Latinx in Museums Conversation – HHM 2016


hello this is a wonderful opportunity to have an informal conversation with my dear friends and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution: Magdalena Mieri, Director of the National Museum of American History the program of history and culture there and strategic projects, and my friend Ranald Woodaman, also at the Smithsonian Latino Center as Exhibitions and Public Programs Director, and my name is Maria del Carmen Cossu, SITES – the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service Project Director for Latino Initiatives, and we’re having this conversation celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. We have wanted to talk about how we came to our museum careers, each one of us to share how was our path to these wonderful field that’s never boring, that’s always the possibilities for learning and experiencing and meeting great colleagues – it’s always available. And we have discovered that unfortunately the number of Latino professionals is very low in the field and we want to entice through this conversation other emerging museum professionals or new professionals to the field. If you’re an accountant, a graphic designer, a financial analyst, you have a place in the museum world and we need you. If you’re a Latino with a great background and you want to experience this wonderful world, think about the museum world as a possibility for a job market. Sell yourself in the museum. We need more Latinos in our field and now without further ado I want to ask my colleagues here how did they came to the museum profession? I have an interesting story but I want to learn from Magdalena and Ranald and we all came from somewhere else and the museum took us far. So Magdalena if you want to share with us? Sure. Thank you SITES and Makaki for inviting us and sharing this opportunity to attract more people to to the field as you said it’s an incredibly creative field and it’s a joy working in museums when they have the resources and they value your work, right? And so I studied Museum Studies, a BA, back home – I’m from Argentina – and I also did a Master’s in Anthropology and when i was studying anthropology i realized i was trying to see myself working mostly in academia and doing research, doing fieldwork, and then writing essays or teaching, and it didn’t quite I didn’t feel very comfortable I felt that people were writing scholars for each other they weren’t really paying attention on how to bring this wealth of knowledge to regular people, everyday people, and so I started to do an internship in the museum and I really loved it. I loved how creative and interdisciplinary the field is and the possibility of interpreting objects learning about material culture and then how to bring that to the public and how to sort of translate-transfer that information and I fell in love working in museums and actually fell in love – I met my husband working in a museum, so all around it, and then I decided that that was the field that I wanted to grow in and, and share my knowledge and research that I was doing so that’s how I started. Thank you, and now we go to Ranald to share how you started in your museum field, and then I will ask you also later about what are you doing now currently? Thank you, Ranald. Well thanks for having me. Good to be here. It’s actually really, as will be discussing, we’re actually all very connected professionally in terms of our career path and what brought us to museums. Growing up, I never really knew museum work as really a career option. It never really occurred to me. Maybe the closest thing that crossed my mind was like library work, but really I came to museums in a kind of winding path and yet at the same time in a sort of direct way. I didn’t get into the museum field till I was almost 30. Basically, I got into it really doing more sort of Latino cultural work you might say. My interest really was in, just like Magdalena was saying, public engagement, doing some kind of cultural work that really sought to sort of remedy some of the problems that I would say that we have culturally, among one of the most important being the sort of invisibility of many of our stories and histories; so really the way I started doing museum work was back in the day doing this crazy magazine. I was young and naive enough to send it to all kinds of institutions looking for support for photocopying and whatnot and at one point Magdalena said, “Hey, why don’t you consider this fellowship at the Smithsonian,” that’s now called the Latino Museum Studies Program, and this fellowship is really critical or has been really critical historically it’s been around for 20 plus years – Magdalena obviously used to run it and its whole point is to bring in Latinos, but in particular graduate students, expose them to museum careers and try to make that connection. And then while I was in this program I thought geez I better get a masters degree and that will help me to get a job in the museum field and I did the Museum Education program at the George Washington University, which of course is where you studied as well a couple of years before – A couple of years -Yeah. -Thank you Ranald. And I would like to share how I came to museums. I come from Lima Peru. It’s a country where you – everywhere you walk you see richness of archaeological sites, our patrimony, and I walked in front of Waka’, an archaeological site every day from walking from school to my home and I loved history, and very proud of the Peruvian history, and was surrounded by history books at home, so I decided I was going to study history. I wanted to do research and then I found my path going to teach at my own school and I discovered I love also education, and from there I got a call that was kind of magical because a friend called me, that