In January 2017, the Block Museum was pleased to welcome Veronica Robinson into the role of Assistant Registrar. Veronica come to the museum with over six years of curatorial and preservation experience at the Swedish American Museum of Chicago, and will be working closely with our Senior Registrar, Kristina Bottomley. Veronica took a break from installation preparation and cataloging to talk with us about her experience.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you find your way to museum work and the registrar field?
My parents both work in related fields (exhibit fabrication and public libraries) so I think I really was introduced to the idea of working in museums and with cultural collections through my parents. When I traveled with my dad to photograph installations his company had completed, I often observed behind the scenes at places like the Field Museum or the Kentucky Science Center. Experiences like these made me realize how much work goes on within the museum to care for collections, create exhibits and programming, and to create experiences for the visitor. I earned a BA in History from University of Michigan and then continued my studies at Eastern Michigan University, earning an MS in Historic Preservation with a concentration in Historic Administration, Heritage Interpretation and Tourism. Through my studies and related projects, I often worked with historic artifacts, historic buildings and primary source materials and was introduced to the work of not only preserving these items, but also making sure they can be utilized as educational resources. There is so much in museums that isn’t on display to the public at any given time and I really wanted to work with that material and help find ways to make it accessible, even when not on display.
What particularly stands out to you about museums and archives in Chicago?
The diversity. There is a huge number of cultural institutions with amazing collections in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. At my last position at the Swedish American Museum, I had the pleasure of working routinely with members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance – a consortium of over 30 heritage-focused cultural institutions that represent more than 25 different cultures in the Chicago area. They range in size from small, all-volunteer run organizations to larger organizations, and work together to create cross-cultural programming and exhibits. In working with the CCA, I discovered a wealth of collections that I never knew existed. Many of Chicago’s communities have been preserving their history and materials related to that history, even if they do not have a physical location with exhibit space. It was very exciting to be able to work with members of those organizations and their collections on various programs and projects. Chicago has some pretty amazing collections in the major institutions – The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the Art Institute, MCA and more, which I think are generally well-known and fabulous, but I have also been very impressed with what much smaller organizations have been collecting too – local historical societies and cultural centers, as well as places like the Read/Write Library of Chicago which collects community and small-press media. There is just such a wealth of history and information here and it is very exciting to see how dedicated the neighborhoods and communities are to preserving that history.
Can you tell us about some of your previous projects in the field?
For the previous 6 years, I worked at the Swedish American Museum in Andersonville, which has an amazing collection of artifacts and archives related to the Swedish immigrant experience here in the U.S. In addition to working on exhibitions, both historical and contemporary, I worked on many projects to help preserve the artifacts – things like rehousing the artifacts into archival materials, organizing the storage areas with new high density shelving and improving environmental monitoring. I also worked with the collections volunteers and interns in order to better document the collection materials and make that information easily searchable and usable.
As part of the Swedish American Museum, I also worked with other Chicago Cultural Alliance organizations to organize and execute a multi-sited, collaborative exhibit called Chicago’s Families in 2015, which involved six individual exhibit sites with several institutional partners each. Those partners worked to jointly curate a cross-cultural exhibit involving related themes and their own collections and stories. I helped to oversee the project as a member of the steering committee but also as an exhibit team member creating exhibit content. Chicago’s Families was a very rewarding project that allowed me to work closely with other community organizations and members.
What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibitions, and collection?
The Block has such an exciting array of exhibits and related programming each year, so even before I worked here, I liked to check out what was going on each quarter. I am also very excited about the Block’s interest in functioning as a teaching institution and its dedication to making its collection accessible to students and researchers through classes held here, research appointments and other programs. I am so excited to help facilitate use of the collection by students and community members and help cultivate the collection’s role as a unique campus resource.
What are your goals for the Block Museum’s evolving collection?
My goal is to help make the collection even more accessible to our community, while also maintaining our high standard of care and preservation. I will be helping to oversee a project to migrate our collections data to a new database which will result in improved searchability and put more of our collection online for viewing and research. The new system will also improve our ability to set up procedural workflows and streamline collections functions which should help us process requests quickly, and have more information available as well as assist us in planning for the sustainable growth and preservation of our collection.