I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Bob Beatty

A View from Gettysburg. Photo by soaptree via Flickr.

My name is Bob Beatty, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’ve been “history geek” since elementary school. It is a mantle I wear proudly and one that was confirmed in various family vacation photos I recently looked through. There are images of me in costume in an old time photo booth, standing by cannons at various sites, and looking at the Gettysburg statue of General John Buford, an ancestor. Our vacations could be tracked in the family station wagon trips we made from south Florida through the Southeast and up the Eastern Seaboard. We took trips to St. Augustine, Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, the Civil War battlefields in and around Northern Virginia, and to Gettysburg. We visited forts, antebellum homes, battlefields, just about anything historic that I had found in some random guidebook or had seen on one of the brown signs by the highway (you follow the brown signs too, right?). I developed a very deep and personal connection to historic sites through these visits and a love for not only the sites and artifacts, but for museums and cultural institutions as a whole. I felt a connection to the history I so loved to read in books that continues in me to this very day.

I am currently Vice President for Programs for the American Association for State & Local History. My primary responsibility is to direct AASLH’s professional development program including onsite/online workshops, the annual meeting, affinity groups, and publications. Prior AASLH, I was Curator of Education at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center.

I have a B.A. in Liberal Studies (I usually say my major was “college”) and an M.A. in History in 2002 both from the University of Central Florida. I’ve been an adjunct instructor of American History at the university and community college level, including teaching a History of Rock & Roll course at the latter.

State and local history is one of my particular interests as I truly believe that the discovery of local heritage helps in the building of a strong community. This is reinforced by my work at AASLH, the History Center, and research for my thesis, “Legacy to the People: Community and the Orange County Regional History Center,” which examined the ideal of community service and in the context of the history of the American museum movement. I’m also the author of Florida’s Highwaymen: Legendary Landscapes about a group of African American artists in Florida in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Why do museums matter to you?

I think museums are positively critical to the country and to their communities. What I learned in doing my graduate research is that this is the historic function of the American museum, to provide an essential community service (this was/is distinct from prior museums worldwide which were for much more elite audiences). This was also early in my museum career so it was really inspiring to know that I was literally standing on the shoulders of giants (my hero Charles Willson Peale, John Cotton Dana, Theodore Low, and the authors of Excellence and Equity), that the work I was doing was important and did matter in the overall grand scheme of things. In fact, one of the talks I give is called “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” and looks at the history of the American museum movement vis-à-vis community service.

Museums are a place where not only our heritage is preserved, but also a place for reflection and for connection to our own pasts, but also to our present and future. I am working hard to make sure my own children catch the bug as well.

What is your favorite museum memory?

I have several. One is going to Gettysburg with my father on a summer vacation. He and I drove from western North Carolina all the way to Gettysburg, and took a tour with an NPS guide in the car. That was awesome for a seventh grader (as was taking a photo at the statue of my ancestor General John Buford)!

One that really stuck with me, though not at a museum, came during a trip to Florida Caverns State Park (if memory serves). The caverns were lit, emphasizing the beauty of the natural formations. As we toured, our guide implored us not to touch anything. “You’ll have the chance at the end of the tour.” And have our chance we did. At the end, there was one stalagmite/stalactite formation that had grown together into a single column (I’ve since forgotten what that’s called, I got a “C” in geology in college). The guide encouraged us to touch it. It was black and disgusting. This taught me a lesson that has remained with me for almost 30 years now. Without careful care or handling, our precious past would cease to exist or become sullied and almost unrecognizable.

Another was two trips probably 10 years apart to Drayton Hall that I referenced in a guest blog post for them awhile back (http://draytonhall.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/432/). In the 1980s, I visited Drayton Hall in South Carolina for the first time. I remember initially being unimpressed by its bare-bones interpretation. I was so used to antebellum homes dressed out in all their finery that Drayton Hall’s interpretation and emphasis on historic preservation was initially lost on me. But after spending an afternoon there in the early 90s, I was hooked by what they were doing. I recognized that history doesn’t have to be gussied up to be interesting or to convey something important about the past, an idea I have carried with me philosophically ever since.   And to this day, I still covet the rice spoon that my mother got on that visit!

The last two are from my own career when the History Center held an exhibition of the original manuscript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (Kerouac was living in Orlando when the book was published) and another time when Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham and a true hero of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke at the museum for a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Brown v Board decision. I literally choked up introducing Rev. Shuttlesworth. I consider both highlights of my museum career.

Drayton Hall. Photo by BlackburnPhoto via Flickr.

What museum would you love to visit?

As for the biggies, probably the British Museum because of its role in the history of our field. (When I was in London I didn’t make it there and I still regret it to this day!) If I could travel back in time it’d be Charles Willson Peale’s original museum in Philadelphia again because it has such special meaning in my own career and in our field.

For current museums, I’ve yet to visit the Big House Museum in Macon, GA, since it opened as a full-fledged museum about my beloved Allman Brothers Band and I have yet to visit the Experience Music Project and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And I really want to see the National WWI Museum and also the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, both in Kansas City.

What is your dream museum job?

I could probably say I have it now, engaging with so many tremendous history and museum professionals across the country on a daily basis. That is a very cool part of my job. But as for a true “museum” job, it’d probably have something to do with music or music history. I am a music geek as much as a history geek so combining those two I’d be in heaven!

When you think of a perfect exhibit, what is in it?

Fantastic artifacts that move a story along are always crucial to me. I like lots and lots and lots of artifacts, visually that is so engaging to me. Many years ago when I attended the AAM conference in St. Louis, their exhibit on St. Louis in the 1950s (I believe) really sucked me in. I particularly remember a typical suburban living room scene with the TV, chairs (I think), coonskin cap, etc. I loved it. I also love exhibits that make me recall a certain time or place. The entire Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, is like that for me. (Hard not to be with all those toys!). For subjects that are a bit more complex, I like well-written exhibit labels and photos, but always like the story to relate to the objects. But simplicity and “place” can also make a perfect exhibit. I loved the Restoration Room at James Madison’s Montpelier and the interpretation of President Lincoln’s Cottage in DC.

What is the most random item you have bought in a museum gift shop?

I’m embarrassed that I don’t have an answer to this one. I usually gravitate toward books or Christmas ornaments. Does it count if I say I sometimes adapt keychains as Christmas ornaments if I don’t like the selection (or if the museum doesn’t have an ornament)?

You may have heard of the Month at the Museum contest recently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

Oh, the Met to be sure, ever since reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in elementary school. My oldest daughter is reading it now by the way.

From Wikipedia.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which is your favorite?

This is one of the major “perks” of working for AASLH, I get to see so many cool museums when I travel it’s almost unfair. Here are a couple that immediately come to mind: Strong National Museum of Play (if I’m ever within five hours of this with my kids, we’re going), Pratt Museum (Homer, Alaska), USS Yorktown (got to sleep on it when I was a kid, a history geek’s dream), Baseball Hall of Fame, City Museum (St. Louis), General Lew Wallace Study and Museum (Crawfordsville, IL).

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

Probably the Indiana Medical History Museum which is one of the site visits for our Developing History Leaders @SHA program we hold each year in Indianapolis. Amazing collections in an amazing old building (though the room with the brains is kinda creepy).

One Response to “I’m A Museum Person: Bob Beatty”

  1. Debora M. Coty on April 6th, 2011

    Excellent interview – very educational as well as entertaining. Bob’s enthusiasm is contagious; I’ve never been a history buff but I just might have to visit some of the locations he so vividly described.

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