they needed an assistant director at a museum in Peru and I went for the interview and they hired me and that’s where in the museum I discovered that it was my two passions, research and education, were possibilities. And I discovered the museum was the greatest classroom, because we had all the objects like you said and teaching from the real object was something that was driving me so I worked in the museum in Lima for a couple of years until I discovered that there were internship opportunities here at the Smithsonian, and it was a big leap for me because I never had been out of my country and there were no museum studies in Peru, so I decided to take the leap and come to the Smithsonian to learn more about museums. And I started here at SITES where I am now. It’s a full circle, like now I’m more senior in my career and I have come to the place where I started. SITES is the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, and I started here. And through my colleagues here when I was an intern I discovered the museum education program and that fit what I wanted to do, and I studied museum education and then immediately was hired after graduation to work at the Smithsonian and I’ve been here for many, many years now and I love it! I have fun every day. I learn more things every day. I meet the best people in the world. So i would love for others to come to these careers. So now that we shared how we came to the museum field I would like to ask my colleagues what are the interesting things that they are doing now? I know that the world of the Smithsonian museums is fascinating, so you must be working on very wonderful projects. So if you can share Magdalena, Ranald, Ranald, it would be wonderful. -Alright I’ll start then. -Great. -As the elder. -We were just together, as a matter of fact. -So as you mentioned I do direct the programming of Latino history and culture at the National Museum of American History. So that program was created about 10 years ago, maybe more like 12 now that I think of it, and it has two main goals: one is to attract more of our Latina/Latino communities to come to the museum, and at the same time work across the different curatorial areas and with collections and education to create more content related to Latinos. As you all know, maybe our viewers as well, people have a more enjoyable lasting next memorable experience when they visit a museum, particularly a history museum, and they see themselves and their stories reflected on it. So that is kind of the goal of my program. So I tried to do a number of things that had to do with facilitating collections acquisitions, creating new educational programs, and creating public programs and also a web presence. So as Ranald mentioned, we were just together this past Saturday. We put together a fascinating festival. I had so much fun and it was so important to do it was called “Latinidad,” but it was looking into Latina women American experiences, and we were particularly highlighting Afro-Latinas. And that is a quite neglected audience in museums and also not just as visitors, but in terms of what we’re collecting, what we’re interpreting, what we’re putting together. So we featured different all women artists from a muralist that worked with the public, with 58 members of the public to create a mural that’s now on display in the museum; We presented a one-woman play on Crystal Roman, a black Latina; Two a duo of young ladies, Maracuyeah, a DJ throughout the event; A poet, Elizabeth Acevedo; And of course we presented objects out of storage. We love doing that. It’s a unique opportunity for visitors to engage with the actual collections that are not on display. So that is one example we did. We do festivals like that. I’m now part of a team putting together an exhibition that is looking at the peopling of the United States. It started as an the idea of featuring more migration, immigration history, but it quickly turned more into who we are as a nation in terms of our diversity, when we came, what’s unique to different cultures and how we make together the country that it is today. That show will open next summer. I’m part of the team on that exhibit and creating, particularly developing, the curriculum, because we feel teachers don’t have most of the times the tools that they need and the materials that they need to teach immigration/migration as itcontinues throughout American history. I’m also working with some of the curators to acquire more collections and as I mentioned briefly also an online presence. Right now we can we could hope that everybody will come to the Smithsonian American History Museum at one point, but that’s not realistic, so we’re trying to make the exhibits and everything that we do more accessible through the web. -That is wonderful. -So that gives you a snapshot of its planning and budgeting a little bit of research and knowing about education, so that’s kind of the skillset that I had to develop to be able to do the work that I do. -Thank you Magdalena. And Ranald, what are your projects currently that you’re enjoying the most? -Well I think you made the point earlier that you’re never bored around here cause we’re all doing so many projects at once and to give you a sense of – and which only makes sense, too, if we’re dealing with Latinidad or Latino-ness – it’s a pretty broad topic, so we cover a lot underneath that and just to give you a sense of the range, we have a program called the Latino DC history project which is basically a local history project in the nation’s capital and surrounding suburbs. I mean we’re all DC Latinos now, but I grew up around here in this area so that’s definitely a project that’s near and dear to my heart. Since I work at the Latino Center – you work at a full-fledged museum – I work at a very small office that tends, sometimes