This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.
Elizabeth (Beth) Bollwerk (left) is the Archaeological Analyst, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is on the MCN board of directors.
Torii Moré (right) is the Curator of Digital Humanities at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Illinois. She is attending MCN for the first time this year!
Beth and Torii have never spoken before this conversation, but Torii was excited to get to know someone before coming to the conference in November.
Torii: So you are an archaeologist, I understand, so how did you first become interested in archaeology? What led you down that path?
Beth: Well I was always interested in history, my parents were both history majors so I spent a lot of time growing up going to museums and various historic houses and other organizations. Then it came time to decide what I wanted to do I thought I would be a history major and I needed up taking an archaeology class and I really enjoyed it. My teacher actually pointed me towards the archaeology field school that my college ran every summer because he said, “you know, it seems like you are interested in history but this is an interesting way to expand it beyond just written records, something new to experiment with.” The field school was in Indiana and Michigan it was a Native American Contact Period site dating to the mid-1840s. I worked there for about 6 weeks and absolutely loved it and came back to serve as a TA the summer after. Ever since then I’ve been totally entrenched.
Torii: So how long have you been in the field then?
Beth: Let’s see, that was 2001 so I guess going on 16 years.
Torii: How long have you been working at Monticello?
Beth: I’ve been working on and off since 2010. I ended up going to grad school at University of Virginia (UVA), which is also in Charlottesville. And while I was working there I crossed paths with a couple people who were teaching there and also working in the archaeology department and they fortunately had part time work that they let me know about. I was processing collections as a start and slowly got more integrated into the current project I work with, which is the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). I’ve been on full time since 2014.
Torii: What is a typical day like for you at your workplace? I saw your title is “Senior Archaeological Analyst,” what does that mean?
Beth: It means a lot of things. Like many museum titles, it encompasses a lot of tasks. Depending on what we have going on that day it could be anything from analyzing nineteenth century artifacts and entering them in the database, it could be teaching a workshop about how to use our website and database, or answering questions about different artifacts or sites in the database. It could mean updating our website and doing research ourselves with R (a programming language) in preparation for giving a conference paper. A lot of it is analysis and spending time with artifacts but it really depends on the day.
Torii: Since you went to school for archaeology, how did you develop all these digital skills that it seems like you use a lot?
Beth: Uh, I developed a lot of them on the job.
Torii: Me too! [laughter]
Beth: When I started back in 2001, in the field most of what we used was notebooks, pencils, really basic stuff. Our cataloging was in an Excel spreadsheet. I did get an undergraduate minor in computer applications. So that introduced me to a little bit of programming and some of the opportunities that were part of digital technology. It wasn’t until I got to UVA and got involved in the Chaco Research Archive, which is a big online database of information from excavations from Chaco Canyon, that I really got involved in digital archaeology, and that was in 2009. I got my feet wet there, and then moving over to DAACS I kind of shifted regions and temporal periods but stayed in the digital archaeological world and learned a lot about databases and SQL code and R code just by watching other people do it and learning from my fellow graduate students and co-workers. They’ve been critical in helping me find my way in this digital world.
Torii: Well, that makes me feel a lot better!
Beth: Is that your experience too?
Torii: Yes, absolutely! I studied anthropology too as an undergrad and had an internship at the museum I work at right now. I was photographing objects and putting them in the database, and at the end of my internship there just so happened to be a part time position that had opened in the library processing collections and making finding aids, and from there I had to update if a collection changed, and the finding aid on the website. And so then I started tweaking other pieces of the website and the Executive Director noticed. He was conjuring up this position, this curator of digital humanities position, it didn’t exist yet and he asked me if I would be interested in giving it a shot and I said “Yes absolutely, I can give it a shot—and also what is it?” Then he told me that I needed to be in pursuit of my master’s degree in Library and Information Science to be eligible for the full-time position so I applied and got in and here I am. That was three years ago.
Beth: What does your daily life look like? It sounds like it is pretty hectic?
