JF: What led you to write Inside the Lost Museum?
SL: It’s a book that I wish I had when I first started work as a curator – I wanted to know more about both the how and the why of the work. More immediately, the book was inspired by the “Lost Museum” installation, a student project with artist Mark Dion that explored Brown University’s Jenks Museum. Mark’s aesthetic-historical approach to understanding collections and exhibitions allowed me the intellectual distance to ask some big questions about the why? and how? of museums.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inside the Lost Museum?
SL: I argue museums are unique because of their collections – art, artifacts, and specimens – and that those collections are complex, not simple. To understand how and why museums collect, care for, display, and use things, we need to understand the ways in which history shapes museums’ connections with their communities, both source communities and audiences.
JF: Why do we need to read Inside the Lost Museum?
SL: Understanding museum history is the best way to understand how museums can build on their strengths and overcome their disadvantages – to be useful. Museum curators and museum studies students will read Inside the Lost Museum to understand museum work and how museum history provides a foundation to build a new future. A general audience will read it to understand not only what goes on behind the scenes of museums, but also to understand their continuing importance. And I hope all readers will be fascinated by the thread that holds the book together: the curious story of John Whipple Potter Jenks, donor, director, and curator of the Jenks Museum.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SL: As an undergraduate at MIT I became fascinated by the history and culture of science and technology, and went to graduate school to study alchemy and astrology. But I soon realized that reading Latin would never be my forte, and discovered more useful and interesting roots of modern science and technology in the business and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. That encouraged me to shift to American history, which led to a career in museums, which led to an interest in public humanities and museum history.
JF: What is your next project?
SL: For the next year, I’ll be a Mellon fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, contributing to an exhibition project on “repair.” It’s a fascinating topic, encompassing both the material and the metaphorical, and I’m looking forward to exploring the museum’s collections and considering the meaning of mends, patches, and fixes in ways physical, moral, and political.
JF: Thanks, Steven!