Small Museum, Big Ambitions
Inspiring Student Inquiry with a Tool of the Pros
Not much gets changed out, shifted around, or, for that matter, visited at many small-college museums and their corresponding archives. Such was the case at Hood College, where a single 144-square-foot room in a lovely house-style museum displays artifacts from the school’s early years. As Hood’s sole full-time public historian, I saw potential in this underutilized campus resource—faculty might engage students in required experiential learning there—so I decided to try to transform the college’s use of the museum and archives. But my approach was unorthodox.
Several years ago, when I was a museum and regional studies center director, a colleague of mine encouraged me to apply for the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) of the American Alliance of Museums. MAP includes several different nationally recognized “assessment protocols” that can help museums plan, raise funds, develop acquisition policies, and improve other core functions. Typical MAP assessments, undertaken by outside professionals, evaluate one or more areas (such as organization, collections stewardship, and community engagement), using guidelines and structured questions for each.
After moving to Hood, I thought that MAP was out of reach for our tiny museum due to our small scope of operations. But assessment protocols could help me develop a prioritized list of individual projects that students could undertake as interns, volunteers, or class members. This would simultaneously improve their career preparedness and further the development of our college museum.
I often bring my students to the museum (where a class of 12 crowds its interior) to ask two questions. First, what about the history of the college does the museum relate well? Second, whose history is not told in that space, and what additional effort would be required to include it? The students excel at answering both questions. The space does a great job of retelling the story of the college’s early years, when elite and upper-middle-class white women received their education there. It does not, however, do as well in reflecting the current diversity of the college’s student body or of those who have worked, lived, and visited the school over the years. Hood College was founded as the Woman’s College of Frederick, Maryland, in 1893, and has been influenced by the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and gender norms of the upper South. (African American students only began studying for degrees in the 1960s.) MAP assessment protocols, I thought, could help me and the college archivist conceive accessible projects for our students, to help them ask key questions of our museum’s role in interpreting the college’s history.
In spring 2017, with support from college library leadership and our archivist, Mary Atwell, I applied for a grant to conduct the assessment. My premise was simple: I would select questions from across the MAP protocols that might help us, the history faculty and the library staff, better understand how students might work in the collections and the museum itself. I focused on three primary areas of inquiry. First, how did the museum come to be, what resources were budgeted for its maintenance, and what was its present state? Next came ascertaining what materials in the collections could be rotated into the museum to refresh and expand the histories told there, especially as they might enhance campus and community engagement. Last, and to the great interest of our archivist, I performed an assessment of the physical infrastructure of the museum, looking at lighting, casework, furnishings, light filtering, and so forth, to determine what upgrades would be needed to store and display the college’s collections. With these questions in hand, I assessed the museum and archive, and noted areas that appeared in need of address or remediation.
Once I collected the data, I compiled a report on the areas I assessed as well as a list of potential projects for students, and submitted both to the college’s Center for Teaching and Learning, to my department, and to Atwell. Atwell provided input, both on the amount of labor the work and its supervision could require, and on the ranking of projects that should be addressed most urgently, according to the needs of the archive and museum.
At the end of the summer, I had a document that articulated projects in the museum and archive that would provide student projects for our history internship program for the next five years. The higher priorities were to address issues with the timeline presented in the museum’s primary exhibit case; to create more-readable text panels; to rehouse and describe 3-D objects held in the archives; and to plan ways to refresh the artifacts, documents, and images on display in the museum to better reflect the diverse history of the college. We alerted other academic programs to the potential for internships and informed them of the prioritized list of projects that might fit their students’ experiential learning requirements.
Two students have worked on projects from that list since then. Others are lining up to do the same. The first two worked directly on collections, doing research and processing documents, photographs, publications, and objects. Their experiences yielded different results: one realized that his primary interest was the management of institutions, not collections, and so has embarked on a dual-degree BA/MBA option. The other embraced her work in collections with such fervor that she expanded to working with the local landmarks commission and plans to pursue a career in museums. We have found that our main constraint is staff time to supervise student work; if we were less constrained, more students would readily enroll for an internship or volunteer to work on the history of their college. As the college enjoyed its 125th anniversary this past year, many of us reflected on what we thought was a timely investment in the interpretation of the college’s history by the college’s primary constituents, its students. Choosing a standard museum assessment tool and bending it to the needs of our very small museum was well worth the results obtained.
Jay T. Harrison is associate professor of Latin American and public history at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where he serves as chair of the department of history and coordinator of the college’s public history program.
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