The Field Museum in Chicago is recognized as one of the world’s great museums — the largest and most complete remains of a T. Rex dinosaur found on Earth hovers over visitors shortly after they enter the building’s front door. Without a map, it can be easy to get lost among the 20 million species that make up the museum's biological and anthropological collections. But if one were to dig deep among the excavated items on display, evidence of a highly successful program at the University of Memphis can be found.
The U of M’s Museum Studies Program, still somewhat in its infancy stage, has become one of the Mid-South’s most successful certification programs. Graduates such as Rebecca Puckett, an assistant urban anthropologist at the Field Museum, are scattered throughout the country. The objects with which alums of the program come into contact on a daily basis —Monets, Cassatts and Elvis Presley artifacts, for instance —give testament to the program’s rising star power.
“From the beginning of the program, the clear intention was to encompass a wide variety of museums and collections, including art, anthropological, natural historical, among others,” says Linda Bennett, an anthropology professor who created the program with U of M Museum of Art director Leslie Luebbers six years ago.
“We have a very intensive graduate program that includes both coursework and internships.” says Luebbers. “It provides a valuable boost going into a museum. For the right kind of person, it’s an absolute great cluster of jobs.”
The program has proven to be a major hit among students. Since its inception in Fall 2002, about 80 students have completed the 18-hour, two internship requirements of the program to dive headfirst into careers as registrars, anthropologists, curators and administrators. Program directors limit the number of students to 15 to 20 each cycle.
“We require two internships [because] we want people to have different kinds of experiences in museums — there are many, many kinds of museums and many kinds of jobs in museums,” says Luebbers. “We are very demanding about those internships. We’re not just turning people loose in institutions; we try to create an experience that will give the student and the institution some kind of describable result.”
The required core-courses, which are taught as seminars, mirror that internship exposure. Luebbers says that students receive experience in collections management, museum administration, conservation issues, strategic planning and public outreach, among other things.
“We look at collection policy and the hazards of collecting,” elaborates Luebbers. “A collection object comes into a museum with the idea that it is held for the public. The museum has the responsibility to maintain that object.
“We also look at how museums interact with communities. This is where there is a great deal of new thinking. The role of museums has been changing fairly rapidly in the late 20th century up until now so that museums have to be more in tune with their communities.”
The program has worked with the Orange Mound community of inner Memphis on two projects that mixed both young and elderly community members with art projects specific to Orange Mound. Another project, led by Chucalissa Archaeological Museum director Robert Connolly, introduces area school children to Native American culture via a trunk that is filled with Indian artifacts.
Luebbers says that museum professionals from around the country are brought in to supplement students’ learning experiences.
“Fortunately for us, Memphis has a very substantial museum universe (think Dixon, Brooks and Civil Rights Museum),” says Luebbers. “People have been extremely generous with their time. They are eager to have our students.”
Adds Bennett, “We were determined to base the program on the needs and focus areas of the various museums and collections in the Mid-South.” She says directors of the major museums in Memphis were surveyed about what to offer in the courses.
The program draws from think-tanks in anthropology, history, biology, the Division of Public Administration and the College of Education. It is intended for graduate students and is a joint venture between the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Communication and Fine Arts. Other faculty members include Dr. Patricia Podzorski, curator of Egyptian Art, and Dr. Janann Sherman, chair of history.
“These are very good, smart and engaging people,” says Luebbers of the students. “We should be proud as a university sending out people such as these into the professional world.”
So where have they landed? Throw a dart at a map of the United States and chances are you will hit an area where a graduate of the U of M’s Museum Studies Program has landed. To get a better feel for the program as a whole, let’s take a tour of our own and visit a few of the museums where our alums work. So strap on your audio set and let’s go.
Our first stop is in the picturesque countryside of Shelburne, Vermont, where snow drifts get as high as rooftops in winter.
“When I first got here, I did need a map,” says Katherine Taylor, who went through the Museum Studies Program in 2002-03. Who wouldn’t - the Shelburne Museum houses 150,000 objects in 39 buildings including one of the finest collections of American Folk Art, the 1906 steamboat Ticonderoga and works by Degas, Cassatt, Monet and Manet.
Taylor received her museum studies certificate in 2003 while also obtaining a master’s of art history at the U of M. She works as Shelburne’s assistant registrar, but finds herself involved with the museum on several layers - currently she is also serving as acting collections director.
“My first week here, I unpacked a Monet - it was beautiful,” says Taylor. “And we have a Cassatt show coming up. I have been coordinating the shipping for all of that and the loans. It is so exciting to see it finally come in and go on display.”
