NAME: Mary Jane Teeters-Eichacker
TITLE: Curator of Social History FOR: Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites
ORIGINALLY FROM? I grew up on a farm in the Greenwood, Indiana area.
YOUR JOB DUTIES INCLUDE? Planning exhibits; choosing and collecting appropriate artifacts for the museum in my areas of responsibility; working with donors, lenders, researchers, and the public; giving talks; writing; helping with the historic sites’ renovations and exhibits; researching and cataloging artifacts for the website and in-house database. Boredom’s never a problem!
YOU WORK HOW MANY HOURS WEEKLY? 40ish, unless I have an exhibit deadline! I try hard to balance family time, personal time and work time.
PROJECT/S YOU ARE MOST PROUD TO HAVE BEEN PART OF? I was fortunate to be one of the team that created the cultural history exhibits for the new Indiana State Museum; that was an incredibly exciting – and exhausting – time. My most recent and current favorite exhibit was Frugal & Fancy: Indiana Quilts, which showcased over 30 spectacular quilts in the ISM’s collection.
OTHER PROJECTS WE MIGHT RECOGNIZE? I co-curated Objects of Desire, Cars and Clothes of the Jazz Age, and wrote the final labels for Odd Indiana, a recent exhibit. At The Children’s Museum, I worked with the carousel, miniature room, toy and doll exhibits and helped produce Passport to the World and Jolly Days.
WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO? Just about everything. I have great colleagues, and love meeting the variety of people who come as donors and visitors; I love the opportunity to save and share the objects and their stories that bring history to life. I love the idea that, in working for a nonprofit, I’m spending my life doing something I consider valuable, that can have a positive effect on people’s understanding of their past and present.
WORST PART OF WHAT YOU DO? I’m not a big fan of paperwork! Seriously, the worst thing is having to tell someone that no, the museum can’t protect their family treasure. It may be a duplicate of something we already have; it may be in poor condition or just not have a strong enough story. People want the museum to not only save their artifacts, but somehow save their family’s memories along with them. It’s heartbreaking when we have to tell them we can’t. Humans create a lot of things; we cannot collect them all. Museums continually struggle with figuring out what we think will be significant in the future.
HOW YOU DEFINE PERSONAL SUCCESS? I think I’m successful when I can share an artifact and its story touches people in a lasting way. Perhaps it makes people stop and think, either deeply about the choices people have made in the past and the present, or enjoyably, in a “Hey, I didn’t know that! “ way.
ADVICE TO SOMEONE ELSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO DO WHAT YOU DO? Take a university class in museum methods to give yourself the proper tools, then volunteer or apply for an unpaid internship. Learn about all aspects of the job – the not-so-glamorous parts as well as the more exciting aspects of collecting and exhibition planning. Museums are chronically understaffed; if you can show an appropriate knowledge base, willingness to work hard and desire to learn, they’ll find something that needs doing! This lets you know whether it’s the career for you. You’ll probably need a masters’ degree in your field and a strong background in museum methods to actually land a paid position, but first be sure it’s right for you. Besides, museums like to hire people whose capabilities they know; we’ve hired several former interns.
Beyond that, learn as much about different computer programs and social media as possible. You can be a key player in the effort to develop new forms of outreach in these areas. Finally, practice teamwork. The ability to contribute effectively to a team effort is indispensable.
IF YOU WERE GRANTED ONE WISH RELATING TO YOUR JOB/CAREER/ORGANIZATION, WHAT WOULD IT BE? Well, if a fairy godmother flies by, I’d ask for a healthy endowment to fund acquisition of major artifacts of Indiana history, art and culture!
WOULDN’T HAVE MADE IT TO WHERE YOU ARE WITHOUT? Five people; 1) The love, support, and example of my husband Jack. 2) My mom, who encouraged me to read and learn, validated my interest in books and history, and never said “Girls can’t do that”. 3) The generosity of Mrs. Stahl, the former head librarian at the Greenwood Public Library, who let me (without my knowledge) break every limit on taking out books. When she heard me talk of how exciting it was for an isolated farm kid to come to the library once a month, she waived the rule limiting checkouts to six books at a time, and let me stagger out of the library with thirty to forty books at once! I read every one. It was years before I found out what she’d done for me. 4) The creativity of my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Norville Osting, who taught so imaginatively that it became as cool to be a bookworm as it was to be good at sports. 5) And finally, the advice and guidance of my first mentor, Mrs. Estelle Bell.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU? My colleagues, my curiosity, and my hope that I can create exhibits that pique people’s interest and stimulate their imaginations.
