by Samantha Gibbs
As an undergraduate at University of Memphis, I made the decision to work in Anthropology with a concentration in music. However, in the back of my mind, I always knew that I would end up in an educational field. The move to working in museums came, as I was a graduate student in Applied Anthropology at University of Memphis. I sought a Graduate Assistantship that would assist in expanding my limited knowledge in the anthropology of music. There was a position open at Chucalissa, and I took it without question. Luckily for me, this turned out to be one of the better decisions I made for my academic and professional career.
Two years ago this summer, I worked with Chucalissa to develop an exhibit. The exhibit today is known as the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis. For those familiar with Chucalissa, this exhibit did not exactly fit into the already existing museum content. Chucalissa is well known for it’s Native American exhibits and interpretation of the area’s prehistoric residents. However, after revision of the mission statement, creating an exhibit to interpret the surrounding community’s history was pertinent. The exhibit was spearheaded by the museum and a community organization. However, it was nine neighborhood youth who created, designed, researched, and installed the exhibit. This project gave the museum the opportunity to work more in-depth with the surrounding community while acting as a teaching institution for youth. Community outreach was not foreign to the museum but this project was far more collaborative than previous partnerships.
Other than fulfilling the mission statement, how did I know that this exhibit was important to the museum? One morning I had a brief but powerful conversation with one of the students. The following is an excerpt from my field notes:
“At 8:00 AM on June 7th, 2010, I walked towards the apartment annex of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. This was the first day of the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project. The nine high school students hired as researchers were scheduled to come in at 9. I came an hour early, out of anxiety and excitement. To my surprise, as I was walking, I saw a young man sitting on the steps of the annex. He introduced himself to me as one of the students. We sat outside and talked about the weather, school, and mainly the project. Nearing the 9 o’clock hour, I asked him why he felt this project was important. He replied, ‘Well, Miss Samantha, I have history, too.’”
This last statement made by one of the students proved that museums have a duty to serve the public. As my colleague Mallory Bader stated in her presentation for the Tennessee Association of Museums annual meeting, museums are a public institution. We have an obligation to serve the public just as hospitals, police stations, and fire stations. Our service is education and expanding knowledge. At Chucalissa, part of this service is community outreach. Because of this, I know I chose the right career path. I’m very excited to see what the future holds for the museum and the community.
Samantha Gibbs is the Administrative Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum.