Rainey Tisdale is an independent museum curator who leads for change on a number of field-wide issues, including creative practice, place-based interpretation, collections stewardship, and empathetic museums. She has held curatorial positions at the AFL-CIO’s museum, the US Senate’s Office of Senate Curator, and the Bostonian Society; she was a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki, Finland and a community fellow at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities; and she has taught courses in collections management and material culture in the Museum Studies Program at Tufts University. In 2013 and 2014 she led #BostonBetter, the effort by 26 Boston-area cultural institutions to provide programming for the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing. With Linda Norris, she is co-author of Creativity in Museum Practice (Routledge, 2013) and with Trevor Jones and Elee Wood she is co-editor of Active Collections (Routledge, 2017). You can find her ideas and opinions in the Journal of Museum Education, Exhibition, and History News.
Five Tips from the Fords on Friday Talk:
- Learning doesn’t stop after you graduate. When she graduated from Haverford, Rainey wasn’t sure what career path she wanted to pursue, but she knew that she didn’t want to stop learning. Part of what drew her to work in museums is the way that they serve as an informal learning space for community members. They also inspired her to look for learning opportunities in the mundane, everyday, items that we normally overlook.
- Burnouts can be productive and life-changing. After working full-time in several (often under-resourced) museums for about fifteen years, Rainey needed a break from the daily grind. Instead of planning a weekend getaway, she applied for a mid-career, non-academic Fulbright. This launched her next year exploring urban history in Helsinki, Finland. She surveyed cities and museums all over Europe and ultimately returned to the United States with a new inspired perspective and heightened understanding of the great potential that city museums hold.
- Museum work and academia are not the same. Following up on a student’s question about following an academic passion, Rainey stressed the important difference between doing research in academic and research for museum-related work. The main distinction is that in academia, your interest alone can drive a research project. If you have a question, you can pursue it, publish, and have your curiosity directly satisfied. In museum-related research, your interest is not sufficient. The research topics and questions need to be driven by the public’s interest. According to Rainey, this type of research is still satisfying, but in a more indirect way. You are generating knowledge for the public, rather than for yourself and a very niche group of academics.
- Museums are for you. Historically, museums have served only a small, elite, privileged crowd. Fortunately, this model is changing, largely due to the efforts of museum consultants like Rainey, who believe that museums should serve everyone in a community. Many, if not most, museums are moving towards a model where the institution stands as a “community anchor,” or a space that centers the local community and engages them together.
- Stay curious! Much of Rainey’s talk was focused on the role of museums in society. There is research across a number of disciplines that supports the notion that curiosity is good for humans. It correlates with overall mental and physical wellbeing, increased job stability, creativity, and community engagement at both the individual and community levels. Everyone is born curious, but rigid social structures like standardized schooling and jobs can suppress curiosity to make room for efficiency. Museums stand as institutions that counterbalance those structures by intentionally fostering curiosity.