What was your hometown, major, minor(s), concentration and year of graduation?
I grew up in central Connecticut, but I came to Salem State later in life (I was 36 when I started there) after living in Marblehead for a year or two; most of my time at Salem State I lived in Beverly. In 2013 I received a BA in History, Public History concentration, with a minor in English (originally a double major; I reduced my commitment to the English department due to changing my planned entrance into graduate school).
What is your current title and role? What are your responsible for day-to-day?
I currently work as the Exhibits Curator for two libraries at Cornell University (Albert R. Mann Library and the Cornell Asia Collections) in Ithaca, New York. I develop exhibitions that showcase the collections and initiatives of the libraries. My time gets pretty evenly distributed between researching the topic of the current exhibit project and performing design tasks.
As an example, I spent much of last week rooting through the library catalog to identify books in our holdings that support our current topic in an interesting way (spiders! – Mann Library mainly serves the life sciences). Today I photographed plates in an 18th-century book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll edit the pictures in Photoshop, select specific text from our books to highlight, then lay out interpretive panels that will be installed in our exhibit space. I also do presentations about and give tours of the exhibits I produce for various stakeholders both within and outside of the university.
What encouraged you to pursue this career?
It more or less started with an Intro to Museum Work class with Dr. Jay that I took largely on a whim. That transitioned into an internship at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum assisting them with accessioning a large donation and then summer work as a guide at Historic New England’s Beauport historic home. At that stage, I knew I was going into the museum field, but I expected to be more involved in collections management than curation. The latter interest really developed in grad school.
What skills did you learn as a History major and how did your time at Salem State prepare you for life after graduation?
What I do relies very heavily on the research skills I developed in undergrad at Salem State, as well as the ability to write clear but detailed text on a multitude of subjects. In a real sense, my day-to-day world is very much like being in the history department – get topic, read about topic, analyze topic, do project. I also deal quite a bit with pre-20th century materials, so being able to put those into context both within their contemporary period and from a present-day perspective is essential to my work.
Was there a particular faculty member or class that had a lasting impact on you?
While I had a lot of positive experiences with the faculty in the History department, I don’t think I would have succeeded at Salem State without Bethany Jay and Michele Louro. Dr. Jay taught most of the public history classes that I took and helped line up the internship that really turned my interest firmly to museum work – and that’s on top of being a friend, a mentor, and someone who I knew genuinely cared about what I got out of my education. I can honestly say that without her influence I would not be on my current career path.
Dr. Louro was my advisor; while I rarely needed guidance on what classes to take, she helped me tremendously in navigating both the difficulties of applying for grad school and a number of personal items (her critique of my writing was spot on, too). The two of them gave me so much help and guidance throughout my time at Salem State that I can’t imagine my trajectory there without them.
What is the most exciting professional opportunity you have had since graduating?
After graduation, I went directly into a museology MA program at the University of Washington and my position at Cornell is my first job since graduating from there. That said, I have had two moments that really stand out for me in a professional sense. The first was getting to hold in my hands photographs that were hand developed by Mann Ray at his Paris studio in 1911 (I am a huge geek regarding dada artists).
The second is part of an exhibit I currently have installed about female botanical illustrators. There was an amateur mycologist in 19th century England named M.F. Lewis who did hundreds of exquisitely detailed and scientifically accurate watercolors of fungus in and around the county of Shropshire; she never published her work, but Mann Library has her original manuscripts. To my knowledge, I am the first curator to put her work on display, and as a curator I find that to be incredibly exciting.
What is it like for a New Englander to live in upstate New York?
Living in Ithaca itself is a lot like being in a college town in Massachusetts; Amherst/Northampton comes to mind, though the main parts of town are less spread out. Going outside of town, though, means driving for at least an hour before getting to another major population center or even an interstate. As a Connecticut native that feels strange to me, but here in Ithaca feels like home.
What advice would you provide to an incoming history major at Salem State?
I can’t stress this enough - get to know your professors. Go to their office hours even if you don’t have a question or need specific help. You’ll get so much more out of your classes and the department if you know your professors’ expectations and they know what you are trying to get out of your education, not to mention the personal relationships that develop as you spend time together.
I remember being able to ask Dr. Mauriello what was worth seeing during a long layover in Munich - because I knew his research area, that he had spent a lot of time in Germany because of that, and that he and I shared interest in a lot of the same types of historical objects (even if in different areas of history). That’s a really specific example, but because I took the time to know him I was able to get more from our relationship than I could get just from being in his class. The professors you have in undergrad will stay with you for the entirety of your academic and professional career; don’t waste the opportunity for those relationships to be meaningful.
Learn more about the history department at Salem State University.