A journey to reimagine the museum with Nancy Proctor from The Peale
Nancy Proctor weaves together two unique stories: her career intersecting entrepreneurship, academia and culture, with that of a radical vision for the Peale – the first museum in the US, currently undergoing transformation ahead of reopening (summer ’22). Set against a backdrop of the evolution of digital and now of culture in society, Nancy redefines the meaning of the museum as ‘a place where culture gets created’, with a community centric philosophy inverting the curatorial model.
For more on The Peale visit: https://www.thepealecenter.org/
Angie: Well, hello and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit here today with Nancy Proctor, entrepreneur, historian, and thought leader. Welcome Nancy.
Nancy: Hi, Angie. Thanks for having me.
Angie: Nancy is the Chief Strategy Officer and Founding Executive Director at The Peale, which is actually the first purpose built museum in the U.S. and now the center for Baltimore stories and a laboratory for cultural innovation too. And Nancy has a fascinating career history. She was previously Deputy Director of Digital Experience and Communications at the Baltimore Museum of Art, before that – Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at the Smithsonian, Head of New Media and Initiatives at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and has a PhD in American Art History, a background in filmmaking curation, feminist theory, and criticism in the arts and lectures and publishers on technology and innovation and museums impressively in French and Italian, as well, as English.
Outside of her cultural and academic work, Nancy and her husband Titus Bicknell co-founded The Gallery Channel in 1998, which was later acquired by Antenna Audio, where Nancy led product and sales for many years, going through the acquisition by discovery, coming into the Travel Channel.
Nancy, that sounds like the world’s most interesting career history to me. Can you take us back through that story of how that all got you to where you are today? This most amazing mix, this very unique blend of entrepreneurship and academia and commercial and cultural industry leadership.
Nancy: Well I will definitely try to at the risk of perhaps being guilty of, as I say, I’m being asked what time it is and telling you how to build a clock. So I had a lot of different interests in life. I ended up for personal and strategic reasons more than academic ones, attending the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
Even though at that time, I really thought of myself more as a writer or certainly more of a creative humanities person, but it meant that I got to spend some formative years with serious scientists, and technologists. In particular people working with early computer coding and that kind of thing, and developed a huge appreciation for geeks, I guess and subject matter specialists of all sorts who are really passionate about what they do. I’ve tried to always follow my passion in my career and do the things that I found were most interesting to me. And indeed that kind of came through when I was working on programs for conferences like muse web or before that MCN and the Tate conference, when people would say, well, what do you want me to talk about?
I would always say, well, the thing that makes you the most passionate, the thing that you’re most interested in because that’s what’s going to engage others. And similarly, I always said, I will learn any subject matter as long as I have a great teacher. So that’s, I suppose, been the engine behind my journey.
It was just following my interests, but I’ve been very, very fortunate and not least at birth that although, you know, I don’t come from a terribly wealthy family or anything. I nonetheless was born white and able-bodied, in a country where I had certain safety nets, systems that meant that I could afford to take certain kinds of risks and have more or less gotten away with most of them.
I started out actually studying classics at university and I was paying my own way through college. So I was thinking about the economy and getting value for my money and realized I could get two majors for the price of one. So I was like, well, what would be a good second major to add onto classics?
It’s gotta be easy because classics is hard. And I perhaps naively decided that art history would be a good compliment because it was mainly sitting in a dark room, looking at pretty pictures. Subsequently I found out that there’s a lot more to art history than that, but I think the common denominator there is history and it’s only actually been fairly recently through my work with The Peale that I’ve realized that I really am inherently a historian.
And that’s because history is really stories and in romance languages. In fact, the word for history and story is the same. I just love the way those things came together. Early on I had some fantastic history teachers who taught by simply telling the stories of our past. So that was kind of one piece of the puzzle. I also very early on met the person who became my husband, Titus Bicknell and, and really my partner in, so many things in life. He too, came from a humanities background as a writer, a poet, something of a composer and musician but got very interested in early computing and had a roommate who was a computer science major and a potter.
