Kansas City Curators Tell Us Why Their Attractions Are Special
Local Curators Tell Us Why Their Attractions Are Special
Have you ever wondered what a museum’s curator thinks makes his workplace so phenomenal? Four local curators take time to answer just that!
Director of collections Michael Sweeney, Ph.D,. may be a fresh face to the team at the American Jazz Museum but he’s no stranger to the rich musical and cultural heritage of 18th & Vine. Sweeney’s former roles, which include historian and senior research assistant at the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center Kansas City, along with collection librarian for the Black Archives of Mid-America, have propelled him to his current position where he now oversees the care of all the American Jazz Museum’s rare and exclusive artifacts, historical documents and photographs. Although he’s an admitted jazz enthusiast, Sweeney would tell you the American Jazz Museum’s rich community story was what ultimately drew him.
“The story of Kansas City's African-American community, while shaped by segregation and discriminatory policies, is a story of agency,” Sweeney says. “It is the story of people coming together to care for one another, to build institutions that raised the community up and to enhance the well-being of all members of the community. It is a story of resilience, sacrifice and joy amidst hardship, and I think it has much to teach us in the 21st century about the meaning of community.”
Sweeney finds his work at the museum richly rewarding for a number of reasons. “There is no other museum in the nation devoted to telling a comprehensive story of jazz, an original American art form exported around the world,” he says. “Kansas City is one of the four pillar cities of jazz and contributed its own unique sound to the jazz tradition. Second, we tell not only a national story but also a community story; the museum is in the heart of Kansas City's African-American community during the period of segregation, and it works to honor and commemorate the lives of the black men and women who built its institutions and shaped its culture and sound. Third, we are more than a museum dedicated to the past. The American Jazz Museum helps perpetuate and further jazz music through its Jazz at the Gem concert series, performances at the Blue Room, Jazz Academy for local students and special music events. In other words, the museum invests in the future of jazz.”
For Mahaffie’s interpretive specialist, Alexis Woodall, making history come to life is just another day in the office. Woodall manages special events, markets the homestead’s programs, develops its interpretive programs and even portrays Lucinda Mahaffie on occasion. Prior to her work at Mahaffie, Woodall received a master’s in historical administration from the University of Kansas and did extensive work with historical societies within Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.
“There are many reasons I get excited about being a part of such a dynamic and authentic historic site,” Woodall says. “Mahaffie offers a variety of experiences. Even if you don’t like history, we have many different activities. You can visit our animals, participate in farm activities and play games as our staff and volunteers in 1860s clothing bring history alive. I am very proud to be a part of such an energetic team of staff and volunteers connecting the Mahaffie story to visitors today.”
You could say that Laura Taylor’s work within the National Museum of Toys & Miniatures was a long time coming. “When I got the job here, my mom said it was fate because I was always interested in miniatures as a child,” Taylor recounts. “She would often put me down for a nap with a small object and I would turn it over in my hands, examining it until I fell asleep.”
For more than a decade now, Taylor has operated as the museum’s curator of interpretation. What makes her workplace so unique? She says a visit to T/M is surprisingly like visiting two museums in one.
“The first floor houses a world-class collection of art miniatures,” Taylor says. “You can see common things in miniature like barbed wire, but you can also see replicas of famous works of art from all over the world. One exhibit that I am really proud of is “The Artist’s Studio,” a space that is devoted to demonstrating how artists make miniatures.” There, visitors can watch artist Lee-Ann Chellis Wessel make a miniature egg tempera painting or William R. Robertson make a tiny brass candlestick. The upper floor showcases the museum’s antique toy collections. “Not all of our toys are old—you might even see some that you played with!” she says. “Toys reflect what was going on in the adult world at the time that they were made, and they helped children to make sense of their surroundings.”
Conor Carey of Steamboat Arabia says it was seeing commonplace items come through preservation and onto exhibit that drew him into his field, noting that the museum’s personal history makes it unique in its own right. “We are set up a little differently than most museums, as the exhibit is owned and operated by the members of River Salvage, Inc.” Carey says. “Prior to excavating the steamboat Arabia, they did not have professional museum training. This unlikely group of adventurers brought up the Arabia's cargo during the winter of 1988-89. It has operated since 1991 without any government support. We rely solely on ticket sales and gift shop purchases to repay the cost of the excavation and the continued preservation of the cargo—over 200 tons!”
Carey explains that the vast array of artifacts within the museum is another unique aspect of the collection. The boat, loaded with supplies for general stores in 16 frontier towns, sank near Parkville in 1856. “It represents the full variety of goods, both expensive and everyday, that people needed to survive in the Old West.”
Lauren Greenlee raises three boys and writes from her Olathe home.