Author’s Corner with Steven Lubar

lubarSteven Lubar is Professor of American Studies at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Inside the Lost Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017).

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!

Who Are American Museum Workers?


The National Emerging Museum Professionals Network has released a survey of 500 museum workers.  The representative American museum worker:

  • Has been working in museums for 1-3 years.
  • Works full-time
  • Has a masters degree
  • Is female
  • Is between 25 and 34 years of age
  • Is white
  • Grew up in the suburbs
  • Has college-educated parents
  • Spent 3-6 months looking for a job in the field
  • Did 2 or more internships after college
  • Makes between 30k and 40k a year

See the report here.

A Hilarious Take on Museum Studies Graduate Programs

I know all the public historians and museum specialists who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find this entertaining.  Here is a taste:

The Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program is the most honest graduate program of its kind. Our two semester program prepares students for the ideals and realities of the public history and museum fields.

Financial Aid: Try to get grants or borrow money from your family. If possible, avoid loans. Otherwise you will end up living with either your parents or several roommates.Applying: We accept most applicants (we have bills to pay, you know).We promise that the experiences you have with us will haunt you for the rest of your career.

Faculty & Staff: Our faculty and staff can share with you their version of the ideal museum, no matter how impractical or naive.

Curriculum: We don’t offer classes, we host workshops (See below for a selection of our workshops). Our workshops will provide you with practical, hands-on experience which will prepare you for the real work that goes on at most museums.

Degree: You can choose to pursue a master of arts degree or a certificate. We suggest the masters, since our museum studies certificate is designed to benefit our bank account more than your career (museums rarely, if ever, advertise for someone with a graduate certificate. sorry).

Post-Graduation: What happens after graduation is not our concern. Besides disappointment and unemployment are part of the museum profession and you should get used to them as quickly as possible. Since it’s not part of your tuition, consider this a free lesson, our parting gift to you. However, no matter what happens after graduation, please don’t forget to send your annual alumni donation.

Read the entire post here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: Religion is MIA at the National Museum of American History

On Saturday, I spent the day in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It is a fine museum, one that should be on the itinerary of anyone making a pilgrimage to our nation’s capital. During my visit I stood in awe of the American flag—worn and tattered—that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner in 1814. A moving and relatively new exhibit focused on the visual culture of the Civil Rights Movement. I exercised my historical imagination by staring into the hull of the revolutionary-era Gunboat Philadelphia, the oldest surviving American fighting vessel. I got a bit nostalgic looking at a collection of vintage lunch boxes and children’s toys.

The National Museum of American History does an excellent job of capturing the nation’s past in an informative and entertaining manner, but during this trip to the museum I could not help but think that something was missing. It hit me as I browsed the book section of the museum store. The aisles were filled with books about science and technology, the Civil War, the presidents of the United States, and the American Revolution, but I could not find a single book dealing with the American religious experience. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, or maybe I was just feeling a bit oversensitive because the store was not selling my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction—but it was clear to me that American religion was unimportant at the National Museum of American History.

Read the rest here.

Deerfield Dispatch #8

Katie Garland (2nd from left in the front row) checks in one last time from the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship ProgramRead the previous volumes of the Deerfield Dispatch here. It sounds like it was a great summer. -JF

I am officially a graduate of the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program!  That feels so strange to say.  Since I last wrote, I finished writing my paper, presented and fielded questions about my research, and participated in a small commencement ceremony.  Then we loaded up a 15-passenger van and trekked up and down the east coast visiting museums from New England down through Virginia.

This blog post has been one of the most challenging for me to write.  How does one sum up a summer of intense study, but also plenty of fun, in a short blog post?  I tend to think in lists and numbers, so here are some of the highlights of my summer:

  • 9 weeks
  • 26 museums (Historic Deerfield, PVMA, Old Greenfield Village, Plimoth Plantation, Mayflower II, Old Sturbridge Village, Hancock Shaker, The Breakers, Marble House, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Strawbery Banke, Warner House, Orchard Hill, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History, Library of Congress, Montpelier, Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown Victory Center, Winterthur Museum, East Side Tenement Museum, Kykuit House Museum).
  • 12 states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire,Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, D.C., Virginia).
  • 18 lectures on New England and the Civil War at the Dublin Seminar
  • 3 lectures on the Civil War as part of the Summer Lecture Series
  • 1 binder (1 ½ inches) completely full of articles and notes
  • 19-page research paper
  • 9 guided house tours

