From 2007 – 2016, during my tenure as Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I regularly chose four University of Memphis graduate students to serve up to two years each as Graduate Assistants at the Museum. They work 20 hours per week during the academic year in exchange for a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend. Although the economic incentive is important, what they receive in education and experience at the Museum far exceeds the monetary compensation. When I welcome visitors to the Museum, I always note that whatever exhibit or program they encounter during their visit that is ‘shiny and new’ chances are it was completed by one of our Graduate Assistants, Volunteers, or Interns.
In the Spring Semester of 2014, all four of our GA staff graduated. That meant that in the Fall Semester of 2014, four new Graduate Assistants came on board at the same time. That had never happened in my previous 7 years at the Museum. Perhaps starting at the same time is why they bonded so well as a team. Regardless the 2014 – 2016 Graduate Assistants were truly exceptional in all ways. Over the past two years I often reflected that I could not have asked for a better GA staff on which to end my career at Chucalissa as I retire later this summer.
So, what follows is my story of the stories of Nur Abdalla, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza, Brooke Garcia, and Colleen McCartney and their time as Graduate Assistants at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. And it is a true story, for the most part.
Nur Abdalla – I first met Nur in about 2012 when she was an undergraduate in the Anthropology Department. She registered for an Internship and completed a Directed Research Project at Chucalissa. For her Applied Archaeology and Museums class project, she created an exhibit that explored the interpretive significance of surface collections from artifacts curated at Chucalissa.
As a graduate student, her research focused on working with students and staff from the Freedom Prep Charter School to develop an institutional relationship with the C.H. Nash Museum. For her GA projects she organized special events at the museum and worked on several collections projects.
First and foremost Nur always has a smile and a pro-active solution driven approach to every situation. I was also amazed that our auto-generated Netflix recommendations were quite similar.
I first met Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza in July of 2013 at the bus station in Caraz, Peru. We had previously corresponded about the possibility of her coming to the US to study for her Masters Degree in Archaeology at the University of Memphis. Since that first meeting we have worked together on a series of projects in Peru and I look forward to continuing that collaboration. Eli will enter the PhD program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the fall of 2016 with full funding. This summer she will launch a community based research project on the Peruvian North Coast in the village of Nivín.
While at Chucalissa Eli translated a good bit of our exhibit and visitor materials into Spanish and played a major role in the upgrade of the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab. Prior to her first day at the Museum I was somewhat concerned about how well she would engage with our visitors in explaining an archaeological site of which she was not familiar in a language that was not her own. Eli excelled with both our Spanish-speaking and English-speaking visitors. She was also quite adept at answering visitors questions, that yes, she was in fact a Native American, and then explain her Peruvian origins. Through Eli, I have come to have a second home in Peru and look forward to our continued collaboration.
Brooke Garcia, an Egyptology student, began as a collections intern in the summer of 2014 and transitioned seamlessly into her GA role that fall. Under the able direction of Ron Brister, Brooke completed several of the collections projects that staff had worked on for several years at Chucalissa. These projects included the deaccessioning and transfer of collections that were not part of our museums research scope to other Midsouth institutions. Brooke also completed NAGPRA compliance on all University of Memphis collections excavated over the past 50 years. Brooke was very active in our volunteer program, training visitors to process artifacts on our Volunteer Saturdays, including many students from Freedom Prep Charter School.
Brooke excelled in her academic achievements while a GA. She was awarded a MUSE Fellowship in the summer of 2015 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2015 she also received a Fellowship to attend the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting.
Like the rest of our GA staff, Brooke shares an affinity to all that is Disney and in addition, ballroom dancing.
Colleen McCartney was the token Anglo GA for the past two years. From Canada via Texas, Colleen is a natural born leader and played that role very well in several projects while working at the Museum. In addition to completing the organization of our strategic plan, Colleen coordinated the upgrade of the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab. For her studies in the Anthropology Department and Museum Studies she crafted a curriculum to include a solid exposure to public and nonprofit administration. For her practicum in the Anthropology Department Colleen created programs and policies for the inclusion of special needs visitors at Chucalissa.
Colleen appears to have been the ringleader of the GA staff over the past two years, fomenting dissent as appropriate, but always assuring that the job was done. Her skills in this area were recognized by her peers when she received the first ever Emerging Museum Professional of the Year Award from the Tennessee Association of Museums. Quite an accomplishment for someone from Texas!
And in the end . . . the consistent pleasure that I had during my nine years at the University of Memphis and the C.H. Nash Museum was my work with students – particularly the Graduate Assistants. I always pushed the GA staff toward taking risks and believing that they could and should make applied contributions now and not wait until they graduate. Certainly, all of their resumes are greatly enhanced by their time working at the C.H. Nash Museum. I know that they will remain in contact with each other as they graduate and go their separate ways.
All of the GA staff have been very generous in their compliments toward me and my role as their Supervisor and Museum Director. My standard response to them has always been to remember that 10 or 20 years from now when they are in my position, mentoring a young 20 something who is trying to find their way in the world and trying to exude a sense of self-confidence while being insecure and nervous about screwing up and somehow getting it wrong – to remember what it felt like to be in their shoes and treat them kindness and support.
In many ways, I learned all that I needed from my first mentor the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis who in a 1986 field school said something like “If you cannot explain to the public why their tax dollars should go to support this field work and museum, you might as well go home.” I keep those words as guiding principles in what I strive to do professionally. I have enjoyed engaging with the public ever since. While working as the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist in Northeast Louisiana, I began to understand what Pat meant. At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, through both our visitors and our Graduate Assistants, I had the opportunity to continue that engagement. The last two years of my career with both our regular and GA staff have been a true delight. I would not change a thing.