Directors Note

To close the spring term of Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Introductory class students prepared recommendations for the new orientation space being planned for the Phillips Collection.  This assignment followed two visits to the Phillips to learn about the museum and the University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge, a joint project of the Phillips and the University.  Two student teams studied the needs of the space and developed recommendations for its design.  Members of the Phillips staff joined the discussions last May at the close of the term.

Below are three images of the entry space as it was finally installed.  During our visits to the Phillips the staff talked about the museum’s idea of hanging art works to create “conversations” for visitors to consider.  The students were intrigued by this idea and recommended that the entry space provide visitors with an introduction to the concept; it’s heartening to see that language in the wall text.

University of Maryland students are granted open admission to the Phillips Collection, simply bring your university ID and take advantage of the engaging exhibits in a lovely central Washington space.  Watch for programming from the Center, including opportunities for special research projects. The museum’s website can be accessed at

What museum have you visited recently and what stories can you tell of your visit?  How does your visit affect your ideas about museums as contributors to knowledge?  Share your comments here.

Mary Alexander
Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Studies
University of Maryland



MSMC Practicum – Invitation to Preservation Maryland Open House 4/27

Hello students of the Museum Scholarship and Material Culture program,

You are invited to an Open House this Thursday, April 27, 2017 from 5-7pm in the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library. Come join fellow MSMC student Jen Wachtel and Special Collections in recognizing the contributions of Preservation Maryland, the second-oldest statewide preservation organization in the United States, to the Historic Preservation collections. Students who are considering how to design their MSMC practicum, looking to compare practicum projects,  and/or interested  historic preservation are strongly encouraged to attend this free event.
Remarks will be at 6pm. Students, faculty, staff, and members of the public are most welcome. Light refreshments will be served. Please see the attached announcement for the Preservation Maryland Open House. Contact for more information.
I’m looking forward to seeing some of my former classmates there!
Optional: Register on Eventbrite

Intern Opportunity at NMAH Spring 2017

Project Description:

Many Voices, One Nation website content intern (


The Many Voices, One Nation exhibition will open in summer 2017 with an accompanying website. The exhibit team would like to feature many of the exhibit’s objects on this website, with live links to the page. However, many of the objects in the exhibition are not yet on the page. We require a student who will conduct research, write labels, and input needed data into the collections database so they may be processed and publicized on the web.


Learning objectives:


  • Student will learn to research from material culture and museum acquisition files
  • Student will learn to write object labels for public use by combining original research with secondary source research
  • Student will be trained on museum database software (XG) and learn to update object files


Please have interested students send their résumé and cover letters to Lauren Safranek at and cc: me


Deadline Jan 17, 2017 by 12pm!

Curating the Curator: Perspectives from Mary Alexander

For our first post in the series “Curating the Curator: Perspectives from MSMC Committee,” I introduce Mary Alexander.

Mary joined the MSMC committee last year and is currently instructing the Introduction to Museum Scholarship and Material Culture course. She has worked in and for Washington area history museums for the past four decades. She has been a museum educator, assistant director, leader of the Common Agenda for History Museums project for the American Association for State and Local History, and most recently administrator of the Museum Assistance Program of the Maryland Historical Trust.

I asked Mary, “What tools should every museum scholar take time to develop?” and she responded with the following insight:

A scene from “The Real Museum Directors of Kansas”

“The slide projector in the main exhibit hall kept needing adjustment so I had to open the back of the exhibit case and slip in to jimmy with jammed slides, replace bulbs and other mechanical fixes.  Because this happened so often I got to eavesdrop on visitors chatting in the gallery.  It was amazing what I learned simply by being a hidden observer.  All our highfalutin’ ideas about what visitors would notice from our impressive collections and our brilliant explanatory texts went right out the window.”

This scenario from an old friend of mine who ran a small museum in Kansas illustrates an important reality for museum professionals (curators, historians, researchers, registrars, educators)—watch out for the museum “bubble.” Visitors will surprise you with their perspectives, interests and ability to simply overlook what you consider so important.  In our Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Introductory class discussions we remind ourselves that we are not “regular” visitors and therefore we must always question our perspectives as potentially biased.

Be aware of your assumptions about visitors. Visit museums and take time to observe what others are doing and saying while they wander the galleries.  Note where visitors cluster and seem engaged; why are they stopping there?  Is it an object, a label, a bench to sit or an interactive?

Interpretation is complex and difficult to codify, but writing clearly is a central building block for both scholarship and its interpretive expressions. It’s easy to warn against jargon, but more important to focus on clear, concise descriptions that are readily understood. Exhibit design reports will quantify “appropriate” label length, but that’s not the solution, it is clarity. Working with others will improve your communication regardless of its form–labels, artifact layout, design decisions and programming–as it will inevitably challenge your assumptions and help you work towards clarity.

Your important tools are:

  1. Knowing your audience,
  2. Questioning your assumptions,
  3. Writing, re-writing, and writing again, and
  4. Working with others to gain clarity and provide understanding.

~Mary Alexander

Intro Course Announcement

Attention all graduate students interested in the Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Certificate!

The first course in the Certificate program – “Introduction to Museum Scholarship and Material Culture” – is opening for registration next week. The class is capped at 15 students in order to accommodate for exclusive trips to large museums in the Washington, D.C. area and a personal learning experience. MSMCfieldtripCollage

The course is open to all graduate students in any department which allows for interdisciplinary perspectives on museums and the stories they display.

This is a unique opportunity to network with area curators and enhance your career prospective with museum scholarship. This course will be taught by Mary Alexander, a professional with over 40 years of experience working in and with museums.

If you missed the information session back in September, take a look at our previous posts highlighting Alumni experiences and Introduction to Museum Scholarship field trips to Smithsonian museums.

And, if you still have questions, feel free to contact Dr. Judith Freidenberg at

Interested in Getting a Certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture?

Come to an information session about the MSMC Certificate program on Thursday, Sept. 10 from 12 – 1 pm.  The session will be hosted by UMD’s Anthropology Department in room 1102 Woods Hall. Bring your lunch and your questions about earning a certificate in museum scholarship to enhance your graduate degree.

The info session and Certificate program are open to all graduate students in any department.

Check out our Museum Certificate Info Flyer for more details.

Community Collaboration at the National Museum of the American Indian

NMAI pic

(On left) Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Assistant Director for Collections, National Museum of the American Indian.


This week, in the Introduction to Museum Scholarship class, Dr. Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Assistant Director for Collections at the NMAI in Washington, DC discussed her role in co-curating the Our Lives exhibit that premiered in 2004. She spoke about the challenges and benefits of collaborating with American Indian communities while co-curating this exhibit. It focuses on layers of identity and belonging within indigenous communities and will be up until July 2015.