Living History: Rethinking the Museum Experience

Artifacts at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg date as far back as the dinosaurs.

Artifacts at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg date as far back as the dinosaurs.

It’s mind blowing to Brad Smith ’97M that he’s sitting in an office, talking on a phone, in the same space where early Native Americans raised families thousands of years ago. The collection at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, where Smith is curator administrator, houses a 13,000-year-old Native American Clovis point, or arrowhead.

“Pennsylvania has an amazing history,” he said. “We have to take time to appreciate where we live.”

Appreciating the past leads to a better understanding of the present, and today’s museums are dedicated to keeping the past relevant. “Right now, there’s a real transition going on in the museum world,” said Dr. Steven Burg, professor and chair of the History and Philosophy Department. “How do you really create an experience that fulfills your mission, but also gets people excited about what you’re doing?”

Hands-on History 

Ship alums are putting their applied history training into practice to meet those dual needs. Burg specializes in applied history, also known as public history, which takes a very hands-on approach to historical preservation and analysis. The master’s degree in applied history combines coursework, internships, and volunteering.

Small class sizes are ideal for students to get first-hand experience and connect with local museums and organizations, Burg said. Students learn to write grants, research artifacts, develop exhibits, and work with an audience. “It gives us the flexibility to work with students on their passion and how to develop the skills they need for that job.” 

Kaleb Dissinger '02-'04M is a curator at the US Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle.

Kaleb Dissinger '02-'04M is a curator at the US Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle.

Being able to start with little to nothing and pull together a story is amazing.
— Kaleb Dissinger '02-'04M

Kaleb Dissinger ’02-’04M hadn’t considered a museum career, but the skills he learned in the applied history program prepared him for the right job at the right time. While at Ship, he started as a volunteer at the US Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) at Carlisle Barracks. Today, he’s the curator of uniforms, textiles, and personal equipage.

“There’s a lot of research in putting soldiers’ stories together. ...Being able to start with little to nothing and pull together a story is amazing,” Dissinger said.

Ashley Maready ’08M interned with AHEC as a grad student, but her experience led her down a different path. She worked at a history research institute in Arkansas for several years, then got a job with the Reno County Museum and the Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. Maready is the only person on staff at either location with any museum background.

“There’s so much you can do with this degree,” she said.
“All museums have their own culture, their own mission, their own way to do things. For students, it’s so great to see how different institutions operate,” Burg said. “They see what they like, and that there isn’t one way to do things.”

Curator of Many Hats

In its simplest definition, a curator is the person in charge of a collection at a museum. That leaves plenty of room for interpretation, depending on the size and organization of the museum.
Dissinger is one of three curators under a chief curator at AHEC. While he deals with uniforms and textiles, the other two curators focus on firearms and art. He also occasionally acts as a liaison to potential donors and researchers.

The center’s mission is twofold: to support the Army while also informing and educating the public about the Army’s history. “It’s the history of the US Army, but told through individual soldier stories. Our institution has artifacts, letters, photographs, audio and visual materials, and the world’s largest military reference library in one collection. It’s the whole package,” he said.
He’s worked with artifacts as small as a collar insignia found in a donor’s attic to an expansive collection donated by the wife of Maj. Gen. Harold Green, the highest-ranking official killed in Afghanistan in 2014. 

“If you’re into history, having something in your hands and looking at something that could have had the most amazing story 200 years ago, it’s awesome,” he said.

Ashley Maready '08M splits her time between the Reno County Museum and Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt  Museum.

Ashley Maready '08M splits her time between the Reno County Museum and Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt  Museum.

The Strataca salt mining experience starts 650 feet underground.

The Strataca salt mining experience starts 650 feet underground.

As the curator at both Reno County and Strataca, Maready researches, works with visitors, designs exhibits, develops public programming, delivers presentations, accepts donations, and maintains the Reno County building. The two locations are different and unique. About 10,000 people research or visit Reno County’s five rotating exhibits annually, while about 50,000 plunge underground each year to experience the history of salt mining at Strataca.

“It’s nice to have the balance between the two,” she said. “I love my job.”

(From left) Cherie Trimble '93-'97M, Katie McGown '11, and Brad Smith '97M develop exhibits and programming at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

(From left) Cherie Trimble '93-'97M, Katie McGown '11, and Brad Smith '97M develop exhibits and programming at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Smith worked his way up from an entry-level curator position to curator administrator at the State Museum. “Every single day is something different. One day, I’m cleaning a Conestoga wagon, the next day I’m giving a tour of a Civil War gallery or working with a conservator on an oil painting.”

Smith recently oversaw the development of three new exhibits in celebration of
the museum’s fiftieth anniversary this fall: “Pennsylvania Icons,” which displays the state’s influence on our nation’s development; “Pennsylvania Turnpike: America’s First Superhighway;” and “Pennsylvania Modern: A Juried Photography Exhibition of Midcentury Modern Architecture.” 

