AHA Member Spotlight: Katie Knowles
Katie Knowles is an independent scholar and museum practitioner. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been a member since 2013.
Alma maters: BA, University of Montana, 2005; MA, Rice University, 2008; PhD, Rice University, 2014
Fields of interest: material culture studies, US women and gender, US slavery, fashion studies
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I went to graduate school with the career goal of working in museums, which was strange back in the mid-2000s when most history departments were still focused on their graduates working as tenured professors. I am grateful that the department at Rice University welcomed my interests in material culture studies and a museum career. I knew I needed to get practical museum experience while developing my historical research skills, so I worked as an intern, fellow, or employee in various museums and collections while completing my graduate degrees. These experiences were foundational to producing an interdisciplinary dissertation grounded in historical study that examined enslaved peoples’ clothing using all kinds of sources from extant clothing to archival records to paintings. Through working in museums I learned how to examine these different types of sources as historical evidence, and how to make my research relevant and accessible not only to the public, but also to scholars from different disciplines.
After finishing my doctorate I worked as an independent contractor for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture for almost three years. I was a cataloger helping to research, document, and make accessible the collection at the museum prior to and right after its opening. I focused on clothing and textile objects, which ranged from the stage costumes of pop icons to the outfits worn at historically significant events by social justice activists. I then spent four years in a dual role as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising and curator of the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University. I taught history courses in degree programs focused on apparel and interior design industries, and oversaw the collection and exhibitions at the museum. I have recently returned to the nonacademic museum world as an independent contractor, this time as the Representation Matters coordinator for the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative and Open Access Initiative. The project focuses on developing ethical best practices for digital collections information about gender and sexuality history using an intersectional feminist framework.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
I like to find signs of the humans who have interacted with something before me. It reminds me about all of the people it takes to tell a story, from the person who actually lived it to the person who helped preserve it. Since I study clothing I have seen a lot of pit stains. Rather than being gross, I see them as a deeply personal moment of connection to another person who lived in another time. I am seeing something we consider to be a flawed or imperfect part of the human experience—to sweat in our clothing—that reminds me of the intimacy of the work we do to understand other peoples’ lives. Sometimes I do not even know their name, but I can see them through this evidence of their body that has lasted for decades or centuries in the fibers of the garment. Some things about their life were very different from my own, but in the end we all sweat in our clothes. These commonalities of our stories are why I love doing history.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
The Fashion and Race Database founded by Prof. Kim Jenkins at Ryerson University. It’s a fantastic resource for incorporating fashion into your history courses.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
Context! Historians are not just interested in one part of the story, but the whole picture as situated in time and place. Teaching history topics to students in a non-history major at Colorado State University really helped me understand the value that historians bring to any kind of research. Fashion is particularly notorious for cultural appropriation, but it was the concept the students in my classes were most interested in exploring. I tried to help them see how researching aspects of another time period or culture that did not immediately seem connected to clothing or textiles would contribute to responsible design. Their commitment to changing the industry is inspiring and hopeful.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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