As part of our continuing series of interviews with new museum studies faculty, we have some exciting news to share with you! Joining Marjorie Schwarzer this fall in co-teaching the capstone class is Stephanie Brown. This summer, Suma Nagaraj sat down with Stephanie to learn more about her background and passion for museums.
Q: Tell us about your background. What brought you to this path?
Stephanie: When I look back, I think museums were very central to how I interacted with the world, how I made the world make sense. I was a hopelessly nerdy kid. I grew up in an artsy town in North Carolina. North Carolina School of the Arts created a critical mass of people interested in culture and art. So I grew up in this environment where people read and visited museums a lot. Reynolda House Museum of American Art was really close to my house. .
When my grandfather used to visit Paris twice a year. He would stay at this hotel across the river from the Louvre. I inherited his slides, boxes of them, and there are pictures of market stalls with fruit and pictures of the outside of museums.
Q: You have also lived in France. Tell us about that experience and how it has informed your career path.
Stephanie: My doctorate from Stanford is in French History. I wrote about the court that tried Marie Antoinette and dealt with political crimes during the Reign of Terror. At that time, my husband and I were both in graduate school. We always wanted to have a deeper experience of France. So we went there in 2007 for two years.
Almost all museums in France are national museums, they belong to the state. And so, to be a museum employee, you pass a certain set of bureaucratic exams. It’s a totally different way of thinking about museums. Sometimes when you see something that’s different from your own experience, you understand more about what you know. That made me understand more about how we think, in America, about our role in community and our expectations for our visitors and service, and creating communities around museums.
Europe has a totally different approach to museum education and culture. In France, I had a chance to step back and think about how museums fit into culture, and what kind of education we should be doing – a more museological way of thinking.
Q: Why French History for your doctorate?
Stephanie: I earned my BA in history at Williams College in Massachusetts, and then I went onto Stanford to study early modern European history My thesis advisor was a French historian, a Sri Lankan woman. She was a total radical; she still organizes protests. History for her was a path toward teaching citizenship to her students. To her, the French Revolution was a moment of profound change and experimentation and idealism when people really thought they could start the world over again. She was a profound influence on me.
It was in grad school that I learned that teaching was not at the center of every academic’s life, which was shocking. I really struggled with that, because I loved doing research, finding things and archives, thinking about how to tell a story around those objects. I loved getting my hands dirty and to be able to teach, but that third university leg of theory and abstraction just left me cold.
Q: After eleven years of back-to-back undergrad and grad school, what were your next steps?
Stephanie: Stanford’s library is just unbelievable – 20,000 books or something – and the librarians had been curating this collection for 20, 25 years. I learned so much from them about how collections get organized and how to get people to articulate the questions they actually have.
From these incredible librarians, I learned to help people ask the questions they want to ask, which curiously, is not the first question they ask, and I learned to tell stories about collections.
Q: So now that the librarians had lain the foundation for your curatorial instincts, how did your first foray into the field of museums as a curator come about?
Stephanie: In ’99, around the time we decided to move back to DC from the Bay Area, I wrote letters to all the museums in DC, telling them I wanted to work with them. The Hillwood Museum offered me a part-time position in the archives, due to my archival experience.
Hillwood had opened in 1978, five years after the death of Marjorie Merriweather Post, its founder. It was opened to the public as a museum, but not because the family had any vision for displaying their collection. The museum was housed in a neo-colonial Georgian mansion, which didn’t have climate control. All the furniture, the textiles, the Faberge – and no central air in DC of all places! So the then director sent the collection on tour, fixed the house and started professionalizing the staff. I came in at the tail end of that, hired by the archivist who did not have any professional training herself. I was fortunate to come into the museum where the situation was changing. You need to be comfortable in saying, “You know what? I don’t know. But I can find out.” The more confident that I was in my knowledge of a collection, the more comfortable I was with saying, “You know what? I don’t know, but I can find out.”
When the archivist left her job, I was promoted and had the chance to reorganize the archives, which had about 5,000 photographs, 25 feet of paper documents. It was a small but dense and healthy archive.
As part of that project, the volunteers and I brought to the project a standard, professional practice of archiving. But with my training as a historian, the most interesting thing to me was thinking about Hillwood in a historical context. So after we finished re-cataloging the collection, the museum created a position of a curator of American material culture, and that was me. The inventory is unbelievably grand. People would come in and your eyes just get dazzled by it. So in addition to the Faberge and the Sevres, the collection also includes everything from the kitchen – very quotidian, mundane items like pots and pans, mixers and spatulas.
Everyday objects can have so much power because they can be both familiar, but if the story that takes off from it is a really different story, then the object kind of leads you through it. What I love about working with objects behind the scenes is getting to know them well enough that I can find ways to make their stories accessible to visitors.
So I started doing more lecturing, working closely with the education department, trying to build up a base of information that we could give our visitors that would give them some context that they could latch on to. When you give people that context, it opens the doors for a more meaningful experience.
Q: One memory/project that stands out for you at Hillwood?
Stephanie: A project I stumbled upon, wouldn’t have set out to do necessarily, was a day of programming that revolved around Art Deco. The Education Department came to me and said, “We need someone who can explain what Art Deco is and provide context to our visitors”. So I put together a lecture that explained what it was and gave it historical context. And I went on to work with the Education Department and created a focus tour only on Art Deco elements at the Hillwood.
I really loved that project because it let me look at the collection with fresh eyes and research something I knew nothing about.
Q: From curatorship at Hillwood, to the directorship of a relatively smaller museum – the Chevy Chase Historical Society. That must have been challenging. What was your transition like?
Stephanie: The Chevy Chase Historical Society was founded in the early ’80s and for about 22-23 years, was run entirely by volunteers. As time passed, they began to professionalize. They hired a Director who was able to get grants to start cataloging their collection. When I joined the society, we had a long-term lease on a good-sized room. Some of our collection was in storage. I came on with a brief to continue professionalizing. I was the only paid staff member. I had a couple of interns and a handful of volunteers. It was my job to maintain a vision while getting the staples out of the mostly archival collection. I literally do mean getting the staples out.
That was a pretty far cry from working with Cartier picture frames. But when I left Hillwood, I had gotten to a point where I was doing so much managing and I really wanted to get away from that and work in a less politicized environment. I was tasked with making it a more accessible and accessed organization. What I learned was that I didn’t want to direct anything. So what we did was put together an archive for future generations. It was definitely hard to have to work on a multi-thousand budget after having worked on a multi-million budget. But it gave me tools to be a better teacher.
Q: Tell us about the capstone class you will co-teach with Marjorie.
Stephanie: The class I will teach at USF is called Museum Project Management. It will revolve around each student coming up with a project – whether in capital campaign, moving a collection, digitizing a collection, writing a preschool curriculum – for a specific institution, and how we can scale each project using project management tools. It will give them the intellectual skill of breaking a problem down to smaller bits, and it will also give the very practical skill of how to use the tools of project management.
And I am really looking forward to co-teaching with Marjorie Schwarzer!
Q: Lastly, tell us something about yourself that you would like your students to know.
Stephanie: I’m an open book. I like to cook. I have a dog named Alice. I love to hike. In fact, my twin daughters will tell you their entire upbringing was centered around food and museums. My husband is a big hiker. All of our family trips are based around some places where we could get good food and go to museums and go hiking.
What do I love about teaching? What truly energizes me is getting to know students and preparing them for success.
Note: Hillwood images are courtesy the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens; Photos by Ed Owen