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In the Loop
Faculty News : Jan 27, 2020

Museums as social activists and houses of knowledge

By Chandler Sandy (MA Museology '20)

Dr. Charlotte Porter is a former curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History and a former lecturer for the UF Museum Studies Program where she was one of the first faculty members. Dr. Porter holds a master’s degree in molecular biology and a Ph.D. from Harvard in the History of Science.

Chandler: Tell me about your connection to the Museum Studies Program. How did you first become involved and what made you interested in joining the program?

Charlotte: I had an interesting job here at the University of Florida that required me to wear two hats. I was a professor and a curator, so I was actively involved in the history department, and my office was in the Florida Museum of Natural History. I had worked at several museums before I came to Florida and recognized the need for trained people in museum work. We had talked at FLMNH about starting a Museum Studies Program, and then Dr. Robin Poynor really did the hard work to make such a program possible at UF. I had worked with Robin on exhibits and because I had a museum studies certificate from NYU, in addition to my Ph.D. from Harvard, I was often consulted in the early days as they were trying to get a handle on the program and it was my honor to sit on the search committee for the first director Glenn Willumson. I also taught in the undergraduate Honors Program a museum studies course there before we had it at the master’s level. The students loved it, and I could see that the concept was going to work at the next level. There was a lot of excitement and of course moving the FLMNH from campus to the location on 34th Str. generated a lot of precedence and enthusiasm as did the nascent Appleton Museum down in Ocala and the Harn Museum here, so it was the right moment. Museums were in the air.

Chandler: Did you know you always wanted to work in a museum?

Charlotte: I didn’t think about it like that, but when I look at my employment history, I’ve never taught or been anywhere else. When I was in college, I worked for the Geology Museum at Bryn Mawr College, restoring geological models. I worked at the Kansas City Museum of History and Science. When I lived in Kansas City, I worked at the Museum of Broadcasting for Mr. Samuel Paley of CBS. When I lived in New York, I worked at the Museum of Natural History and on and on it goes.

Chandler: What was it like being one of the first faculty members of the Museum Studies Program?

Charlotte: It was very exciting, but it was also a lot of hard work because there was no precedence for curriculum. NYU had big classes of 25-30 people who took everything and you were exposed to all things. UF went a different way, more consistent I think with the teaching philosophy of art and architecture to have smaller dynamic groups often teams. Getting that in place, finding people who could or were willing to teach because this was an extra teaching job for people was a challenge. So, I would say the challenge, in the beginning, was simply hard work, and getting a strategy that would work. The other thing was the kind of student that the program attracted, particularly in the early years, were very diverse. Many of them had worked in museums and were coming back to upgrade their skills. We had people interested in history museums, oral history, costumes collections, art history, natural history, education, and publicity. I could see their interests and backgrounds were so divergent that it might not have worked, but the students made it work fantastically.

Chandler: You went to school during different periods in history that involved social activism. Do you think there is a relationship between social activism and museum work? What role do museums play in social activism?

Charlotte: Absolutely! Museums provide public access to all kinds of knowledge, and they offer it to people regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, and background and are often free admission. Museums allow people to see objects from their own culture and history, while also allowing other people to see history and objects from someone else’s culture. So, I think museums are very important as houses of knowledge. Another aspect of social activism involves museums being critical to our understanding of repatriation. Museums by accident often have in their collections objects that were looted or smuggled or are forgeries and fakes.

The fact that museums have been brave and repatriated and have really dealt with this issue of appropriation and co-opting, I think is huge philosophically and I see the difference when I’m around today’s young people. They’re more respectful of people different from themselves, and I’d like to think museums have played a big role in that.

Chandler: What has education meant to you in your life?

Charlotte: Well, everything! I love education!

I think education for me has allowed and enhanced awareness of a larger world and I love the kind of education that’s available to people in a museum.

It means if you were a high school dropout, you can come to a museum and catch up and learn. Or if you’re someone from another country or someone who has learned English later in life the museum is there for you. You can also learn your own way if you’re someone who learns through seeing rather than studying or experiencing or making a clay pot the museum is a place for you. And I think that is just wonderful too because it broadens education.

Chandler: Do you have any final thoughts or comments you would like to add?

Charlotte: I would like to say it’s been a real honor to serve the Museum Studies Program. I enjoyed my colleagues and appreciated their hard work, and I say hats off, particularly to our early students because we didn’t have all the tools then that we have now.