it does stuff on its own, but really tends to do more stuff with in collaboration with museums like yours. And so as an example we’re planning on opening up an exhibit at the American Indian Museum in a few years about Native Heritage in the Caribbean, and the Taino movement, and DNA, and how to make sense of native ancestry, which is, you know, very relevant topic today depending on which circles you move in. And more generally, beyond of these collaborative exhibits we’re hoping to open up the first permanent Latino gallery on the mall in a few years, and that’s… many more steps to take before we get there, but that’s that’s our vision. -Are you involved with a specific subject for the Latino gallery? What are the subjects that are going to be discussed in an exhibition that represents the Latino experience in this special gallery within the Smithsonian? -Well as you know the topic is huge and we have a lot of stakeholders which means we have to figure out, you know, a lot of agendas to sort of negotiate the balance. We represent a plurality of voices, so it’s kind of a challenge to figure out how you’re going to tell whose story when in what order. So what we’re trying to do is to create a gallery which, though it’s not as big as we want it to be, will create opportunities to tell different stories at different times and tell multiple stories at the same time so it won’t be hopefully it’ll be something like two-and-a-half galleries functioning always at the same time. -Congratulations on that project. -Thank you. -And I’d like to share that I’m the project director for Latino initiatives here at the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service and in my role I have to tell the stories of our Latino experience based on research from entities within the Smithsonian. We partner a lot and collaborate with the National Museum of American History, recently I been involved with the pan institutional project “Latinos in Beisbol” to tell the stories of how Latinos have created community through this wonderful American sport and how Latinos have contributed to sport, and that’s a collaboration with the National Museum of American History. And after the community collecting efforts we hope that this exhibition will travel nationally and that’s how my involvement goes there. Also, one of my missions being at SITES, is that I take this to heart because I was an intern here at SITES and I learned so much and I was able to find a path to my career choice thanks to my colleagues here at SITES. And that’s one of the missions in my program: that i will help emerging Latinx professionals in the field by having interns, mentoring fellows, coaching new emerging professionals. So that’s something that I’m very happy about and that I get to meet wonderful young professionals in the field. And also another thing that I’m doing is collaborating with the National Portrait Gallery on taking one of their exhibitions on the road. So I’m always exploring how to tell the U.S. Latino experience through our traveling exhibitions and learning about how other museums around the country are engaging their communities with our exhibits. How our exhibits they’re traveling can bring the local stories within the main. If you want the Smithsonian research and the Smithsonian collections and add that local story. One of the partnerships that we had with the American History Museum that Magdalena was particularly involved and I think our host venues will be very interested in, one of the most successful Latino themed exhibitions that SITES provided in collaboration with the National Museum of American History’s research and collections is the Bracero stories and you can tell us more about the situation and how you got involved with this exhibition, how we partnered. -Thank you. Absolutely. So that was a project that was just emerging as I enjoying the American History team and the idea was to document the stories of Braceros. Braceros are Mexican workers who were brought under contract to the United States to work mainly in agricultural fields them fields but also in railroads. It started in 1942 during World War II so the idea was that these workers could come and supplement the labor of men here who are fighting the war, but it lasted 40 years and it’s estimated that about 4.5 million Mexican nationals came and worked as part of that program. Some went back to Mexico; many stayed. And it was a great influx into the Latino cultural and economic landscape of the United States. So there were new communities. This is when you see the first Mexican restaurants being more popular; The first masses in the Spanish language; it really had an important impact. And the museum had just received a collection of photographs, 17,000 photographs taken by a photojournalist called Leonard Nadel, and he went through the border and different recruitment centers and documented the whole process that Braceros went through and actually his photographs helped make the case in Congress to stop the program because it was extremely abusive. And so we have that collection of photographs and so we decided that we wanted to do an exhibit based on them but we really were committed to these workers and their stories, and being able to provide interpretation of the show through their voices. So the museum partnered with several universities: University of Texas-El Paso, Brown University, George Mason University, and several other ones to create oral histories. And we created, we trained students on how to do oral histories and then went out throughout the nation and did sort of recording days with the Braceros, and we gathered about 700 oral stories that are all available online through the George Mason University website that we developed in partnership. And so the exhibit, when we were as we were learning more