Having spent my summer at 26 different museums, I have learned that the museum world is massive, but a warm and welcoming community.  There are so many different types of career paths within history institutions.  Through the program, we got to taste every element of museum work.  I have  learned what I like about museums, and perhaps more importantly, what I do not. This has been helpful for me as I think about what I want to do after graduation, but it has also been overwhelming.  While I am unsure as to what I want to do with museum work in the future, I have learned that the museum world is a wonderful community and I know plenty of people who would be happy to help me process. Without fail, every museum professional that we met was friendly, encouraging, and inspiringly passionate about his or her work.

Museums are doing amazing things, but they are hurting right now.  We met with staff at nearly every museum that we visited and each person mentioned money problems.   Everyone from the small local museums to the Smithsonian needs finances desperately.  So, here is my small plea:  If there is a museum that has been meaningful to you, please consider donating.  I am sure that the institution would be extremely grateful!

In the end, there is perhaps no better way for me to sum up my summer than with a group picture.  These people defined my summer.  We lived together, learned about material culture, complained when we got frustrated, and hung out in our well-earned free time.  We have too many inside jokes to count and I personally acquired at least two new nicknames. Although we did not always exist in complete harmony, these people have become my friends and I hope that we will stay  in contact in the future, and not just as Facebook friends who say happy birthday to each other once a year.

While I am sad to leave my fellow fellows, and Deerfield itself, I know that my relationship with the people that I met this summer is just beginning.  It may sound cheesy, but I am aware that I am part of something larger than the 7 of us, part of an imagined community that goes back to the first fellows from 1955.  It is comforting to know that other fellows are out there, willing to offer help and advice when needed, and I am excited to be able to provide that to fellows in the future.

I hope that you enjoyed reading these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them! I am so grateful for this opportunity.  Without a doubt, it has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Thanks to Josh Lane for accepting me into the program and being an amazing director.  Thanks to my Messiah professors for being so supportive through the application process and over the course of the summer.  Thanks to Dr. Fea for helping me with everything along the way and encouraging me to  write these blog posts.  And, finally, thanks to you for reading them.

Photo courtesy of the Historic Deerfield Facebook page.

Deerfield Dispatch #3

Katie Garland checks in from the Deerfield Summer Fellowship ProgramRead the previous volumes of the Deerfield Dispatch here.  –JF

After spending the first two weeks of the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program immersed in material culture studies, we branched out into museum studies and education this week.

Our first museum visit to Old Greenfield Village in Greenfield, Massachusetts was a nearly indescribable experience.  Waine Morse, a retired third grade teacher, collected enough Greenfield antiques that he was able to build a replica of 1895 Greenfield in his backyard complete with a general store, school, church, and various trade shops.  Mr. Morse’s passion for his collection is inspiring and the stories that he tells about acquiring and arranging the objects show how emotionally invested he is in the project.  However, we all walked away from the trip with mixed emotions. While inspired by Mr. Morse’s dedication, we were bothered by his uncritical and nostalgic view of the past. We were also concerned for the collection itself, which has begun to deteriorate.  The trip to Old Greenfield Village was a helpful lesson showing the power, but also the limitations, of a singlehanded tribute to the past.

Later in the week when I began tour-guiding, I learned that it is much easier to be a critic than to actively construct something meaningful.  I was assigned to guide in Frary House, which tells the story of C. Alice Baker and the Arts and Crafts movement which revitalized Deerfield in the 1890s. After trailing seasoned guides and reading everything that I could about the house, I gave my first two tours on Friday.  Regular tour guides learn their house over a period of months. We were given three days. With this in mind, my tours went well.  However, they were far from faultless.  I spoke too quickly, forgot to discuss a few key pieces of furniture, and messed up some details.  Surprisingly, my perfectionist nature was not too ruffled by these mistakes.  I genuinely did the best that I could, and I know that I will improve with time and practice.  Still, it was a beneficial reminder that no history museum or historian is perfect.

After being on the tour-guiding side of the museum experience, I reevaluated my encounter with Mr. Morse and Old Greenfield Village. Although I still think that his exhibits could use a little bit more critical analysis and that his conservation practices need to be updated, I am able to see his side a little more clearly.  He loves his village and is doing the best that he can to share his idea of the past with the public.  When critiquing others, I need to examine their reasons for interpreting history in the way that they do, and understand before passing judgment.  This is something that I strive to do with sources from the past.  I should give the same respect to others who are sharing their love for history with me.

