Curating a Collection

BY Claudia Thompson

Curating is a personal affair. While curators are tasked with cultivating exhibitions of popular interest there is no field guide when it comes to laying the landscape for a given museum.

Whether amassed first by idea donation historical anecdote or artist availability it is the curator who breathes life into the exhibition much like the artist first lays hands on an aspiring masterpiece.

Collections and exhibitions can be an animated process a research-based one or a historical presentation. The curator does his or her best to tell the story of a slice of time or history or a collection of objects or art.

Area museums vary from the little cottage on Salisbury Street that houses the history of Wrightsville Beach to the huge steel battleship docked off the Cape Fear River from the art-focused Cameron Art Museum to the history-focused Cape Fear Museum.

Each has a curator or team of curators that use their knowledge creativity and resources to fulfill the mission of the facility to provide an interesting and educational experience for visitors and to keep those visitors coming back.

Whether it is exploring a small historical cottage to learn what life was like at the beginning of what is now today’s Wrightsville Beach or looking down the range of an on-deck naval rotating gun the curator understands the bottom line: Protecting the historical artifacts is paramount.

Preserving history art and stories for the future is key. Along with that comes plenty of creative license and sometimes artistic expression. What you can’t see you might hear. What you can’t feel with your hands and feet may reverberate in your emotions; the scale color detail and oftentimes sounds from one curated space to the next so perfectly achieved.

Cape Fear Museum of History and Science

Friends and classmates at the University of Delaware Mary Ames Booker and Barbara Rowe continue their passion for history as colleagues. Booker is curator at the Battleship North Carolina and Rowe celebrated 30 years in the same role at Cape Fear Museum in November.

Rowe was at the Milwaukee Public Museum for four years after beginning a graduate internship but budget cuts sent her packing east.

“This was in the 1980s and the [Midwest was] going through the rustbelt syndrome of financial difficulties ” she says. “The county said ‘We’re not going to be able to support a museum anymore ‘ and that’s how I ended up here.”

As someone well versed in the vast scope of world history her job in Wisconsin was relatively straightforward. Working in Wilmington at a museum dedicated to telling the story of the lower Cape Fear region has proved to be more interesting.

“Well I don’t see American history as really enormous because to me it’s a subset of world history and that’s really enormous ” she says with a laugh “When you see how far back Europe goes it’s really very manageable. After having been in the Midwest where a lot of those communities started in the 19th century coming back to the East Coast which goes back to the 17th century kind of opened it up for me. I like being on the East Coast; there’s a longer period of time to interpret.”

Building an exhibit can be a very long and involved process that can take anywhere from three to five years especially when original research is required.

“Compared to some other parts of the country say Charleston Williamsburg New York Philadelphia so much research has already been done that you can almost pull a book off a shelf and find what you want to know ” she says. “In the lower Cape Fear not so much. You have to go to original resources like North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh or North Carolina Chapel Hill or Duke University or other archives to find the information you are looking for to tell the story.”

Like many curators her natural wonder and curiosity and love of history began in childhood.

“It seems like in my family growing up we all talked about history even if it was your own family genealogy ” she says. “Both my parents like old stuff. We’d go to antique shows and I just always liked the objects and the story they can tell: Who owned this? How is it used? Where did they keep it? What did it mean?”

When planning an exhibit she always considers whether anyone else will find it particularly enthralling.

“I do this for a living. So I find a lot of things fascinating that others may not ” she says. “I have to put myself in the visitors’ shoes.”

For example a picture of a hat doesn’t have quite the same appeal as the physical hat.

“We are constantly evaluating what tells a story what would be fun to look at intriguing and yet is meaningful ” she says.

With a towering replica of a prehistoric sloth fossil that was uncovered near Randall Parkway greeting visitors at the entrance the uniqueness of the Cape Fear Region and its placement as both a port city and coastal landscape is evident.

