Collections Manager, Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University

Tasked with huge responsibility, the Jim Crow Museum displays America’s largest viewable collection of artifacts of intolerance. By educating on the Jim Crow era and awful effects of racial segregation, the Museum strives to promote social tolerance and equality. Its values are firmly rooted and informed by the anti-racist movement.

Jim Crow Museum is part of the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. As a university collection—encompassing over 25,000 historical objects—it provides an important resource to students, academics, and the broader public.

A long-time Gallery Systems client, the Museum recently migrated their collections management system from EmbARK to TMS Collections. A project to implement eMuseum, online collections software, is also well underway.

To learn about these developments and more, Gallery Systems caught up with Cyndi Tiedt, Collections Manager. We asked Cyndi about her career path, engaging and impact-worthy projects, and managing the collection at Jim Crow Museum.

Happy New Year! What are you most excited to accomplish at Jim Crow Museum in 2023?

Happy New Year! 2023 is an exciting year for us at the Jim Crow Museum. We have been diligently working on a new traveling exhibit, which will make its debut early summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Additionally, as a team, we continue to plan and design for our new facility, which will expand the museum exhibits, programming capacity, and collections stewardship.

My goal for 2023 is to keep doing our important and much needed social justice work, while continuing to engage with our audiences and create meaningful museum experiences.

The entrance sign to the Jim Crow Museum.

The Museum’s entrance sign. Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum.

We’d love to hear about your career trajectory. How did you end up in the museum field?

My journey into the museum world is a little bit circuitous! I interned at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia and absolutely loved it! I was working in the collections department, conducting provenance research, labelling artifacts, condition reporting, and of course, working in the collections database.

I then veered off this path, and started my career as a geologist, working in exploration and business development for approximately ten years. Part of my role in the exploration phase was also recording cultural heritage finds in the field and working with traditional owners on preservation strategies.

Coming back to it years later, I was involved with some museums in Vancouver, British Columbia, and decided to make the career leap from geology into the museum field. I went back to school, pursued a Master’s in Information Science focusing on collection management and digital collections—and have been at the Jim Crow Museum since 2017.

Throughout our careers, we tend to receive a lot of advice from mentors or peers. Is there a piece of advice that you’ve taken to heart?

The piece of advice that has stuck with me—although I can’t recall who shared it—is that we can always reinvent ourselves and our work.

Day to day, I’m always looking for ways to improve my work, do it differently, or do it better. I think sometimes we can feel stuck, and often the methods which worked in the past, aren’t the best fit for today.

In my current role, I enjoy problem-solving and trying to look at things from an unfamiliar perspective. If there is a better way to do something, I’m always open to exploring it!

Visitor reading a wall display at the Jim Crow Museum.

A display wall inside the Museum. Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum.

Collections often tell a story. How would you sum up Jim Crow Museum’s collection in one sentence?

Our collection is the story of Black resilience and strength.

The Museum describes itself online as “teaching tolerance with objects of intolerance.” Could you speak to the navigational process of managing a collection with such a sensitive subject matter?

It can be tough. Showing care for objects which played a hateful and significant role in the maintenance of a system of racism can be hard to reconcile.

We feel strongly that our job is to accurately document this part of history, but also understand that these objects can still do harm.

In my role, this impacts the information we record about each object, such as the vocabularies we use and other descriptive terms. Ultimately, we are preserving these artifacts so they can be used for good and to stimulate dialogue about race, racism, and race relations.

A visitor crouching down to look inside a display case at the Jim Crow Museum.

A visitor regarding a display case inside the Museum. Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum.

Jim Crow Museum uses TMS Collections as its collections management system. How does this software solution play a role in your daily tasks and workflows?

The first thing I do each morning is open TMS Collections, as it’s integral to my daily tasks and responsibilities! I also have a wonderful team of three student employees who also use TMS Collections regularly.

The software is a game changer when it comes to collaborating on different projects. For instance, I use the packages feature all the time to curate different tasks for the students to work on. The dashboard is where I keep a running list of active queries to act as my ‘to-do’ area, such as updating metadata, filling in catalog information, or issuing donor paperwork. I have also created several reports in Crystal which are customized to our workflows and needs.

As a collections manager, what are the most engaging projects you’ve worked on?

Planning for our new facility is a particularly exciting part of my work at the moment. I think it is every collection manager’s dream to design a facility from the ground up!

Our planning work includes the collections area, visual storage, gallery space, and other featured areas. It is an opportunity to make intentional design choices with collections care in mind.

I am also working on our eMuseum interface with Gallery Systems, which will be debuted in our newest traveling exhibit as an interactive tablet for visitors to further explore the collection and exhibits.

Two visitors standing in front of a display case at the Jim Crow Museum.

Display case inside the Museum. Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum.

What’s one change you’ve made at Jim Crow Museum that has had a major institutional impact?

We have been focusing on improving our workflows the past few years, such as donation processing, digitization, and condition reporting. I also spent a lot of time on regaining intellectual control of the collection, which included conducting inventory, merging several datasets together, and working to fill in the gaps.

Impact wise, this means that our records are more complete, we have quadrupled the number of objects which have high resolution photographs, and the collection is more accessible to staff and scholars.

Looking toward the future, how do you see your collections care practices evolving?

A personal project of mine is working to add data visualization (using TMS Collections and PowerBI) to my collections practice to make our work more accessible to other team members, internal reporting requirements, and our audience.

I also try to engage in as many professional development opportunities as I can to keep up on preservation strategies and advancements in the field.

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