Taylor has also spent some time in acquisitions, conservation efforts and is undertaking a daunting task: cataloguing the museum’s 150,000 items — something that has never been done before.
We all have heard about Graceland, but what about Elvis’ humble beginnings? What was it like for Elvis growing up in Tupelo, Miss., in the early 1940s? Where did he get his musical influences? Let’s turn to the first graduate of the Museum Studies Program, Nora Tucker, for answers. Tucker works for Design 500, a Memphis-based company that sets up, refurbishes and/or redesigns museums. Design 500 completely redesigned the Elvis Presley birthplace museum that is in the two-room house Elvis grew up in.
“The Presleys attended the Assembly of God Church [in Tupelo] which has a great deal of singing,” says Tucker. “That love of religious music and Gospel music started when he was a little boy. He got his first guitar from the Tupelo hardware store that is still there.”
Tucker says that before Design 500 went in, the museum was basically a big room with bright lights and glass cases housing a collection of Elvis-related materials owned by one woman. “Now the first two-thirds of the museum really tells the story and sets the stage of what Tupelo was like when Elvis was a kid - what it was like to be a kid who didn’t have much money, a kid who had this musical influence churning all around him.”
The last third of the museum, Tucker says, includes a church pew and a photo of Elvis competing at a live radio broadcast at the fair when he was 10 — a competition in which he placed second.
Tucker, who also works as a singing tour guide for Backbeat Tours of Memphis, also has had stops at The Fire Museum of Memphis and The Cotton Museum.
The Field Museum
of Natural History
Rebecca Puckett comes face-to-face with T. Rex each day she enters the Field Museum in Chicago. Yet it is her work outside the museum doors that is of great magnitude. Puckett works as an assistant urban anthropologist for the museums’ Center for Cultural Understanding and Change. The Center uses anthropological research to identify and catalyze strengths and assets of communities in Chicago. Through interviewing residents, Puckett helps communities identify solutions to educational, housing, health care and conservation problems.
“We work to get new partnerships and alliances throughout the city,” says Puckett, who received a master’s in anthropology at the U of M in addition to the certification. “We go out into the community and try to put groups together and get them thinking about problems along the same lines and sharing resources with each other.”
Though the Field Museum is known more for its historical artifacts, Puckett says her Center plays a very important role.
“Anthropology is the perfect fit,” she says. “You have the paleontology side with the dinosaurs while we study humans today.”
Center for the Arts
Through a project in Orange Mound in inner-city Memphis, elderly members of the community would tell younger members different stories about various places in the historical community. The younger members in turn would go into the community and photograph those areas as a way to learn the history of Orange Mound. The photos eventually came together in an exhibit at the University of Memphis.
It is community-based projects such as this one that drew Marla Robertson into a career in museums.
“The different programs offered through a museum can be important in revitalizing communities in need or just as a way to reach out to the members of the community - especially those who would normally not visit museums,” says Robertson, who received a bachelor’s and master’s in anthropology at the U of M.
Robertson took part in the Orange Mound Project and similar ventures while enrolled in the Museum Studies Program. Now some 1,000 miles away in Pittsfield, Mass., Robertson continues her community involvement in the Office of Cultural Development and as manager of the Lichtenstein Center of the Arts.
Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville
Kelley Morgan likes to consider herself “a museum geek.” With a multitude of experiences in museums under her belt, she can rightfully lay claim to that title. Morgan has worked at the Memphis Pink Palace, Gibson Guitar, Chucalissa, Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island and the Civil Rights Museum before taking the title of director of operations at the Koch Family Children’s Museum in Evansville, Ind. The museum seeks to “spark the curious minds and imaginations of children and their families through dynamic exhibits, programs and activities.”
She came to the Children’s Museum because it offered her a chance at a “start-up” museum.
“This project, which has turned into a museum, has been a phenomenal ride,” says Morgan, who received undergraduate and graduate anthropology degrees from the U of M. “I have seen it from mid-construction through opening attendance numbers that has surpassed all expectations and projections. I think at this point we all have enough information on the joys and challenges of starting an institution to write a book.”
Morgan is a great fan of the program.
“I can honestly say that the information I took with me from the Museum Studies Program has immensely benefited me in my professional pursuits,” says Morgan.
For more information on the U of M’s Museum Studies Program, contact Linda Bennett at email@example.com or Leslie Luebbers at firstname.lastname@example.org.