The 52 000 objects in the museum’s collection include items from Cape Fear Indians before recorded history to a 1950s soapbox derby car sponsored by a local company to iron farm equipment used in the 1920s. There are U.S. Coast Guard life preservers and catalogue drawers containing souvenirs and parade swag from festivals. There is little the museum doesn’t collect if it is local.

“If it happened here was made here or used here it’s a candidate to be in our collection ” Rowe beams.

Battleship North Carolina

Curator of collections Mary Ames Booker has a simple benchmark for success at the Battleship North Carolina: “Heart and history.” Her goal she says is for history to connect with the emotions of those visiting the vessel.

The artifact and archival collection at the 728-foot museum and memorial berthed across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington tells the story of the famous World War II-era battleship as well as the history of all the vessels that have borne the name of the state beginning with the first USS North Carolina a 74-gun ship of the line launched in Philadelphia on September 1820 and continuing through the attack submarine North Carolina that was commissioned in Wilmington on May 3 2008.

Artifacts not on display in the exhibit hall or in display cases aboard the ship reside in a workroom below decks. There are rows of boxes on innumerable shelves containing letters papers photos uniforms.

The aged artifacts require protection from the elements. The room is climate controlled with no bright light.

“We preserve and share ” Booker says.

Sharing became easier in 2013 when the battleship launched a digital archive. More than 26 000 records are available online.

Booker sees her work as a way to teach history outside a classroom. She was drawn to museums after working as a college intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History located on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

“I just loved the way that they would bring history to life ” she says.

Her volunteer work involved Revolutionary War history.

“I would stand there with my Brown Bess rifle ” she says raising her arms in the air with a smile continuing as she takes aim “and we had it rigged so you could shoot if off — kushooo! — and people loved that! They all flock over and talk to you. So that’s a little bit of living history.”

Curating at the Battleship involves a different kind of living history. The ship was commissioned in 1941. Some of men who served aboard her still come to annual crew reunions.

“World War II was not so long ago ” she says. “I know it has been 70 years but it is still within a generation of understanding.”

Her father born in 1917 was a WWII soldier in the U.S. Army Air Corps who served as a young officer in the European theater.

“He loved history. I don’t know what he would think of this today ” she muses looking around at her work.

He taught her to love history too. Although he never talked about his time in the war her work aboard a WWII battleship cements the bond between father and daughter.

“It was a connection I had with him ” she says.

The Battleship North Carolina is the perfect place to reach the next generation with her passion for the millions of stories from sea rescue missions to battles in different theatres of war to burials at sea.

“Everything is chosen for a reason so in a lot of ways there are subtle messages involved or you are making a big message but you really want to get that symbol across ” she says. “I’m not a scientist so I really do try to make a heart-connection.”

Wrightsville Beach Museum of History

In keeping with the place where most good stories start the Wrightsville Beach Museum collection began in the kitchen.

“That was such a draw to people ” says Madeline Flagler executive director of the facility’s first exhibit.

The museum is housed in the Myers Cottage built around 1907 and moved from 124 South Lumina Avenue to its current location in the town’s historic square in 1995. The old cottage tells the history of the town by giving visitors a peek into the lives of people who lived and vacationed at the coast during the turn of the century.

Flagler who has been in charge of the museum and its exhibits since the summer of 2009 after spending nearly a decade as the director of the Bellamy Mansion can tell visitors anything about the home and kitchen from its collection of local ashtrays and menus from bygone restaurants to the Civil War-era cannonballs that landed on shore nearby possibly shot from the USS Florida a wooden side-wheel steamship that blockaded the Carolina coast.

Flagler’s personal history with Wrightsville Beach comes from her days of visiting as a young girl on vacation with her family from Alexandria Virginia. Her degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill launched her passion for museums. When her family relocated to Hawaii she took graduate classes in American studies and an internship at Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives in Honolulu.

“I was in the education department and the director was adamant that the education department and the curatorial department work hand-in-hand. Very often they butt heads because their purposes are different ” she says.