So there’s this kind of pattern of finding one foot in the sciences and one foot in the arts and humanities. And so through Titus, I learned a little bit about early computing. I ended up doing a master’s degree at the university of Leeds, studying with Griselda Pollock that was feminism and the visual arts, try to apply some of the theory that I was studying to questions of what is a feminist art space, what is a feminist exhibition? What’s a feminist curatorial practice. But of course I was a student and I had no money still paying my way through school. And I didn’t therefore have the means to publish a catalog and Titus suggested, well, how about instead of a printed catalog having a website. and I was kind of like, I’m not really sure I know what a website is, and I certainly don’t know how to build one.
We’re talking about, this would be between 1992 to 1995. I think we built our first website actually in ’95 for an exhibition that I curated. And I liked so many, I had the hope that the internet would, would democratize access to, to art in particular, contemporary art and make it easier for artists to reach collectors and be better known and make money off of their practice without too much mediation. of course we found Out that the power of capitalism meant that that effect was not entirely realized, but it did get me into, technology. For arts and culture and cultural publishing. And that was, really the impetus for our starting initially something we called new art which was kind of an exhibition project that was the first CD rom as well as website of contemporary art in the UK.
I’m still based, I think by this time doing my doctoral, at Leeds university, ironically, perhaps studying 19th century American women’s sculptors, but also doing this technology thing and that led to our founding the gallery channel, whose aim really, again, quite naive.
I wanted to capture the sort of marginal exhibitions and art practices that were typically underfunded, therefore couldn’t again, publish themselves as catalogs or create any kind of lasting record, but that we’re doing really important, radical work on art, on art discourse on, on curatorial practice. And I didn’t want that knowledge to disappear. This is the historian coming in, the archivist. I wanted to preserve that knowledge for others to build on, and so The Gallery Channel was built. We started in 1998 with the idea of documenting exhibitions through virtual exhibitions tours that would be image and text and audio based ways of online walking through real world exhibitions.
Of course the problem, there was the business model and there was also a technology problem. First of all, in 1998, we’re still all operating on dial-up modems. And so not really great bandwidth for downloading lots of images and high file size content. But also the people I really wanted to serve and work with were artists who were too poor to afford a catalog or even hiring a traditional exhibition space.
That’s why they were working on the fringes. So they certainly didn’t have enough money to pay me to, keep this business going. The good news is we learned a few things from that about business. We also learned about how valuable the listings were, just the knowledge of what exhibitions were happening, what artists were involved, what institutions in places were involved, that that had a value.
And so we were able to syndicate that listings content to like Lycos, which older members in your audience might recall was one of the first internet portals and browser systems. However, as the internet bubble burst and that revenue stream started tanking, we transitioned to a new phase, which is our knowledge of technology for cultural publishers. We became valuable to companies like Antenna Audio the audio tour company that – I think they recently closed actually – but they came to be known as Antenna International. In those days they were one of the biggest audio tour companies in the world. They had lots of major clients ranging from the met to the Louvre to the Vatican Museums, Rijksmuseum Museum and lots of smaller ones, but they knew that with the rise of the internet and digital technology, they needed to move beyond the traditional audio tour, which had actually begun as something – gosh, Louis Tallot discovered back in the 1950s as a kind of reel to reel tape and radio broadcast systems, but had in the 1980s really an industry with the Walkman.
Then they transitioned to digital MP3 players and they knew they needed to go beyond that So I was hired and they acquired the gallery channel, as a kind of an arm and an activity of antenna audio back in 2000. My job as head of new product development was to work on everything that was not a traditional audio tour.
So I worked with the first virtual tours. the first downloadable tours podcast, cell phone tours, and audio visual tours. We launched the first multimedia tour on a handheld device, pre iPhone. This would have been 2003 at Tate Modern. and we actually got a BAFTA for that. Which I think partly was because we were put in the same category as Sony and all of the video game companies and I think the judges in that category just couldn’t bring themselves to give an award to the kind of shoot them up. video games were our competitors. So they felt like they were perhaps serving culture better by awarding it to what was really a fairly modest very early audio visual tour. I will also admit we had fantastic collaborators, Jane Burton, who was then the curator of Tate Modern and her husband, who’s one of the principles of Double Negative, who do incredible visual effects and that kind of thing and films. So we were able to tap incredible talent to build that. So that’s what I did with Antenna for a while, until it sold to Discovery Channel, which, have to say, I thought at the time was brilliant because Discovery knew video and then had known audio. And I thought that was the next step for what we were doing with digital was to really get to grips with the visual side of things. Unfortunately it turned out to be in many ways, the beginning of the end of the company, because a big corporations like that and particularly in Discovery’s history, they wanted to list on the stock market. And so there’s a certain profit margin below, which there’s just no point they’re even getting out of bed. Antenna had always been a very slim margin company because we were working with museums and it was as much mission-driven as anything. It wasn’t about getting rich. And so the company just really didn’t thrive under Discovery.