Torii: It’s kind of like yours, it depends on what is going on project-wise. The past two or three years have largely been focused on technology in our exhibits. Depending on where we are in that process I will be conjuring up big ideas, goals, and dreams and hopes for iPad/computer applications, videos, and audio visual tools, to actually researching for those things or making sure that the companies that we’ve hired to develop these things actually incorporated our edits, doing usability testing, and then buying and installing hardware and opening the exhibit. There is really no typical day, which is sometimes a great thing but it’s also not-so-great sometimes because you never know what you are going to walk into and be doing that day. You know, you could go down a path that takes you five days off into a research hole.
Torii: When we got matched up it was a few weeks after the rally in Charlottesville. So of course I want to know what things are like over there, what that was like for you and your colleagues who are teaching about slavery? How as an institution do you all handle events like that?
Beth: It’s been a really difficult period obviously. In some ways Charlottesville was a really perfect place for white supremacists to come and have this rally, because socioeconomic and racial tension already exists and has recently been exacerbated by the Confederate statue debate. It was unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising. I think a lot of really good and tough conversations have come out of it. The violence inspired by the rally has forced a lot of people to take a harder look at our community and how the problems in Charlottesville relate to this larger, difficult conversation we are having about race at a national level. I think for us at Monticello, it’s reinforced this relatively recent focus of efforts to try and show the public how Thomas Jefferson is this really complex figure. We’re not ignoring the fact that he was a slave owner, but addressing that head on while at the same time acknowledging that he was a founding father, obviously was a person of incredible intellect, of incredible work ethic, but also acknowledging that a good part of the reason he was able to accomplish so much was because he had this enslaved workforce doing all the labor on his plantation.
This national dialogue on history and race and how African American communities have been impacted and still are impacted by this history of enslavement only bolsters us because we realize how critical it is to get stories like the ones we are trying to tell out. We are trying not to ignore the tough realities of slavery but to get people to engage with that and most importantly think and talk about it. Because we are immersed in it, it seems obvious to us, but it really isn’t. Everything we can do to tell that more complex story to a broader public is really important to us. Clearly this is a time where we need that dialogue and need to force people to think about the complexities of the stories. I think Charlottesville still has a lot it needs to work through. It’s a time of reflection and growth and understandably there still is some anger and we are all still working through.
Torii: I think a lot of museums are grappling with that same issue of, you know, it’s our place to educate and have those conversations and to be open to hosting those conversations but it is seen as divisive and political. Straddling that is hard, so tough conversations are being had and will continue to be had in museums.
Torii: My last question: You have been involved in MCN for a while now, so what advice do you have for my first time at the MCN conference? What should first-timers keep a look out for?
Beth: This will be a great conference to start with. There will be a ton of energy around 2017 obviously because it is the 50th anniversary. MCN chose Pittsburgh as a site because there is a growing museum culture and it is really thriving. The goal is for it to be an inspirational setting, in addition to the conference but Pittsburgh as a whole. The thing that got me to stick with MCN is just the fact that the community is so open. Coming from academia, it can be somewhat frustrating when people, understandably, because the way you build your career is to really tout what you’ve produced and what’s gone well in your research and projects. But I often found that came at the expense of having a difficult time talking about what goes wrong with research and what doesn’t pan out with research. What I really like about the MCN community is that people are really willing and open in talking about what works but also what doesn’t work. People, I’ve found, are really honest about how well a project works, and how well it is meeting their goals, but also aspects of it that maybe didn’t work so well or things that they would do differently. And I have found that incredibly valuable because it’s helping other people avoid reinventing the wheel. And it’s helping build community because if something is not working for one person there’s often conversations you can have where someone else has tried it and had different results.
Since museum technologists are not that big of a crowd, often institutions are working towards the same goals and if people are willing to share where they are finding traction and having trouble that’s really helpful. So I often encourage people to come ready to share what about their projects that they are really proud of and excited to be working on but also be looking to talk with people about things in their institution that they are struggling with because this is the community that has the knowledge base and the willingness to talk about challenges equally and I think that’s incredibly valuable.