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What is a Historian Doing at an Art Museum?

Hi, I’m Joy. I’m a historian by trade, with degrees in history and experience working, interning, and volunteering at history museums. This summer I am interning at The Ringling in the Ringling Archives. This is my first time working at an art museum. Sometimes when I tell people where I’m working, they seem surprised. “What place do historians have at art museums? Isn’t that for art historians?” My time at The Ringling has taught me that the answer to this question is… no!

Intern in The Ringling Archives reads a book sitting at a table surrounded by files

I attended a public history program at Temple University, which trained me to work in historic institutions. Traditionally, museum studies programs train students for art museums. History and art history programs are kept separate. Academia is full of these divides. But, in practice, there is constant overlap. In my opinion, historians have a place at any and all museums. And, I would argue further that even individuals employed by art museums who don’t identify as historians are engaging in history work. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art validates both of these beliefs.

History isn’t just memorizing names and dates, it’s an active process of remembering, interpreting, and engaging with the past. This “doing” of history happens in every part of The Ringling. Conservators uncover the past as they clean paintings. Art curators consider the historical context in which a piece was made in order to understand its meaning and value. Groundskeepers refer to Mable Ringling’s original designs when maintaining the rose garden and literally keep the past alive caring for the decades-old banyan trees.

In The Ringling Archives, we maintain the museum’s printed connections to the past, ensuring that records and ephemera survive and are made accessible for generations to come. For instance, this summer I have processed and rehoused institutional records dating back to the museum’s founding. I have also helped digitize sixty-year-old slide photographs of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and invaluable circus route books from the 1890s!

Intern in The Ringling Archives removes a file folder from a shelf

The reach of the circus history we care for extends well beyond the Circus Museum on The Ringling campus. We are all here because of the circus. Along with the intentions of our original founders, John and Mable Ringling, the legacy of the circus, as a cultural touchstone that speaks to the histories of race, gender, disability, spectacle, and so much more, is taken into consideration as The Ringling grows and changes. Our actions in the present and plans for the future are made so much richer when they are connected to the past. This museum understands that.

The Ringling is special because it exemplifies interdisciplinarity. In my dreams, all museums would be history and art museums, just like The Ringling.


This post was guest-written by Joy Feagan, summer intern at The Ringling in The Ringling Archives. Joy holds a BA in history from New College of Florida and received her MA in history from Temple University this past May. Find out more about the museum studies internships and fellowships at The Ringling.

 

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