I left, after the company was acquired and went to the Smithsonian and was able to work with the brilliant Mike Edson at the American Art Museum, in terms of new media strategy and initiatives there before a couple of years later moving, actually kind of following Mike in some ways into the office of the CIO and working with other colleagues there on mobile strategy and initiatives.
And that was really a position that was created in response to seeing the rise of mobile as a very important technology for the Smithsonian to be on top of. I don’t know that the institution really understood how to integrate mobile or indeed digital strategy into everything that it did being such a large and sprawling organization that was a complex proposition.
But anyway, it was a fascinating startup moment for me. And I guess at this point it should have started dawning on me that what I really like is the startup. I like being in at the beginning of things precisely because structures and systems are not terribly well defined. And you get to write the rules to a large extent.
That said, about six years into my time with the Smithsonian, I had another startup opportunity, to move to the Baltimore Museum of Art and help them really professionalize what they did with digital and start their first digital division. I ended up being also in charge of marketing communications and visitor services.
By the time I left a couple of years later, that was a really wonderful opportunity to build digital kind of from the ground up. But what I still didn’t know was how to really build a museum from the ground up. I had gone from working as a consultant to museums, to working in the biggest museum in the world, the Smithsonian in a very specialized role or set of roles.
And I really wanted to understand how the whole museum got put together. And it was very clear to me that it was no longer really effective to talk about mobile or even digital as a standalone separate thing. It was so deeply interwoven by this point, we’re talking 2014, 20 3, digital was integral to absolutely everything that a museum did.
So I wanted to understand the other, the other facets of that and I also was, I felt like there were things that needed to be done in the cultural sector, quite urgently that. Established museums, even a relatively small and nimble museum, like the BMA – we’re just not going to be able to move fast enough to do so. I left the BMA and started an initiative that was in large part inspired by my work with MuseWeb the conference, and a mobile company that we had gotten to know where we’re working through, through those who were willing to sponsor an initiative to collect community stories. And I recommended Baltimore as a wonderful city for that.
It’s one of the oldest cities in America. So it has a lot of stories and has always been an international city because it’s a port city. So it’s always had a large and international audience And therefore very diverse communities. And in fact today is a majority African-American city.
So I just felt like it was a wonderful place to start with saying, okay, what are the parts of the story in the sense of the local and national cultural heritage that haven’t been adequately preserved or shared or amplified? I was able to lead with the help of a lot of people, including the team of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street, an initiative to start this kind of local storytelling program that led me to encounter The Peale and its Board.
As an American art historian, of course I had heard of the Peale family, but like so many people, I associated them with Philadelphia. I didn’t realize that they had actually built a museum in Baltimore as well. And that building was in fact, the first purpose-built museum in the country. So represents a really interesting moment in museum and national history of where Rembrandt Peale and his collaborators had to think. What does a museum look like as a piece of technology, if you will, a physical space with certain affordances, what does it need to enable? What does it feel like? What kinds of experiences does it make easier or not? So I. went to see a wonderful exhibition that had been curated there, by the contemporary, which was a kind of a nomadic contemporary art gallery in Baltimore at the time and fell in love with the building, which is something that building just does to people. It’s magical.
I think one reason is it’s not, It was not built on the model of the Acropolis. It was built on the model of a federal style townhouse. So it has these very human, if not homely proportions. And so it doesn’t intimidate, quite as easily as those neoclassical facades with big classical pillars and lots of steps up to the front door kind of thing.
So I was persuaded by some really smart people including Jackson Gilman for Laney, who’s the city of Baltimore’s historic preservationist, that the stories and the voices that I had been trying to help amplify preserve to some extent would really benefit from having a home in a building of this historical importance that kind of showcase is precisely what so many of them had never been afforded and other more traditional institutions.
And therefore we needed to save this building. At this point, it had been standing empty for 20 years. The roof had started leaking. There was a lot of water damage. Its last run as a museum had gone from 1930 to 1997. It had never, amazingly to me, had an elevator or other accessible features put into it.