WHO WERE/ARE YOUR MENTORS AND HOW DID THEY HELP? My mom, as above, and Mrs. Estelle Bell, the registrar at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where I started in 1973. She modeled dedication, loyalty, meticulous work, curiosity about material culture, genuine caring for her staff and visitors, and high professional standards. She was a wonderful woman, so generous with professional guidance and personal friendship. I still ask myself what she’d do.
WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN HISTORY? In the fourth grade I read a book by Roy Chapman Andrews about the discovery of dinosaur remains in the Gobi Desert, and announced that I wanted to be a paleontologist (the other girls in the class chose nurse, teacher or ballerina). That morphed into a lifelong interest in archeology, and then, as I realized I was really focused on the material culture aspects of the field rather than excavation, into my interest in history and museums. I’m an artifact junkie; documents can lie, but the physical remains of cultures reveal so much about their users’ lives and attitudes.
MOST INTERESTING BIT OF INDIANAPOLIS HISTORY YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED? The canal outside the Indiana State Museum is part of the state’s original 1830s canal system, intended as the superhighway of its time. The project’s consequences resonate today; as part of the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act, it bankrupted the state, causing the framers of the 1851 Constitution to prohibit the state from going into debt, a prohibition that is still in effect. This in turn led to Indiana being less industrialized than neighboring states like Ohio and Michigan and to its relatively better economic condition in today’s recession. I love connections!
YOU CAN HAVE DINNER WITH ANYONE FROM INDIANAPOLIS PAST? WHO & WHY? Selma Neubacher Steele, wife of painter Theodore Clement Steele. She was an artist and collector in her own right, and besides, there are a lot of questions I need to ask about their house in Brown County, now one our State Historic Sites!
YOUR CAREER IN AN ALTERNATE LIFE? Archeology still has a strong pull; if I had to change careers, I’d become an archeologist specializing in Mayan studies.
ANY INTERESTING FAMILY CONNECTIONS TO INDIANAPOLIS PAST? Not that I know of.
FAVORITE VIEW IN THE CITY? Hands down, the city’s best view is from our office windows! From our windows you look directly east along the canal to the capital and the center of downtown. It’s spectacular in the daytime, but at night, with the lights along the canal reflecting in the water and the moon rising – wow!
FAVORITE RESTAURANT IN INDIANAPOLIS? It’s a tie between El Sol de Tala, the best Mexican restaurant in the city (located on East Washington Street), and Santorini’s, the delectable Greek restaurant in Fountain Square.
FAVORITE CITY BESIDES INDIANAPOLIS? Santa Fe. The scenery and arts are spectacular.
FAVORITE HISTORY RELATED BOOK OR MOVIE? I’m fascinated by experiential archeology; the process of recreating the past to learn more about how people actually lived. In this vein, one of my favorites was Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage, about re-creating St. Brendan of Ireland’s possible voyage in a skin boat to North America. The first half is a riveting account of Severin’s efforts to reconstruct how to make an authentic oxhide boat and its accoutrements, how to stock it, and how to sail it. I got to see that boat on on a visit to Ireland a few years ago; what a thrill! Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years”; it’s a fascinating examination of textile working, informed by Barber’s knowledge as a spinner and weaver as well as an archeologist and Classical scholar. She recognized artifacts and depictions that no one else did because she’d actually practiced the crafts, and was able to reconstruct information that none of her (male) colleagues even knew existed! It’s a great read; with your love of textiles I think you’ like it too. Also anything by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, especially “Homespun”, her work extrapolating the history and connections of key New England artifacts and their meaning. The best part of history isn’t names, dates and battles; it’s the connections and consequences that shape our lives.
ULTIMATE BEVERAGE? I love chai tea in the winter and a tall glass of freshly brewed iced tea with mint in the summer – but Diet Coke is one of the essential food groups.
COLLECT ANYTHING? Sometimes I’m afraid I collect everything! I avoid collecting things with a known Indiana history, since that’s part of my job. However, I do collect anonymous quilts; Arts and Crafts style accessories and textiles; intriguing handmade things, from tramp art to ethnic pieces; and of course, lots and lots of books!
THEME SONG? Oh my. I don’t think I have one; I don’t listen to much pop music. I like Celtic and classical and some jazz, but it doesn’t lend itself to being called a “theme”.
FAVORITE QUOTE? Several, but I think this one is appropriate: “Our duty is to preserve what the past has had to say for itself, and to say for ourselves what shall be true for the future.” John Ruskin.
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