By Nicole Navarro, Doctoral Student, Department of History
When I was accepted as a Mellon Fellow at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, I was excited for an opportunity to work in a museum setting. I have a background in museums as I worked for two and a half years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture prior to beginning my history PhD journey. I was motivated to apply for the Mellon Fellowship, and specifically to the Wright, to get back to museum work and expand my interest in public history.
The Wright’s mission statement “to open minds and change lives through the exploration and celebration of African American history and culture,” aligned with my own scholarship and I felt fortunate to have a chance to contribute to their work. The fellowship at the Wright provided me with the opportunity to develop museum-related skills that complemented my work as a historian. Moreover, I was interested in comparing museums with similar themes and missions and learning what it was like to work at a more local, but not necessarily smaller, establishment.
I began the fellowship in May 2017 with my supervisor giving me the ins-and-outs of the museum and laying out the work in progress. I had an opportunity to tour the museum and quickly learned how different my fellowship at the Wright would be from my previous museum and graduate work. I learned that due to the size and structure of the museum, employees often wore multiple hats. I too, would have to take on that challenge.
My assignment for the two months was to conduct background research on the history of music in Detroit, particularly focusing on African American culture. The research I conducted will form part of a potential new exhibit for the museum. The assignment felt slightly intimidating because it was rooted in history I was unfamiliar with and encompassed multiple music genres. While I was familiar with Detroit through my urban history background, I was unaware of the musical history of this city. I was also challenged to look beyond Detroit’s well known Motown industry and uncover lesser known musical precedents. The project provided me with an exciting avenue to learn more about Detroit, gain diverse research skills, and listen to good music along the way. I set off to investigate Detroit’s musical history by doing what I am trained to do best – research and read expansively.
At the beginning stage, I was working on my own while still checking in with my supervisor. I expanded my knowledge of museum work and learned how to juggle independent research and still participate in a collaborative environment. I was able to interact with museum staff and engage with Detroit’s history firsthand. One of the most exciting opportunities at my fellowship was interviewing a museum employee who had personal knowledge and been a part of Detroit’s music scene. The impromptu nature of the interview allowed me to think and act on my feet and treat the conversation as an organic dialogue. It was a special moment as it was also the first time I had conducted an informal oral history interview. The conversation opened up a more intimate understanding of the city’s rich history. I learned that Detroit music is “More than a sound, it’s a feel.” I came away with valuable information and new directions to take my research. In the process, I gained a concrete skill in having the opportunity to conduct informal interviews that I can apply to my personal academic scholarship and future museum-related work.
Now that my fellowship is complete, I have come away with a greater awareness and appreciation of Detroit. I plan on continuing my work in public history throughout my graduate program and apply experiences I gained from the fellowship in my future academic career. I think it is valuable and important for historians to reach out beyond scholarly networks to speak to a wider audience. I value museum work because it allows me to continue the academic research I prize but also use history to engage with local communities. My work at the Wright reinvigorated my commitment to museum work and I am grateful for the wonderful opportunity.
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