So I undertook to be the founding Executive Director for the Peale, which no longer had a collection, a physical collection other than the building itself. And we had to find a purpose for it because you know, buildings are all nice, but what’s it going to do for the community? And so it’s purpose became to be really a home for Baltimore stories, a place where the cities, communities and voices can be preserved and heard and amplified and where they could also be supported with access to the resources, be they financial or technology or expertise to help ensure that those stories get told and get heard as well as at home.
So that is, kind of how I ended up at the Peale. This was now 2017 And I was the only staffer for a while. But we started attracting folks. And I think this goes back to something I first heard when I was at the Smithsonian from Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine. He came to speak at the Smithsonian in an event called Smithsonian 2.0 about re-imagining the Smithsonian. I think this was around 2009 and he told the story of Joy’s law, which was named after the founder of Sun Microsystems, I believe, which is basically something like this: the best person to do any particular job doesn’t work for you. And moreover you can’t find that person, but if you send out the right signals, you can attract them to you.
We had $40,000 for operations when I started at Peale and that was to pay me and everything else that needed to be done. So I certainly didn’t have the money to go out recruiting great talent with great money.
But I realized that what we could do was be a place where people could do things that perhaps they couldn’t do and more established and better funded institutions quite as easily. So we started attracting people who needed a place to realize a dream. and so our team kind of grew and by 2020, with the pandemic on, I needed, frankly, to have more time to teach my kids, so we decided to homeschool in the midst of the pandemic. And I also felt like it was a moment where we could, we had a big enough team that we could start looking at distributed leadership models or a decentralized power in a way I’d always felt like the traditional museum directorship model is fairly feudal in its structure. You know, with this all powerful director at the top. and everybody else kind of jumping when they say jump and asking how high, that was not how I wanted the Peale to grow up. So, I had the opportunity to start collaborating with Christa Green, who took on the role of our Chief Administrative Officer and is my co-director of The Peale and that’s when my title shifted to Chief Strategy Officer. We also worked very closely with Geoffrey Kent, who’s our Chief Curator. And initially David London, who was our Chief Experience Officer and now has another wonderful job with the greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance as their director of innovation.
So, in a sense, the leadership team has shifted to now include a Chief Operations Officer, Robin Marquis, who’s also been with The Peale almost since the beginning, as our Accessibility Manager, and, now as also leading all of our institutional development. So with a really strong focus on being accessible, being inclusive.
And Robin is helping lead us through this process of really rewiring power at the Peale so that we are more of a worker owned organization, which is a little bit of an odd thing to say in a nonprofit, but rather than again, having top down hierarchical, relationship, among the staff and the team and the leadership. Another really important ingredient in all of this is the Peale’s Board who were brought together by a passion wanting to save this important building and do something meaningful with it, for the community, rather than through any kind of. Personal ambitions to network or be seen as having a certain kind of status or role in Baltimore society, so to speak.
And I’ll have to say they have all made this possible by being incredibly supportive of a really quite radical vision. and they had already, before I got into the appeal, decided not to call it a museum to call it the Peale’s Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. Because there was this sense that museums would hold us back in some older and less appropriate models.
I think today we’ve kind of come full circle where we are embracing the term museum with the understanding that we’re reinventing it, that we have an opportunity because this is both a very old institution and a brand new one to draw the best learnings and best practices from the past to build something radically new and very relevant for the present.
And as I’ve learned in my 20 some years in museums, if the board doesn’t get that and doesn’t support that it doesn’t matter who your director is, who your leaders are, or who your team are. They’re not going to be able to make It happen. So it’s really been all of those elements that have come together to make it possible for us to do something that I think is very new and very exciting.
Angie: It is such a magical story. And speaking of being at the beginning of things and people having their own love story of The Peale, I remember the last time I was, in Baltimore, which I think, was about 2017 when you just picked up the keys to the museum and it had been closed for a while and it was it had that smell and that feel about it.
But there was, I think, an immersive improv theater upstairs who were in full dress rehearsal mode. And you took me down into the basement of the museum and we were going through things that people probably hadn’t touched for decades and finding all sorts of joys down there. And it has been a memory that’s stuck with me for a very long time.
It was quite the treat to be, to be, able to save the museum in those beautiful early days before everything got started.
