Faculty Interview Series (Part IV)

The faculty of the Program in Museum Studies represent a wide range of disciplines, academic interests, and cultural institutions, each contributing a unique perspective to our studies in the contemporary theory and practice of museum work.  We would like to recognize the hard work and accomplishments of each faculty member in this program.  Thank you so much for your insight and dedication!

This post features director and professor Dr. Aimee VonBokel.  Aimee VonBokel is an Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Museum Studies Program at NYU.  She is interested in historic sites and the politics of public memory.  Dr. VonBokel will be teaching Historic Sites, Cultural Landscapes, and the Politics of Preservation next semester.

MSSO: Tell us about your research—your current project or a favorite past endeavor.  What have you learned?

AV: I’m interested in the politics of urban memory.  Which stories do we pass down through generations?  Which stories are allowed to fade away?  I decided to look at two sites of memory in New York: the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan and the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. (They’re both incredible.  If you haven’t visited, go now!)  But it was actually the city of St. Louis that first sparked my interest in this topic.  Both cities (most cities) struggle with racial segregation and generational inequality.  Why?  Our social geography is this incredible reality, before us all constantly and yet invisible in the way we understand our relationships to each other.  I thought if I looked at these two museums, one focused (primarily) on white history and the other on black history and traced their institutional development in the context of the postindustrial city, I could learn more about how the segregated landscape produces segregated stories about the past.  How did the Tenement Museum develop into such an influential institution while the Weeksville Heritage Center struggled for decades?

It turns out it’s expensive to preserve places, particularly buildings, especially in New York.  And efforts to preserve historic sites are of course bound up with the economics of their surrounding neighborhoods: with a devastated urban infrastructure in the case of the Weeksville Heritage Center in its early days and especially in the 1980s and 90s—and with development imperatives in both neighborhoods today.  It’s been a bit tough.  I often come across as if I’m critiquing the museums, but that’s not my goal.  In contrast, I think it’s important that we think carefully—together—about which stories we want to preserve and find more equitable ways to fund that expensive work. (More information: here.)


The historic Hunterfly Road Houses at Weeksville via the Weeksville Heritage Center.


An 1840s-era map of Weeksville in the Eastern District of the City of Brooklyn (near the present-day Utica stop on the C train).  Map via the Brooklyn Historical Society.  The advertisement comes from an 1850 edition of The North Star, a black newspaper (January 25, 1850).  Junius C. Morel was the principal of the Weeksville school for years.

MSSO: What is your favorite aspect of museums?  Of museum work?

AV: The feeling that I’m tethered to something bigger than me: linked to the past, connected to the people who came before me, and rooted in place.

MSSO: What is the last museum you visited?

AV: I went to the Museum of the Moving Image for a double feature with a couple friends last week.  We saw The Reckless Moment, 1949 and Kiss Me Deadly, 1955.  I love the gender dynamics of war era films.  The women are strong.  How can this be so striking in 2015?

MSSO: What are your favorite activities outside of NYU and work?

AV: Cat videos and dinner parties.

MSSO: If you could only go to one museum for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

AV: My all-time favorite is the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum in Atlanta, Illinois.  If you’re ever driving along I-55 south of Chicago, just call Homer at (217) 648-2056.  He’ll meet you out front and give you a tour.  I totally recommend it.

MSSO: What do you like best about teaching museum studies at NYU?

AV: So many things.  Our students come to New York from all over the world with a range of perspectives on museums, art, and culture.  I teach one of our core courses, History and Theory of Museums.  I ask students to visit a different museum every week, and we have terrific conversations about everyone’s experience as we work our way through dense theoretical texts.  It’s a treat.

MSSO: What is your most important piece of advice for young professionals (career-related or otherwise)?

AV: Talk to people.  Talk to the people you admire.  Talk to people who are interesting.  Get inspired.  Then do the things you want to do.  Let people know what you want to do—and what you’ve done so far.  If people know you—and know what you’re looking for—and especially if they like and trust you—they’ll keep their eyes peeled for opportunities.  They’ll often put in a good word for you.  Get yourself out and about.  Join the NYU Museum Studies Alumni Association (MSAA) and come to events posted on their Facebook page.  Join the NYU Museum Studies Facebook page and find job listings, share job listings, etc.  Connect with everyone you know on LinkedIn.  Use the “advanced search” to find people working in the jobs you want.  Look through their job history and see how they got there.  Reach out and ask for informational interviews.  As a good friend of mine always says, “The more people you know, the more people you know.”  Can’t argue with that.

Learn more about Dr. VonBokel here: http://museumstudies.as.nyu.edu/object/AimeeVonBokel.html.

Cover image courtesy of Danielle Dong.

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