Thank you for joining us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.
Q. Tell us your own story and about the great work you do at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon and beyond?
My first museum job was at The Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, where I served as the founding archivist. Archives were attractive to me because of the opportunities they often present for bringing hidden material to light. While I was there, I did a few digital projects, which led to being hired at the Museum of the City of New York to bring their collections online. Over nearly seven years at the City Museum, I found myself increasingly involved in museum management, which is how I ended up at the helm of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.
When I worked at The Clark, the collection consisted of paintings by Renoir and John Singer Sargent and other masterpieces, which was great. But what I really liked about the Museum of the City of New York was that I was dealing with a collection of nearly a million objects, and some of them were Duncan Phyfe chairs, and some were someone’s grandfather’s snapshots of the Lower East Side in the 1920s. I’m confident the Clark’s Renoirs and the Phyfe pieces will always be cared for but ephemeral material like the snapshots, things that show overlooked aspects of history, can easily fall through the cracks. I loved being able to engage with and preserve a fuller range of stories.
Q. Can you elaborate more on Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.
Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is focused on preserving the history of the Shakers. Most people know they made chairs and were celibate, but there’s much more to the Shakers than that.
I find their radical social views the most fascinating part of the story. Not many people are aware of how progressive they were – and it’s something worth preserving, talking about, and considering in our daily lives. For example, the Shakers were advocates as early as the late 18th century of gender and racial equality. They made sure that people around them had enough to eat even if they were not part of the Shaker community. They made an effort to provide meaningful roles for everyone in their community, regardless of age, physical ability, or mental ability. Everyone had a role and a job to the extent of their capacity.
Interestingly, it was celibacy, the only reliable means of birth control at that time, that allowed women to be involved in all aspects of the community and not be sidelined by the health risks of giving birth or the constraints of rearing children. The fact that women were full contributors to both secular and spiritual life in Shaker communities is one of the main factors in the sect’s longevity and success.
Q. When did inclusion become important to you?
Professionally, it was getting to the Museum of the City of New York and thinking about how to preserve such a diverse collection, one that is meant to represent the whole spectrum of the city, thinking about where the gaps might be, who and what needs better representation. Just like living in New York City—you interact with all kinds of people every day and you have to figure out how to be inclusive and thoughtful about those interactions or you won’t be able to function.
On a personal level, I grew up in the Midwest and when I came home from the East Coast after my first year of college, I had a summer job where I was sent out to a courthouse in far western Nebraska to do research. I was tasked with going through copies of tickets that had been issued over the past several years and recording both the crime, the level of the crime (warning, misdemeanor, etc.), and the name and race (if it was provided) of the person receiving the ticket. There had been a big influx of immigrants, especially from Mexico and countries in Central America, into majority white communities. I could see based on the data I was collecting that people with Hispanic surnames were far more likely to receive harsher judgments for the same crime than those with non-Hispanic surnames. I was certainly aware of racism before that, but it became clear to me that summer what systemic racism was.
Beyond that, simply growing up in the Midwest in a working class family without a lot of financial or social resources has made me sensitive to how challenging the path to academic and professional success can be for lots of different groups of people.
Q. Can you think of something you worked on that delivered value beyond what you originally envisioned?
There’s a great story from the Museum of the City of New York. Once the museum’s collection was online, students at a public school in the Bronx were able to use a photograph they found to identify a slave burial ground in their neighborhood. Since then they’ve been working with city officials to have the location properly marked and preserved.
There has been a lot of movement in the museum world to acknowledge that “museums are not neutral.” As a museum administrator, I’m aware that we need to be thoughtful about making everyone feel welcome in our spaces and to create inclusive environments through what we collect, what we show, the content of our programs, what kind of outreach we’re doing, who’s responding. Museums have a lot of work to do in diversifying our own staffs, too.
Q. Are there any innovations in the museum space that you’re excited about?
I have mixed feelings about all the technology that’s going into gallery spaces. It’s the human interaction that matters the most, whether it’s between a docent and visitor, or a visitor and an artifact or artwork that connects that person to a larger human experience. The most exciting innovation to me is the increasing awareness that all these spaces are more vibrant, more stimulating, when there are more and different people in them, more voices being heard.
I do appreciate that websites and online collections provide access to collections that most people may never be able to experience in person. This is particularly important for Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, a small organization located off the beaten track in upstate New York. We have Shaker fans from all over the world tuning in to our Instagram feed, and can’t wait to share more of the collection with them when the new website Analogous is building launches.
Q. How are you making Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon more inclusive?
When Analogous came upstate from the city to do the kick-off project workshop, it was really helpful to think as a group, our staff and the Analogous team, about all the types of people who might use the website, what those people are like, what they want from the experience. We sketched out a series of personas, which have been helpful as we think about our own programming and outreach. For instance, we used the personas to structure our new membership program, creating different options that we imagined would appeal to people ranging from a local family looking for something to do over the weekend to someone who’s an expert in Shaker studies or Shaker furniture.
It was also interesting to think together with Analogous about the core values underpinning the objects in the museum’s collection. We’re excited to show off the objects and their design and aesthetic, but we’re also considering how to surface the ethos that led to the creation of those objects.
The Shakers were themselves inclusive. There’s an often-repeated story of how the Shakers always planted extra in their gardens so they could feed people who were hungry in the surrounding communities. And there’s the concept of the “Winter Shaker”—when it got cold and food became scarce, some people would join the Shakers, claiming to embrace their beliefs, and when summer came around they’d leave. The Shakers were quite happy to welcome them, even when they knew or suspected they wouldn’t stay; they The Shakers did everything they could to enhance the communities around them and others’ lives. We hope to be that kind of museum, not just thinking about objects and aesthetics but about people and making our community better.
Another interesting thing is that the Shakers didn’t record the race of people who joined the communities. We did a blog post earlier this year on this topic. There’s a well-known pre-Civil War print that shows a Shaker congregation dancing. Two men of color are featured prominently. These men have always been referred to in Shaker scholarship as “African American,” but as we worked on the blog post, we asked ourselves why we assumed they were African American. The Shakers themselves didn’t turn out to be much help—despite being meticulous documentarians on almost every other subject, they rarely bothered to mention anyone’s race or skin color.
Q. Who do you think are inclusion critics?
In terms of the Shakers, many people in the 18th and 19th centuries were not ready for women leaders. The founder of the Shakers, Mother Ann Lee, was traveling around New England in the late 1700s, proselytizing. People couldn’t believe a woman was leading a successful crusade to recruit new members to this strange new religion and she encountered not just skepticism and hostility, but real physical violence on several occasions. People were also threatened by the Shakers’ challenge to the “normal” family structure—women had equal authority in secular and religious matters, men and women didn’t marry or have children.
We’re still seeing this today. Mother Ann Lee would have had a powerful #MeToo story. We’re still contending with issues of gender, women’s roles, and how men and women interact with one another on a daily basis.
Q. What are your plans for the museum?
We are working to bring a much wider recognition of how radical and progressive the Shakers were and how their values are especially important for us to consider in our present moment. Those values include equality, inclusion, community. I would like the museum to reach a global audience through the website, and to have a greater impact in our immediate community that is in line with Shaker values, partnering with other organizations to empower women, to advance inclusion, to address issues like food insecurity.
Many museums are moving toward a more inclusive model and integrating social justice into their missions; for us at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon these things are especially important because of the history of the Shakers themselves. We are strongly poised not just to share the objects the Shakers made and used, but to share their progressive and inclusive values.