Nancy: You bring back fond memories. We call that the basement of Harry Potter because it seemed that, I mean, again, we had no money, right. So we had to kind of beg, borrow and steal. We pieced together everything that we did. And it seemed like anytime we needed something, we just went down in the basement and we would find it.
But that was because being a city, it was still a city owned building. Since it wasn’t being used, it was where all the other city agencies would dump stuff that they didn’t have storage space for. So yes, it was a magical place, and it still is. The stuff is all gone because we’re almost at the end of our renovations, but we are actually, I think when you came to submersive productions, the local immersive theater company was creating a wonderful show in the building about real museums.
And the practice of collecting is HT Darling’s incredible museum, where they used a fictional story to do. Wonderful critique of museums and collecting, but one which you didn’t just have to be a museum person to care about. It was a great story for everybody. And they are actually, in fact, you just got an email from them yesterday about they want to do something in the basement when we reopen.
And I can’t wait to hear their ideas. This is what I’ve found throughout with The Peale, when somebody is attracted to the Peale because it’s the place to do the thing that they most want to do. They’re always right. And they always come with ideas that I could never have thought of. No, even a committee of much more brilliant curators and museum leaders, and myself couldn’t have come up with the best ideas as Joy’s Law says always come from somewhere else. And so the most important thing is structuring yourself to be open in a way that those ideas find you and then supporting them to make them happen
Angie: Nancy, I remember you said to me once that the Peale doesn’t find people, people find the Peale and you’ve got this very contemporary leadership structure there.
What’s the philosophy behind all of that and this almost inverted curatorial process being very community driven?
Nancy: Well, if you think of a museum as not just a treasure house, a place where you put the valuable things of culture that somebody said are valuable and therefore should be preserved. If not more so, a production house, a place where culture gets created and enabled, then you really need to be led, not from administrators and subject matter experts in a top down way, but you need to be led by the creators themselves.
And if you value creating an inclusive cultural record of a place, then you need to value all voices as creators. And so that’s where you really do end up needing as I’ve called it, this inverted curatorial process, which starts with a community or a creator from the community saying these are the stories that are important to us in this moment that we want to tell that we want to be heard, that we want to preserve and transmit to future generations.
Then you go, okay, well, as an institution, as the museum What do we need to do to enable that? And in some cases, the creators know exactly what they want to do. Like some of the immersive theater companies or artists or curators we’ve worked with. And we just need to give them the space and perhaps a little bit of support along the way, and in various forms of resources to make it happen. In other cases, you’ve got somebody who has an amazing story that needs to be told. But they’re not in a position… this is not their usual creative practice, and they need much more support with how to go about recording that and how to go about publishing that story, how to go about presenting that in a public context.
And then if you cast your museum, your institution in that role of enabler, then all the other normal stuff that a museum does in terms of marketing or educational programs and outreach follows, but still driven by that community instigator. Again, rather than I know one of the things that I’ve heard all the time throughout my career in museums is, oh, if you just brought, you know, such and such department in sooner, be it marketing or education or it, or whatever, this would have all been a much more joined up process.
When things are driven from the community, you actually avoid a lot of that siloing of activity and information. And most importantly, you have your audience and your relevance baked in because the creator is already coming from a community. And this was one of the early concepts that we led with in the stories project that I started when I left the BMA is that the content creators in a community, the storytellers, if you will, are always already known to that community and respected by them.
So if you can find them and enable them, everything else follows as opposed to treating it as more of a voyage of discovery, à la Columbus, or a mining, digging for and finding diamonds in the rough and then trying to polish them, which is a much more colonizing kind of structure and process.
So we obviously don’t want to go there. We want to, to invert that curatorial process, we want to be community driven. And then that means also at our own staff level, those hierarchies need to be dismantled. And so as soon as we had a kind of a critical mass of staff and I’m very proud of the fact that, and very grateful, I should say that during the pandemic, instead of laying people off, we were able to hire more people.
The Board really supported me in converting funds, wherever we could so that we can make sure that people were safe, their incomes were safe. And then once we had a critical mass of people, it started making sense to talk about, now, changing the leadership structure, because it wasn’t just, me and a couple of other people who could all fit in a car and have a nice conversation.
