Curator of Collections at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza houses a unique cultural collection of more than 50,000 objects related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Located on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository Building in Dealey Plaza, the museum pays homage to President Kennedy by detailing the events of November 22, 1963, the aftermath of the assassination, and presents an opportunity to view contemporary culture through the lens of presidential history.
Gallery Systems had a chance to catch up with Lindsey Richardson, the Curator of Collections at The Sixth Floor Museum, about her role in the museum, how technology plays into the museum’s interaction and engagement with visitors, as well as her views on the future of the curatorial process.
How do you see new technologies supporting your work?
New technologies affect our work in a number of areas; for example, digitization of objects. We’ve got a large number of images and audiovisual recordings in our collection, so the ever-evolving technologies that capture high quality digital versions of those originals are always of interest to us. Some of the new scanners that can digitize from an 8mm home movie are really amazing. And of course TMS is a fantastic tool. We’re currently using it to manage a 3-year, wall-to-wall inventory project, and I am excited to see how it will transform both the quality and quantity of data we’ve collected. We use eMuseum to publish collections online, and a variety of social media platforms to make those collections available to our audience. I love that we can make fragile items available to everyone online–that’s the culmination of all those technologies: digitization, managing and publishing data, and connecting to audiences. Our goal is to put many more records online in the coming years.
Does your staff use your collection management system as a research tool? If yes, how?
Some of us do, and we hope to make the research feature of TMS more prominent in the future. Right now our collections staff are the Museum’s TMS gurus. We enter the data, edit and clean it up, search for it, run reports, find hidden treasures, and conduct inventories, all with the help of TMS. Other staffers search in TMS for things they want to find to support programs, exhibits, and to provide access to researchers, but often they’ll come to us and ask for help because we’re more familiar with all the ways to search for data. In the past 20 years or so, different methods of data entry have been used at different times, resulting in a lack of standardization. Therefore, several different searches must be conducted to ensure you’ve covered the different fields in use over such a long period of time.
One of the goals of our current inventory project is to standardize searchable data for all TMS records. Recently, I developed a sort of “scavenger hunt” for our newest hires, to teach them how to navigate TMS and search for different things. Other members of the department heard about it and were interested as well. We may decide to have a “search party” to teach others how to use TMS for their own research purposes.
What is the biggest challenge that curators are facing today? How will the role of curator change in the future?
The role of curator is already changing. While the need for scholarship and expertise is still there, curators today also need to be able to think like educators and program developers. We have to be able to use our knowledge of subject matter and collections to craft programs and exhibits that will interest different audiences, and compete in today’s loud, colorful marketplace. It has become common for the word “curated” to be applied to almost any sort of collection, be it in a museum, a shop window, or someone’s Pinterest board. Everyone feels capable of curating—which is wonderful in its own way. Everyone can be an expert. But it means that curators have to be able to explain their choices—Why this image instead of that one? Why this story with this object?—with a depth of knowledge that goes beyond the surface, beyond that beautiful first impression. We have to explain, to make our meaning clear, and then open up ideas for visitors to explore on their own. I think it’s more interesting this way, to have the audience in mind from the beginning of the research process.
To what extent do you work directly with the physical objects in your collection? How do digital surrogates supplement the experience of working directly with objects?
My work involves both the direct handling of physical objects and dealing with digital surrogates. We have thousands of images and hundreds of audiovisual recordings in our collections, and the digital scans of those materials receive the most viewings and transactions.
We use digital scans to inform our work within the museum (museum research, support for programs and exhibits, or the creation of marketing materials), but we also use scans for our larger community outside of the museum, making the collection accessible to researchers, teachers, students, the media, authors, and documentary-makers.
I can hardly imagine managing this sort of collection without digital surrogates. At the same time, the challenge for us lies in maintaining those digital versions. The actual objects are, for the most part, relatively stable and easy to look after. But the digital versions need constant migration and reformatting, and take up an enormous amount of space. These versions must be backed up, there are cropped and resized versions for various projects, and the next-generation versions also need to be managed. It can get a bit circular and overwhelming, we’re still perfecting our methods and standards.
Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?
I’ve found a few workshops to be particularly engaging. I’ve attended “Digital Directions,” put on by the Northeast Document Conservation Center, a couple of times and also sent other staff to attend. It’s a great way to jump into the management of digital collections. I also attended Gallery System’s “Collective Imagination” conference last spring and felt it was a great opportunity to learn about how other museums are using TMS in new and innovative ways to create and manage data. It was very inspiring.
What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions you’ve worked on, and why?
This one is hard to answer! I feel like the most recent exhibition or project is always the most interesting. We recently did a temporary exhibit called “A Time for Greatness: the 1960 Kennedy Campaign,” in which we featured more than 120 images and objects from our collection. We spent months researching our collections, sifting through TMS and our storerooms to find the best 1960-related items for the exhibition. Crafting a succinct narrative with the selected objects was a lot of hard work, but so much fun to do. We also experimented with some new things for the exhibit, and it was exciting to see visitors engage with the collection and exhibition in both expected and unexpected ways. Many people went through the exhibit and made connections between the 1960 and 2016 elections, but fewer people could see the connection to 1963, at least until the end of the exhibit. President Kennedy was in Dallas in 1963 to begin his re-election campaign for 1964. And in every presidential election since 1960, Kennedy’s image and his words have been present, on the campaign trail, used by other politicians trying to capitalize on the hope and energy he embodied to so many voters.
If you had to choose a favorite item from your collection, what would it be and why?
I’m not sure I could choose just one. My answer depends on when you ask me. So for today, at this moment, I particularly like one of the American flags in our collection. This one has 49 stars on it and a black ribbon border sewn on all sides by the owner, Pat Sanders, in 1963. The Sanders family lived in Dallas at the time of the assassination. They wanted to do something to observe the president’s death so they pulled out their flag (they had had it since 1959, after Alaska but before Hawaii joined the union) and Pat sewed a black border to it, both by hand and with her sewing machine. They hung the flag in front of their house. Our collection includes the flag itself, as well as a home movie they made showing it waving in their front yard. This flag touches me because of the pride, sorrow and respect it invokes, as well as because of the interconnectedness with other objects in our collections. The objects that affect me most are the ones that take the national and global impact of the Kennedy assassination and make it personal.