Post by Andrea Ledesma
Today, we’re kicking off #MCN50 Voices. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far. Diana Folsom and I are excited to kick off the series with a conversation of our own.
Diana is the Director of Digital Collections at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art at the University of Tulsa. Previously, she worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for 20+ years, where she helped orchestrate the Getty Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative among other projects. Currently, I’m a graduate student in the public humanities at Brown University. Through coursework focused on public history, museum technology, and collective memory, I explore how technology reinvents the ways in which narratives are formed and interpreted within museums and cultural institutions. Currently, I work as an instructional technology fellow on campus, as well as intern for the Digital Public Library of America in Boston. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Getting from there to here takes commitment, grit, and a bit of chance.
Diana and I share a love for cultural heritage. While I study history, memory, and narrative, Diana has a background in art, music, dance, and education. What she calls “all the practical things.” Learning about her professional experiences was interesting, if not inspiring for an emerging professional like myself. Diana’s story, however, also showcased the value of the unexpected. After graduation, she worked a number of jobs in technology – educational software, computer manufacturing, and marketing – but her path to the museum started with a serendipitous bus ride in New York. She found herself sitting next to Jim Schlotter, then LACMA’s CIO. He was – and still is – a “charismatic, outgoing fellow.” Fast forward through a long-distance friendship based on shared projects and LACMA’s growing digital infrastructure, Diana eventually found herself working at the museum.
Find ways to have fun, IRL.
For as many hours as Diana and I spend with screens and servers, we both like to disconnect. Diana is a practicing artist. She explained:
“I have to say working with technology and day to day business applications, I just didn’t want to do anything with computers in my own art. I may work with ideas a bit through sketching and manipulating images, but beyond that I just like the physicality of painting and mixed media.”
When not at my desk or in the library, you find me in the kitchen. I cook and eat, and read about other people cooking and eating. Fun fact: if not in museums, I’d be a chef. I worked at Williams-Sonoma all through high school and could probably still sell someone on a copper-core pan if I tried hard enough. This hobby is not nearly as well documented as Diana’s – unless you’re counting all the gratuitous shots of my #homecooking on Instagram. So, here’s a bit of Diana’s art. Her paintings rely on “materials of special meaning, selecting soils from places of family, cultural or historical significance or personal memory.”
Professional decisions can lead to personal discoveries.
Curious about Diana’s work at the Gilcrease, I asked what inspired her to move from California to Oklahoma. She explained that it was as much a professional decision as it was personal. When Diana flew out to Oklahoma for her first interview at the Gilcrease, she took her mom. The Gilcrease’s initiative to digitize its 400,000+ objects presented the perfect opportunity for her and her husband to “do something kind of radical,” but, her ties to Oklahoma run deeper than the museum. Tucked away in the museum archives, Diana has found pieces of her family history. Her great-great grandfather David Folsom, for example, was a Choctaw District Chief with close ties to another relative, Peter Perkins Pitchlynn, who was Principal Choctaw Chief through the Civil War. Some of David Folsom’s correspondence is archived among the Pitchlynn papers. Some of these materials have been digitized. You can take a peek into Diana’s story with one of the letters, featured below. Here, David Folsom writes to his brother-in-law Peter, and writes in the post-script:
“Advise – you know John Ross was hated by many – trying to do his people good, or at least defending their wrights.[sic] So you have many enemies all ready about and you will be on your gard. The men are fraid [sic] to speak against you before me. But I know enough to tell you of these things.”
Don’t underestimate the buddy system.
Advice to those looking to establish and/or grow their career through these next 50 years: connect with a mentor. Diana found a mentor later in her career after volunteering with MCN, and she described the experience as nothing short of life changing. “Stephanie Stebich has been a fantastic mentor!,” Diana emphasized, “She started our conversation with, ‘We’re going to find a board of directors for your life’…and she made sure I found it.” I consider Paul Sparrow, now Director of the FDR Library, a mentor of my own. We first connected during my internship at the Newseum, when he was then Senior VP of Broadcasting, and he continues to be generous with his insight and resources. Diana also mentors students of her own at the University of Tulsa, teaching courses on museum informatics and collections. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to share what I’ve learned, and to build the strengths in the [university].”
We ❤️️ MCN.
I joined MCN last year. Diana’s been a member since the ‘90s, serving on the board from 2011 to 2013. For all that time, Diana and I shared the same warm thoughts about MCN. Reflecting on her first MCN conference, Diana explained:“It was like a whole new world opened up. It put things in context.” For me attending last year’s conference was like happening on a community of my own, of others who spoke the same language and worked in the same niche. I was fortunate to have attended the conference as an MCN Scholar, affording me the opportunity to not only connect with members but also share my own work. MCN, though, is about work and play. These connections happened at panels, over dinner, on Bourbon Street, and of course, with karaoke. I met future colleagues and made fast friends. What I’ve learned from MCN thus far has also proven invaluable as I’ve been charting my own path from graduate student to museum professional. This is perhaps one of the secrets to MCN’s enduring success. Diana describes it as a “generosity of ideas…[and] ways of learning.” It runs through the MCN community, inspiring members to create and innovate together.
Talk the talk.
Looking beyond 2017, Diana encourages us to think about communication and education. “It’s still a challenge to communicate what we do,” she noted, “to express the complexities in a simple, clear way to upper management and to continue to fund our efforts at a strong level. That’s a challenge for me. Learning how to communicate up, as well as down, which is really important to learn.” By that she means, learning how translate both the value and labor associated with our work across departments in one’s institution. So, to that end Diana says: “get involved.” Speaking for yourself, your work, and your institution takes practice, find opportunities to work with your peers. “The more involved they got, the more they got back.”
Stay tuned for more voices from #MCN50 over the coming months. If you’re interested in getting involved with any of the celebrations, let us know here.