We had to really think about communicating and collaborating on a much more, wider scale. So yeah, that’s something that we’re very much in the middle of, or I should say at the beginning of it in the middle of a strategic planning process and a business redefinition process that will hopefully speak to this need to rewire power, not just at the Peale, but I think throughout the cultural sector.
Angie: And when it comes to that motive, innovation and creativity and empowerment, what lessons have you taken from the history of startups in the sector or from the history of new museums themselves?
Nancy: You know, I don’t know enough about that yet, Angie and I really, really need to know more – I’m taking the idea that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I have embarked this year on a project to create a course, which will help me write a book, precisely about the history of startups and museums, both, in the U.S. and and around the world. Obviously the Peale is itself a great example. And there are many others. So both historic and contemporary. I really want to do more research into that and learn from those other examples. And I would love to hear from anybody who has great stories along those lines, that might help inform this process and, and to help me help amplify those stories too, in the great Peale tradition.
Angie: Nancy, there’s a couple of things happening in the cultural sector at the moment. There’s of course the great resignation and the shifting awareness of our roles in society issues like the living wage and career privilege. Then we’ve got this next generation of students coming forth and the way that we interact with the general public is changing around the issues around education, bridging the digital divide and such. How do you think about the museum’s role in those sorts of changes and instigating that next generation force, what is the work ahead for you and the team?
Nancy: Bridging the digital divide is a really critical issue for The Peale that came to the fore with the pandemic. And we were under stay at home orders and yet our job was to preserve and share and amplify the voices of people who might not normally get recorded and become part of the cultural record. How are we going to reach people who may not have internet access at home who may really be separated from the free tools and services that we make available to culture, keepers and storytellers because of that digital divide and we tried a number of things and I don’t know that any one of the worked hugely. I think together we made a first step towards bridging the digital divide, but there’s so much farther to go. We have a storyteller ambassador, Daisy Brown who would go on walks with her dog and bring her camera and a microphone and see people sitting on their stoops.
Baltimore is famously a city of stoops and a lot of culture happens out on people’s front steps. And she would ask them how they were doing and start recording their stories of what it was like to live in Baltimore and the early pandemic under the stay at home order, et cetera. We partnered with libraries without borders who distributed these backpacks that have internet access to people who didn’t have it in the form of a kind of internet hotspot, 4g drive, and a laptop computer.
And, those devices came loaded with certain software and tools that could be helpful for everything from finding COVID information to recording your own story. So The Peale’s tools were part of that toolkit that was given out, There’s so much more that needs to be done. I was very happy to see our state and our city, appoint people and provide budgets for broadband and digital accessibility. but even there was still so much at the beginning. one thing that was particularly inspiring that I heard this time was, in a panel discussion that we had about bridging the digital divide and the artist Latrice Gaskins, who was born in Baltimore and is now based in Boston was part of that panel discussion.
I asked her, what would it take to really decolonize the tools and the platforms that we’ve come to be so dependent on, we’d been talking about things like ambivalence around platforms, like Facebook and indeed all of these large corporate owned platforms that we use and both love and hate. And she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, she said it much better than I can, ‘we’ll never really decolonize those platforms and those technologies until they are built by the people who have been excluded from those systems of power’. So essentially it’s a riff off of Audre Lorde’s ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. We need to make sure that the tools are in the hands of the people who have been colonized historically, to enable them to generate platforms that are inherently decolonized. At least that’s the hope. And I found that very inspiring, but of course, translating that into direct action is a much more complex proposition than I confess, I don’t have as much of a plan for, as I would like to. So I think that’s going to continue to be a big challenge at the Peale and beyond. But I, you know, I have great faith in brilliant young minds coming up to help us sort this out. And one of the things that we are at the appeal in addition to being a community museum, and a home for Baltimore stories, we’re also a teaching museum. And so we were able during the pandemic to also start up an apprenticeship program working with young people who really are coming from some of the most disinvested communities in Baltimore. They are folks who squeegee clean windshields as part of their hustle for surviving, and have often experienced homelessness for a large part of their lives.
