AAHC Forum: Life as a MP: Museum Professionals Saturday Exploratory Series Presented by the Hampton University Museum

This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.

By Vanessa Thaxton-Ward
Curator of Collections, Hampton University Museum

With funding from an IMLS Museum Grant for African American History and Culture, the Hampton University Museum held the second round of Life as a MP: Museum Professionals Saturday Exploratory Series. The hands-on, interactive workshops exposed twelve students from grades 8-12 to a wide array of careers within the museum and archival fields. The guest speakers included professionals working in the museum fields of installation, design, conservation, and digitization.

Students working on a collection with a museum curator.

Former Curator of Collections, Mary Lou Hultgren, working with Warwick High School 12th graders, Kenlontae Turner and Alexis Carey. Photo by Crystal Johnson, Hampton University Museum.

With the first workshop of this round, All that Goes Into a Scan: Scanning Art for Digitization, led by digitization specialist Darryl Randolph, students explored the process of digitizing important pieces of art. They learned from “Digital Darryl,” a retired Vietnam helicopter pilot and a retired postal worker, how he acquired this skill and how it has benefited him. Students also learned on that first day about the job of associate curator and about my job, curator of collections. We also explained some of the positions that exist at larger museums and how working at a smaller museum can mean having to have a broader range of skills.

The second workshop, So you want to be a Curator?, led by former curator, Mary Lou Hultgren, gave the students the opportunity to work with recently donated African artifacts. The goal of this workshop was to share with students the basics of curatorial work. The students filled out accession forms, researched the objects and were given the opportunity to make a case for the artifacts they felt should be included in our African gallery.

Student working on an African American Mask

Phoebus High School 11th grader, Venzel Snead, working on an Izi Igbo elephant mask. Photo by Crystal Johnson, Hampton University Museum.

The April workshop will be presented by Willis Potter, the exhibition manager and designer at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. He will present Exhibition Design and Management: From the Ground Up. Students will have the opportunity to work with Mr. Potter and the HUM’s staff to install an exhibition in our changing space. The final workshop, Labels, Didactic Panels and Exhibition Presentation 101, by Jan Miller of Mellen Street Graphics, will introduce students to the design process involved in museum exhibition, including the steps for designing titles, didactic panels, and labels. The students will also receive a tour of Mellen Street Graphics. By the end of this workshop the students will have a clear understanding of how all of the various positions work together to present a museum’s story to the public.

One of the strengths of our program is that the students are fully integrated into what we do on a daily basis. We find that they really respond to the hands-on aspect. One student commented, “I really liked this program because it is so unique. Hampton University’s art museum has some of the coolest art pieces ever! I think it is very impressive that the museum has one-of-a-kind pieces like The Banjo Lesson and African ceremonial attire.”

With the IMLS grant, the museum will also be able to offer an internship to two students, digitizing a series of negatives from the 65-year career of campus photographer Reuben V. Burrell.

Vanessa Thaxton-Ward is the curator of collections at the HUM. She has been with the museum for more than 23 years and has served in several capacities including associate curator and director of membership and community programs, as well as interim director. Thaxton-Ward previously served as the curator at the historic Penn Center located on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

Founded in 1868, the Hampton University Museum is the nation’s oldest African American museum. With galleries dedicated to African American, African, American Indian and Asian and Pacific art and artifacts, the museum contains more than 9,000 objects representing cultures and people from around the world. Within its fine arts collection is the largest existing collection of works in any museum by the artists John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Samella Lewis. 

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