year was 1889; the place, the Saint-Paul Asylum in Paris; the artist, Vincent van Gogh.

We’re accustomed to seeing Van Gogh’s breathtaking work in the museums we visit. Maybe, like me, you’ve marveled over a number of his paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles, far from his home in the Netherlands; or you’ve reflected on his self-portrait right here in Massachusetts at the Harvard Art Museums; or perhaps you’ve even gotten to step right into the artist’s world by experiencing the immersive Van Gogh Exhibition.

We know well how to appreciate his work. But have you ever seen a museum deal candidly and compassionately with his mental illness?

Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 1889. Vincent Van Gogh.

As someone who cares deeply about mental health advocacy, I often wonder how — as an emerging museum professional — I can do my part to educate our world on the realities of mental illness. Many people still carry harmful misconceptions about mental health, even as they appreciate the work of artists and public figures whose lives were marked by such unseen sicknesses. Although there are countless historical figures whose writings, work, and actions make clear that they would now be diagnosed with some type of mental illness, the museums dedicated to these people rarely ever acknowledge the profound difficulty that they faced in life as a result of this. As museums, bound in our responsibility to educate and enlighten the public, shouldn’t shedding a light on mental illness be part of our job?

As it turns out, some museums across the globe are doing just that. Holland’s Van Gogh Museum, in fact, dedicated an entire 2018-19 exhibition to its subject’s mental illness. Van Gogh Dreams plunged visitors into an immersive journey through Vincent’s dark time spent in Arles, France in the late 1880s, where he ultimately suffered a terrifying breakdown. In order to help visitors understand what the artist was going through, the museum recreated his experience with the help of “a dark room with flashing red lights and shattered mirrors.” By creating such a visceral experience, the Van Gogh Museum invited visitors right into the tortured mind of Vincent Van Gogh in some of his most difficult moments — and there is perhaps no better way to foster empathy.

Patient artwork at the Glore Psychiatric Hospital Museum. Via Flickr.

Several former psychiatric hospitals function as museums today, shedding light on mental health history, telling the stories of the residents by displaying their artwork, chronicling the mistreatment they faced with surgical tools and equipment, and challenging visitors to overcome their own internal stigmas surrounding mental illness. (A few such museums are the Glore Psychiatric Museum in Missouri, the Oregon State Hospital Museum, and California’s Patton State Hospital Museum.)

In 2017, the Museum of Science in Boston did groundbreaking work by becoming likely the first major American museum to address mental health from a scientific standpoint —  but the goal, MOS staff explained at the time, was not to flood visitors with statistics and information, but instead to make people who live with mental illness feel welcome and heard, and to inspire empathy in all others. This should be the aim of every museum tackling topics of mental health — which, I believe, should be most every museum.

Then there is the question of visiting museums while mentally ill. Museums are institutions for all, places where people can come and be refreshed and rejuvenated — places where we should all feel that we belong. Yet issues of accessibility mean that, for so many, museums don’t feel like an option. The article “The Unseen Museum Visitors: Persons With Mental Illness” encourages museums to reach out to local mental health professionals, collaborate and share resources with one another, and simply embrace the idea of truly creating a community for all people. By committing to greater accessibility, education, and compassion, museums can be part of the solution to the discrimination that people with mental illness experience all too often.

About 1 in 4 American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. This means that, should museums decide not to tell the stories of or create welcoming environments for human beings with mental health struggles, nearly 58 million people in this country alone will be neglected. There is great power in the museum to foster welcoming for those who have felt unwelcome all their lives, and to teach empathy to all others.

Van Gogh Dreams at the Van Gogh Museum, which experientially recreated the artist’s 1889 breakdown.

Imagine how many people would feel represented if every museum that displays a Van Gogh recognized his mental illness with grace, compassion, and knowledge. He, and so many others, deserve to have their truth told.

Weekly Job Roundup

Welcome to this week’s roundup of exciting opportunities!

Northeast

Mid-Atlantic

Southeast

Midwest

Southwest

West

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