Saying that Stephanie George is passionate about local history is a gross understatement. She lives and breathes for history! Stephanie recently joined the Homestead’s staff as a part-time Collections Assistant. She will work on projects related to interpretation, exhibit planning, and expanding access to our collection. In her “spare time,” you’ll find her actively volunteering on the board of the Orange County Historical Society or diving into genealogical research. Welcome, Stephanie!
Before coming to the Homestead, you worked at Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton. Tell us what you miss most about working with students in both of those settings and why you think museums like the Homestead should reach out to these young enthusiasts.
One of my roles as the archivist was to conduct IRCs, or Individual Research Consultations with students. More in-depth than what you might receive at the reference desk, they included discussions about the students’ research topics, repositories they’d visited, materials they’d previously located, and suggestions about what other “threads” one might pull when searching in our collections or in others. These encounters are probably what I miss most, especially with regard to learning the topics about which students (and, to some extent, other users) were passionate and what new information they’d be creating to challenge or add to the historical record. Despite what some people believe, there are a number of young people who value history—and want to do good history. Encountering those who were so enthusiastic about their research topic was energizing. And, a handful of those students eventually changed their majors and followed the path of becoming public historians once they learned about other possible careers in applied history, so to have influenced their career choices felt as if I were doing more than just providing research information.
There are plenty of college-aged students who aren’t aware of the field of public history; much less, there are fewer high school or elementary school students who have no idea what one can do with a history degree. Moreover, most don’t know that museums have research or teaching collections that are available to the public. Whether it’s an introduction to working in the field though volunteer opportunities, exploring local collections, or learning the multiple stories about the Workmans, the Temples, or those of the region, the Homestead can—and should—inform those who are unfamiliar with these options. Expanding one’s worldview can lead to profound effects on one’s perspective and that can never be a bad thing.
When did your love for local history begin?
If I needed to highlight a specific period in time, the defining moment was when I was about five years old. While pulling out the built-in drawers under the closet in my bedroom in Anaheim, my mother instructed me about the thick layer of dried mud found underneath. “Honey,” she said. “Don’t ever clean this out. It’s left over from the 1938 flood.” My maternal grandparents, who were wonderful storytellers, had already shared their recollections of that flood—and I was immediately transfixed. For years, I gave “tours” of that solidified clay and silt to my friends who weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the “artifact” as I.
Why is it important for museums to rethink use of, or access to, their collections?
As we know, only a small percentage of one’s collections are exhibited at any given time. Moreover, our understanding and interpretation of material culture changes over time. Therefore, it’s reasonable to consider that we can re-interpret items from different perspectives or introduce new items to tell a different facet of the story.
The question, “How do we stay relevant?” is often asked in the library, archive, and museum worlds, and it’s an appropriate one. How do we connect with our contemporary audiences? How do we reach those who are often marginalized? Again, reconsidering how we use collections to tell our stories is one way to encourage innovation, as well as to incorporate diversity and inclusion.
Those who manage collections are tasked with a two-fold obligation: preservation and access. There’s often been a perceived notion that preservation is the ultimate goal. However, why preserve something if it’s not going to be used? There’s a delicate balance that must be struck in order that our items are cared for following accepted best practices, so that they can be accessible via exhibits or research.
Granted, displaying everything turns a museum into Grandma’s attic, but access to collections (especially through exhibits) doesn’t have to be exclusively in our museums. Collaboration with other museums, libraries, or archives exposes other audiences to one’s collection by sharing artifacts. Online databases and exhibits are at the fingertips of everyone who has an internet connection (while minimizing artifacts’ exposure to light, heat, and possible security issues).
Ultimately, providing the highest level of access to visitors and/or researchers allows for discovery, education, dialogue, and scholarly inquiry.
You’ve traveled to historic sites near and far. Name one that is currently on your bucket list, and/or one you recently crossed off the list.
Oh, there are so many! The one that’s pretty much at the top of my list that I’ve yet to visit is the Tenement Museum in NYC. I’ve read nothing but rave reviews about their multiple interpretive tours and it seems like a natural for one who thinks local history is important, especially since its stories are woven into the larger national narrative of East Coast nineteenth-century immigration. For one who was fixated on the powerful message of Jacob Riis’s photographs, it’s a must see.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge that borders Selma, Alabama, isn’t as grand and commanding as so many “must see” historic sites in the U.S., but it’s one that’s imbued with tremendous meaning. Certainly, never able to recreate the same experience as those Civil Rights marchers who came into conflict with the police on their way to Montgomery in 1965, I still walked across the bridge, mindful of everything I’d read or seen about Bloody Sunday.