(The map shows the layout of Waine Morse’s backyard museum, Old Greenfield Village.).

Deerfield Dispatch: Volume 1

Katie Garland, a history major at Messiah College, is spending her summer in Historic Deerfield as one of seven college students chosen to participate in the prestigious Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program. Katie will be immersed in an “all-expenses-paid intensive nine-week living-learning program that offers a rare behind the scenes view of the workings of a museum and a thorough investigation of early New England history and material life.”

I asked Katie if she would be willing to provide us with regular reports on her Deerfield experience and she has graciously agreed to do so.

What follows is Katie’s first “Deerfield Dispatch.” She introduces us to the historic town of Deerfield and compares the town to two other eighteenth-century places where she has visited–Williamsburg, VA and Greenwich, NJ.  (Katie is a research associate with the Greenwich Tea Burning Project). 

Having lived here about a week now, I am very aware of how Historic Deerfield compares to other historical town museums.  Before leaving home, whenever people would ask me what Deerfield was like, I would describe it as the smaller, New England version of Colonial Williamsburg. Well, it turns out that is only half true.  While Deerfield is similar to Williamsburg, it also reminds me of Greenwich, New Jersey, where I worked for a week last year as part of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project

As far as I know, Colonial Williamsburg was born when the Rockefeller family came to the town with their ideas and pocketbook, and crafted Williamsburg into a tourist attraction.  Their particular vision of colonial America is apparent in the town and organization today.

Historic Deerfield had a similar birth.  When Henry and Helen Flynt dropped their son off at Deerfield Academy, they fell in love with the area and immediately bought their own house in the town. Over time, they gradually began to buy and preserve houses in town, and fill them with furniture and other antiques.  In the beginning, Historic Deerfield largely existed to showcase their collections which illustrated their particular view of colonial America, but over time the museum has become more purposeful in telling a nuanced story of the past through the Flynt collection.

While Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Deerfield have similar origins, they are quite different today.  Visitors to Williamsburg are immersed in the culture of the late 1700s. The town is virtually free of 21st century trappings and people who live in Colonial Williamsburg are asked to keep modern objects out of the sight of visitors.  Not so in Deerfield.  The people who live here are free to park their cars in the street, their grills on the driveway, and their children’s play sets in the backyard.  As a result, Deerfield feel a bit more alive. It feels like a real community.

In this way, Historic Deerfield is more like Greenwich, New Jersey.  According to local Greenwich lore, the town had the opportunity to become a Colonial Williamsburg, but turned down the offer because it did not want to become too touristy.  However, it still embraces its early roots and walking down the main street feels a little bit like walking back through time.  But, like Deerfield, Greenwich is an active community in the present as well and has not abandoned its present story entirely in favor of the past.

Deerfield and Greenwich also both derive their historic importance from a single important event.  Greenwich’s historical identity relates to a tea burning when residents were protesting British tea taxes.  Over time, the tea burning became the town’s identity, especially after women organized the construction of the monument commemorating the event in the early 20th century.

Likewise, Deerfield was put on the map in 1704 when the town was attacked by French and Indian raiders as part of Queen Anne’s War. At least 38 Deerfield residents were killed in the attack, 112 were captured and taken to Canada, and most of the village was burned. The most famous of those kidnapped was the town’s minister, Reverend John Williams, who returned and penned “The Redeemed Captive Returned to Zion” in 1707.  His record of the event and life in Canada became a best-seller and established the town’s destiny and identity.  As in Greenwich, women were largely responsible for keeping the history of the town alive and paving the way for the Flynt’s leadership a generation later.

Thus,Deerfield is a hybrid of two very different historical towns.  Like Greenwich, it obtains its historical power from a single event which has defined its identity, and was largely preserved by women.  Like Williamsburg, the historical organization which controls interpretation of that history was created in the early 20th century.

I am looking forward to learning about Historic Deerfield in the next two months and discovering its particular niche in American museums, as well as learning about material culture and the ways that it can influence the stories that historians tell about the past. 

The picture shows the Wright House, where Katie is living for the summer.  Notice the cars in the driveway.  This is something that you would never see in Colonial Williamsburg.