through the oral histories that we were doing, we learned that this was really important not only to Braceros and their families but also to the communities as well, and that’s where the idea of doing a traveling exhibition came to us and we partnered with SITES to do this very successful exhibit. It was very easy to travel based on the photographs, community-done panels, and with just a few objects at each venue that received the exhibit was able to bring out, so we didn’t travel the objects, not to make it too expensive, and it’s been traveling what? Four years? Five years now? -Probably seven years. -Oh my God. -We had to extend the tour to 2017. So it started in 2010 and it’s going to go until 2017 and we are very happy that we visited many of the sites where we collected the stories of community engagement from all the locations and they’ve made sure that the exhibition had incredible wonderful programming that involved the community. Recently I was in Austin, Texas, where the community engagement was successful through public programming, education programs, and a curator was hired to build on the stories of local farm workers at that time from the Austin area. And it was a secondary exhibition but it complemented our Braceros show wonderfully because they collected stories from the families and they brought their own objects so it was a very rich experience to see this happening, and also we had a storytelling program where the storyteller had lived with the farm workers and created these fabulous stories, and it was a wonderful public premise. So it’s great to see the commitment of the other museums around the nation that are looking at our exhibits and our research and our collections as the catalyst to bridge with our communities, so I’m very happy that we’ve collaborated. -Are we get more collaborations? Always it’s wonderful. -I think we’re looking at probably more future collaborations. We’ve definitely done some projects before in the past. I think more recent collaborations, I think Magdalena and I usually collaborate throughout the year on public programs in particular, but really I think the Smithsonian Latino Center, you know since we don’t have a space of our own, we really have to collaborate with other Smithsonian museums. And fortunately as is the case with the American History Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and others like the National Museum of Natural History, they’re very generous with their space, so we often use their auditoriums to really access their audiences and hopefully bring them new audiences as well. -Thank you. I am going to ask you what recommendations do you have for emerging professionals that would like to come to the museum field? What would be your recommendations for young professionals that are seeing our conversation and that are in fields that are not traditionally tied to the museum work. How would you advise them to come in and start in the museum profession? -I could say that perhaps a degree in Museum Studies it’s not necessarily it’s, I’m sorry. It’s not necessary. They could be trained in any other field. And as we were saying before, the museum field is so interdisciplinary that regardless of background, even if they are lawyers, or perhaps except the medical field, but there are… -Zoo vets. -…Science museums and natural hisory museums that do forensics, so it’s regardless of your background if people are interested in working in a field that’s extremely creative, that’s the public space that’s responsible towards their communities, that wants to give itself relevance, any background I think it’s suitable for museum work. And then people skills I’ll say it’s a must. -Absolutely. -We are people I mean it is kind of a big education, right? Museums are education institutions above anything else and research as well. An internship is always a great way to start. If it’s a paid internship that’s a lot better, but unpaid internships, volunteering time, kind of getting yourself involved in the field and seeing if that’s something that you’s like to pursue. -Ranald, any ideas on how to entice new Latino professionals, Latinx professionals into the museum? -I definitely think we need to do a better job of letting people know that this field exists and that we need them. You know it’s really important that we start diversifying the field and really were recruiting from a lot of diverse sectors of American society and I think probably one of the most important things is to be connected with your sense of purpose. You know if you’re going to work in a museum like you’re saying it’s a very much a public serving place. Relevance is a definitely an important value to have, so really know why you want to work at these institutions, because there’s a lot of, you know, especially if you’re at a history museum, at a cultural center, there really is a lot of at stake. We’re really in many ways trying to tell the American story in a different, more inclusive way. So know why you want to work there, and then don’t be afraid to seek people like us out. Reach out to us and say, “Hey, how did you get here?” You know, just to ask us what with the real, real deal is behind these jobs and what might be some strategies for actually being able to get a museum job, because the other reality is that there aren’t a whole lot of museum jobs. So if you’re going to come into this field you really have to want it and talk to as many people to get good advice about getting in it and getting a good- a well-paying job, ultimately. -Any Latinos, Latinas, Latinx emerging professionals that want to have an internship or a fellowship program here at SITES or are interested in our exhibitions, you can search our website at www.sites.si.edu. Thank you. Muchos gracias. Muchos gracias amigos. This is the start of Makaki’s interview show.