It’s only fair for me to level with you: I already think history is cool.
I received my Bachelor’s Degree in English, with two minors: theatre and history. Why history? Because I took so many history classes out of interest that when I met with the adviser to prepare for graduation, he said I was only one class away from a history minor. So I took one more.
I mostly blame my parents. Especially my dad. As a kid, we used to go to a local museum that had historical artifacts, geological artifacts, art, a planetarium, and a fantastic kids’ science section. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the wave pool and the toy store as much as the next kid, but this museum (Cranbrook, if you’re in Metro Detroit) was my own personal heaven. Family vacations usually included at least one museum visit (often historical, aerospace, etc.) and often something tangentially historical (going to see stalactites and stalagmites in caves up north, for instance). These things, coupled with hefty doses of the History channel and Turner Classic Movies, make my love of history pretty unavoidable.
One of my favorite parts about studying English is the historical aspect – trying to recreate and understand the minutiae of a given historical moment and the stories that came out of it. There are all sorts of interesting abstract or strictly textual ways to study literature – which are truly fascinating – but I do tend to be partial to the melding of history and literature, because the result is that each discipline shines a little light on the other. Historical knowledge lets me understand the literature that much better, and the literature gives the history a shape and a voice.
In the case of history (like that of literature), not everything is created equally. In history, as in literature, there are mammoths and mice- both literally and figuratively . It’s rewarding to study the mammoths, but personally, I find the mice a lot more thrilling. For me, the mice (the figurative ones) are sort of the indie thread in history and literature. These smaller and less-studied bits allow us to get closer to the history and the people and events it represents.
This is what makes a place like the Heritage Museum & Cultural Center so fabulous – the Heritage is devoted to local history in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area of Michigan – meaning that though it’s not a big and fancy, Smithsonian-esque institution, it takes you up close to historical roads less traveled and stories less told. What a great way to support the indie spirit – by learning the history of the local, by supporting a local and independent institution, and by keeping all of this local, indie magic (and knowledge) alive for future generations! Plus, the Heritage Museum & Cultural Center is literally making things cool with an Ice Age exhibit (sorry, I love a good – or bad – pun).
I am honored to know the super smart and enthusiastic Caitlyn Perry Dial, who is a PhD candidate in History at Western Michigan University, as well as the Frederick S. Upton Fellow and curator of the Heritage Museum & Cultural Center. Please stay to say hello to Caitlyn and learn more about the Heritage!
Can you tell us a little bit about the museum’s history?
The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center started in 1965 as an intimate group dedicated to preserving St. Joseph and Benton Harbor history called The Fort Miami Heritage Society. In 2007, the Society formally changed its name to The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center where our mission is still focused on preserving and promoting the region’s history.
How did you end up at the Heritage museum?
I started at the Heritage Museum in Fall 2009 as the Frederick S. Upton Fellow in Public History. The Upton Fellowship is offered to graduate students in Public History at Western Michigan University. Since then, I’ve been working at the Heritage to earn my graduate stipend.
What exactly do you do at the museum?
In February of this year I was hired on permanently as the Curator. In my position, I research, write, and design exhibits for the museum. I handle public research requests from our archives and manage our collection, including processing new donations. I also lead school field trips, work with volunteers, plan public programs, manage the museum’s website, and market our museum using a variety of mediums including press, social media and radio. In short, I do a lot.
What are you most proud of about the museum?
I am so proud of my museum for many reasons. Sometimes it can be frustrating to be expected to do so much with so little time and staff, but it’s worth it when I hear from visitors that they enjoyed their experience or learned something they never knew before.
What makes a smaller museum different from a larger one?
An independent museum like ours is different from larger ones because we operate with such a small staff. We currently have four people working in our office, and none of us are full time. We’re a team and it’s important that we work together to accomplish our goals. Sometimes in larger museums, it’s easier to let things go to other departments, but in a small museum one person has to be the IT manager, Registrar, Educator, Volunteer Coordinator, Curator, and Programmer. It’s a lot of work, but I have a great team to lean on.
What is the best part about being indie? The most difficult?
The best part about being indie is never being bored. Working in the museum field, especially the small museum field, means you have to be able to stay on your toes. There is always something to do. The most difficult part about being indie is sometimes not being able to realize some of your goals because of budget restrictions. Sometimes big ideas have to be cut down.
Tell us something about the museum or your work there that people may not know.
I don’t think a lot of people realize that we operate solely on donations from our members and grants we seek from community foundations. We receive zero public funding. Everything we do we do for our supporters.
What is a museum that really inspires you and why?
When I think about the museums and historic sites that I really love they all have one thing in common, at some point in my life they have touched me in a way that has changed me. From the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I am inspired by these places to create exhibits and present programs that reach out to visitors and give them experiences beyond their expectations.
How does your personality come through in your work?
I’d like to think I’m a pretty friendly and optimistic person. I love to meet new people and talk to them about their interests in history. I am genuinely excited to come to work and I think it rubs off on our visitors.
Can you tell us one of the “stories less told” or a special artifact that you have learned about through the museum?
How about the postcards I found the in museum collection that ultimately led to me to my dissertation topic? I found them while going through our postcard collection in a file named “Disasters.” I was curious because we have research and photograph files for disasters, but postcards, as ultimately tourist souvenirs, struck me as an odd category.
As I went though them, there were horrific scenes of drowning people, a man holding a lifeless child, an overturned vessel in what looked like a river, and funeral scenes for people in the hundreds. All of the postcards were commemorating the Eastland Disaster, a passenger steamer that capsized in the Chicago River and killed 844 people in 1915. The ship claimed entire families. The Eastland is the worst ship disaster to happen on the Great Lakes and I did not even know about it.
These postcards led me to consider how shipwrecks and disasters are remembered. How are they commemorated? Who remembers them? What inspired people to make postcards of the event? After finding these postcards, I decided I would try to make sense of them and these questions and write my dissertation about memory and Great Lakes shipwrecks.
I may not work at the Field Museum or the DIA, but in my small museum I feel like I’m helping these artifacts tell their story.
What is coming soon for the museum?
The Heritage is planning for our next exhibit on the Civil War set to open in December 2012. It’s a lot of work, but we’re excited to highlight southwest Michigan’s connection to the war.
Am I the only one that wants to read this dissertation???
Thanks for stopping by! Don’t forget to check out the Heritage’s website and Facebook page Their Ice Age Imperials exhibit is open now! If you’re ever on the Mitten’s west coast, I hope you will stop by and say hi. And wherever you are, I hope you will seek out your own independent and local museums – and show them some love (and maybe even volunteer….. )!
Have a wonderful week – maybe even make time for a museum