Making a Museum: Getting Started

By Kalyse Houston, 2022 Clay Preservation Scholar, Prairie View A&M University

Walking into a museum is a transformative experience. Depending on which museum you enter, you may be transported to a different decade, century, state or even a completely different country. Each room is a different world and each turn is a different experience. The closest thing we have in this modern world to time travel are our museums. But who are the architects of these experiences and how did these places come to be? The best way to tackle these large questions is to bring them down to a smaller scale and start at the beginning.

There’s a large process that takes place between the full-fledged museum experience that the public sees, and the work and preparation behind the scenes to set up that encounter. The efforts are seldom seen or even considered. But to a certain degree, that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t want an immersive experience to take you out of that moment. As a 2022 Preservation Scholar, I have the honor of going behind the scenes at the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.

Portrait of Kalyse Houston

Before I get too ahead of myself, allow me to make the proper introductions. My name is Kalyse Houston and I am a 21 year old from Houston, Texas. I’m a senior history major and art minor at my illustrious HBCU, Prairie View A&M University! I’ve worked for the history department as a student researcher since my freshman year under Dr. Marco Robinson with the assistance and guidance of Ms. Phyllis Earles and Dr. Melanye Price. I would not be where I am without these instrumental people. Under their supervision and direction, I have had the opportunity to conduct research, attend and present at symposiums, and even travel within this researcher position.

One fateful day Ms. Earles told me about this internship opportunity, the Preservation Scholars, and recommended the opportunity to me. Then Dr. Robinson followed suit and recommended it to me as well. Then, as gently as a brick, they continued to recommend this opportunity and tell me about the Preservation Scholars Program. I believe they were adamant about this position because of the opportunity of becoming this year's Clay Scholar. The Matthew Honer and Larutha Odom Clay Preservation Scholars Endowment, created in memory of Larutha M. Odom Clay, provides a stipend to a Prairie View A&M University student intern. This guarantees one student from PVAMU the privilege of obtaining an internship. I applied, was interviewed, and was then accepted as this year's Clay Scholar!

Panoramic view of a wooden museum building with a statue of an early Texas family in front

The majority of my work here is within the Historic Sites Division at San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site assisting in exhibit development. My work as the exhibit-support on projects at San Felipe de Austin includes research and planning for storylines, object preparation, such as labels, context, etc, archival support, and general research and support for upcoming temporary gallery installations and film projects. This all comes together to help me become a well-rounded museum person, well versed in all that it takes to put a museum together. Then I will reflect on experiences here as part of the Communications Division.

Panoramic view of museum exhibits about early 1800s Texas

So far I’ve done a lot of foundational work starting with my very own archival box! For this work I process files, create a finding guide, and rehouse files. Not the most exciting work but still very important. I also did light readings on all the artifacts. That’s when you see how much light hits an object. This is important because if there’s too much light on an object it can lead to its destruction. I did research, got to scope the museum and the grounds, and explored photo scanning for my first field trip to TSLAC.

TSLAC, or the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, was a great experience. From newspaper articles from the 1940s to the Texas Planning Bulletins from the 1930s there were boxes full of amazing and interesting history. There was also a very long and exhausting box on highways and bridges. The people of the 1940s were very passionate about those bridges! Luckily, they got their bridge.

I’m very excited to continue on this journey and highlight my experiences. I know that this internship will provide me with an amazing foundation and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

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