And just not really had much support from anybody. And our Chief Curator, Geoffrey Kent he himself had come from a pretty challenged background and life story, and he wanted to share what he had learned and what had helped him get to a better place in terms of, personal and financial stability and security with young people who came from similar backgrounds couple of them helped us pilot this concept in the summer of 2020 installing an exhibition that we hosted, by the artist Kim Rice. Importantly, I think Kim is a white woman and her work is all about exploring her white privilege And the systems that have enabled her privilege not just today, but generations back. She discovered a while ago that her ancestors had enslaved hundreds of people. And so she was able to trace the effects of that privilege and exploitation of labor up to where she is today. We had two apprentices that summer, both young black men. Working on installing this exhibition under Jeffrey Kent’s leadership. And that really, I think inspired a lot of people. We were able to get support to expand the program this past year in the fall of 2021 to four apprentices whom we’re currently working with and add in a component that was really the brainchild of Shantay Daniels who’s the executive director of the Baltimore national heritage area here. I met her early on in my time at the Peale. And she said, you know, Nancy, when you finished renovating the Peale, it’d be really neat if you could think about taking what you’ve learned And and helping save so many of the other historic buildings that Baltimore is just rich in that need new purposes and they need to be saved physically as well. And perhaps use that as an opportunity to expand the historic preservation trade. There are very few people entering the historic preservation trades. and it has always been kind of a field dominated by white men and as they’re dying off, so to speak, literally and otherwise it’s an opportunity for other people to come in and learn these skills.
They’re very creative jobs, very well paid, and they don’t necessarily require a college degree or, or any of the kind of intergenerational wealth that often you have to have in order to get a higher degree. And so it’d be a great place for people from disinvested communities to find really meaningful and important and well paid work.
And I loved that idea, but I really thought, I need to wait and we’ll finish the renovation. And then we’ll be able to tackle a project of that scale. But Geoffrey Kent, thank God, is not that patient. And he really pushed us for it. And he absolutely was right. We did. And this year, the apprentices are learning both historic preservation skills with David, who’s a historic preservationist with 40 years experience. We’d met him through a project that we’d been able to be part of from the national trust they did. It’s called the hope crew hands-on preservation experience. And it was aimed precisely at getting people of color to have experience of the historic preservation trades and consider that as a career path.
So for two summers, we got to work with two different groups that David was teaching on that program, and he agreed to come and teach our apprentices as well this past year, and is still working with them down in the Peale’s basement teaching them things that they’re then doing even on the field building. So they’re part of renovating our space and hopefully. Learning skills that they could use both to become a historic preservationist or like Geoffrey Kent know how to install exhibitions and curate them and know something more about the art business and the entrepreneurial activities there. But also these are the ideas that these are transferable skills that can be valuable in all sorts of different career paths that they might take.
I think that’s a really important part of who the Peale is today. That it’s part of our mission to re-imagine what museums can be. And again, it’s not just about what you do, but about who you are and the apprenticeship program, being a teaching museum, being staffed by emerging museum professionals from all sorts of different backgrounds and walks of life is an opportunity for us to really help diversify the entire cultural workforce and make sure that cultural institutions are, are not just, you know, educated, privileged white people like me talking to each other.
Angie: I think that’s the perfect bow to put on this. As you said, it’s not just about what you do, it’s who you are. And I think that when it comes to your own story and then the story that’s coming out about The Peale, that’s what it’s all about. It’s marvellous to see how you’ve weaved those two things together.
Nancy: Oh, well, thank you.
Angie: So Nancy, these issues around rewiring power have struck every institution in the sector, acutely. The Peale feels so uniquely placed to have the freedoms to think and act differently. You’ve got the reopening ahead of you the summer that we’ll need to take in with you and see how that unfolds and this post pandemic future will be like?
Nancy: Yeah, well, I’d love for you to visit us virtually and in person. I guess you may know that we were able during the pandemic to work with the folks at Linden Lab and our friends at Virtual Ability to completely reconstruct the Peale in it’s second life. And it’s a beautiful, amazing virtual building where we’re able to host exhibitions 24/7. So I invite you and anybody listening to come visit there anytime they like. Obviously I’d be thrilled also to welcome you to the Peale museum building, which is a very, very special place in downtown Baltimore. We’ll reopen with our first programs in May. And then we’re really using the idea of a kind of soft reopening to, you know, run through everything, make sure we’ve got the signage right, all our systems and every hour support for visitors and our partners are all working well. And then we’ll do a grand reopening later in the year. So stay tuned for that date, but I’d love for you to participate in any way you can.
Angie: I can’t wait to get back.
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