The director explained how the roles are intertwined. The curator ensures the artifacts are taken care of. The educators use the artifact to teach.

“That was wonderful because it made it so that I wasn’t just in my education department ” she says. “I worked closely with the curators and understood their viewpoint. So I’m not trained as a curator but I do understand the principles of that.”

As executive director of the museum at Wrightsville Beach Flagler is involved in both education and curation. She is always on the lookout for artifacts that convey information about the history of the town with the challenge of fitting them within a limited space while operating with a limited budget.

The original room layout remains — the kitchen exhibit remains popular — but Flagler keeps it fresh with new items both contributed and procured. The sandy play area behind the museum features a lifeguard stand donated and delivered by the town. A recent display featured new paintings of historic Wrightsville Beach locations commissioned from local artists asked to submit works based on photographs of some of the island’s most iconic landmarks.

Cameron Art Museum

The human body is revitalized on an ongoing basis by the vascular system. That’s the role played by Bob Unchester and Holly Tripman Fitzgerald at the Cameron Art Museum (CAM). They are the heart of the museum keeping the arterial pathways fresh by curating the exhibits that educate and entertain the public.

They are the team responsible for generating and rotating the displays at the CAM using their experience instincts and creativity to navigate the complexities of curation.

“From finding the artwork finding the artists arranging for shipment or going to do it ourselves to the actual unpacking the condition reports the installation the lighting the vinyl lettering the labels �”

Fitzgerald finishes the sentence:

“We are the team.”

While visiting New York executive director Anne Brennan saw a piece of an exhibition called “A Humument ” London artist Tom Phillips’ lifetime project that includes 300 pieces of art. She wanted to bring the full exhibit to Wilmington and tasked Unchester and Fitzgerald with making it happen.

The work featuring pages of “A Human Document ” a little-known book published in 1892 occupied an entire wall and hung on 300 nails each individually installed by Unchester.

“That’s one of the things I think that maybe makes us different from other places ” he says.

Phillips’ work was part of an exhibition called “UnBound Narrative ” which ran from August 2016 through January 15. After securing “A Humument ” Unchester and Fitzgerald began looking for artists with similarly themed pieces to flesh out the display.

“We knew we were starting with Tom Phillips so we researched other artists creating or using books as their medium ” Fitzgerald says. “The Internet was very helpful and that’s how we started.”

With all of their collaborations the duo bounces ideas off each other until the work appears as singular as they first imagined it.

“In the research we do we are constantly coming across things or styles we didn’t know were out there like sandblasting encyclopedias into the Grand Canyon ” Unchester says.

Curation takes more than knowledge and research. It can also involve experimentation.

Unchester wanted to add life to the work of Cuban artist Diana Fonseca Qui�ones. He developed a clever video installation. The visitor first would hear the pages of a book flapping in the breeze. The visual medium was achieved by pairing the sound with an old-fashioned oscillating fan on a pedestal. The complicated installation required a reverse mirror image of video projected on the inside of a wall showing a book with moving pages. The full experience captured a fan blowing the pages of a book which wasn’t really there.

“We thought we could make it work somehow but we weren’t exactly sure ” Unchester says.

Unchester grew up in Edison New Jersey and frequented New York City museums with his grandmother. His sister was also an artist.

“I would sneak into her closet and go through all of her sketches and try to copy them and spend most of my free time sketching and painting and that led to my decision to go to college for art ” he says.

Fitzgerald also was drawn to museums from a young age.

“I was always into museums even as a kid ” she says. “One of my first memories was at age 5 going on vacation with my family to Washington D.C. and visiting the Smithsonian. But even then I never really thought of working in museums I just knew that I liked them and I wanted to go. I was just in the right place at the right time when I happened upon Cameron Art Museum.”

She revisited her childhood memories in 2014 when the CAM displayed work on loan from artist Hiroshi Sueyoshi whose work is part of the Renwick Gallery at theSmithsonian collection.