Today, he is more involved in administrative duties than artifacts. But he’s had the opportunity
to hold William Penn’s bible, George Washington’s hair, and Ulysses S. Grant’s suspenders. “It’s different being on the inside. Maybe 1 percent of our artifacts are on exhibit. It’s incredible what’s back there.”

Katie McGowan ’11 got a firsthand look at the museum’s vast collection when she was hired as a curator under Smith’s direction. For her first year on the job, her main duty was inventory. “We have 4 million objects spread across the state (under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission).”

For eight hours a day, five days a week, McGowan grabbed a laptop and headed to a cabinet to identify each object, record its condition, and enhance its file. “It’s the most nitty-gritty work a curator can do,” she said. 

But the fun was in the museum’s behind-the-scene treasures. “I’d find an interesting piece, look up the information, and find a story on it,” she said. “I found a designer gown by Paul Poiret. He did a lot of avant-garde fashion in the late teens, early twenties. When you find something of his, it’s a big deal.”

In all, each curator inventoried about 10,000 items, saving details about their favorite discoveries for a museum blog. “It took patience and creativity. You have to think outside the box sometimes.”

Please Touch

“For hundreds of years, museums trained people, ‘Don’t talk, you are the receivers of education.’ That’s outdated and boring. We’re trying to facilitate discussion,” said Pete Miele ’14M, director of education and museum operations at the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum.

Pete Miele '14M develops tours and educational programs at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg.

Pete Miele '14M develops tours and educational programs at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg.

Seminary Ridge played an integral role in Gettysburg’s history as the site of the first day of battle. The museum, which opened on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, takes visitors through three different stories: “Gettysburg, July 1, 1863;” “Caring for the Wounded;” and “Faith and Freedom in America.”

Miele taught history before he enrolled in the applied history program at Ship. He improved his writing and research skills, also learning how to disseminate that infor-mation to the public. “I realized early on that my background in education would help me in museum education,” he said. 

Miele develops programming that keeps the exhibits relevant, current, and interac-tive. Visitors are prompted to complete activities and asked for input. When school groups schedule visits for the “Become a Soldier” program, students receive the name of a real soldier who fought at Seminary Ridge. They learn to stand at attention, march, and hold a rifle, then later discover the fate of their soldier. “The kids often say they read about these events, but it’s easy to forget these are real people,” he said.

The same is true at AHEC, where guests receive an identification card that reveals their soldier’s story throughout the exhibit. Visitors also can simulate parachuting from a plane, getting attacked in a Korean War bunker, or uncovering an improvised explosive device (IED). “There’s a lot of interaction,” Dissinger said.

Like Miele, Cherie Trimble ’93-’97M was a teacher before moving into archival work and eventually taking a job as museum educator at the State Museum. “I have a better sense of how to write tours, develop classes, or create scavenger hunts based on school standards,” she said.

We want to engage them at a young age so they grow with the museum.
— Cherie Trimble '93-'97M

Trimble works with the curatorial and exhibit teams to research and edit content that is practical and enjoyable for visitors. She has about 800 objects at her disposal to incorporate into interactive tours and programs. “The best are two- or three-hour tours that include a planetarium show and guided classes,” she said. “They are very hands-on tours.”

An imaginative “play environment” at the museum called “Curiosity Connection” invites young guests to discover, learn, and play during their first museum experience. Trimble also manages events such as the children’s annual New Year’s Countdown to Noon. “We want to engage them at a young age so they grow with the museum.”

At Strataca, Maready said, “It was rebranded as an adventure experience, more so than a traditional museum. There are a lot of different stories to tell.”

Guests take an industrial elevator 650 feet underground into a portion of the Carey Salt Mine, which was first opened in 1923. The experience includes a day in the life of a miner; a fifteen-minute train ride called the Salt Mine Express; and the Dark Ride tram, which explains airflow, mining hazards, nuclear waste storage, and other information.

Just Live It

Museums preserve and share history all around us. Even so, it’s a challenging field to pursue.

Maready grew up in the Greater Washington, DC, area. “People said, just go to the Smithsonians. It’s not that easy.”

McGowan is from Shippensburg and hoped to stay in the area. “That was important to me. ...But searching takes a long time. If you stay local, your options are fewer.”

Their best advice? Lots of experience.

“Get as much experience as you can, paid or unpaid,” Maready said. “The good news is, there are so many things you can do.”

McGowan volunteered with the Shippensburg Historical Society, interned with SU’s Fashion Archives and Museum, and developed tour scripts for visitors as an intern at the Seminary Ridge Museum. “The single most important thing is practical experience—as much as you can fit in,” she said.

Dissinger stressed passion and education. “Be as educated—formally or informally—as you can in the field you’re interested in. Be an amateur expert.”

Burg often invites alumni from the pro-gram to share their invaluable experiences with current students. When he hears stories of alums landing the job of their dreams, “they sound like kids in a candy store.”