Every month AAM invites a museum professional to expound on his/her work and its importance. This month we focus on Alexandria Pliny, Collections Integration Officer at the Posey Museum of American History and Art.
Confessions of a CIO
I’m a CIO. Not a CEO or CFO. Not a COO. A C-I-O: Collections Integration Officer. I don’t run a multi-million dollar company or oversee an employee army. I don’t make lucrative deals over lunch or analyze cost ratios and stock reports. My currency is history. I help students connect with the past. Hopefully, I make a difference.
Part curator, archivist, registrar, and IT—CIOs are hybrid newcomers to an old and very established field. Like most everything, we’re a product of time, circumstance, and pressure. We didn’t spring forth overnight from a museum manual glossary, animated into existence by a definition. We emerged from an evolving dynamic between museums and schools that in full disclosure, I’m old enough to remember. I was there for the before and the after. I’m a millennial and not just by generation; born in 2000 as the world transitioned into a new century and for the first time in a thousand years, a new millennium. Every epoch has a name. The Dark Ages. The Middle Ages. The Renaissance. The Enlightenment. 2000 belonged to the Information Age.
As a child, I knew none of this. Technology was a constant like the sun or the seasons. I hardly noticed it because it had always been there. Industries, however, struggled to keep pace with the start-ups and paradigm shifts. Museums adapted fairly well in those early years. They operated much as they had for decades, if not centuries, minus the new bells and whistles of interactives and self-guided tours. They remained a Destination. A field trip with sack lunches and bus drivers, a stop-off, a drop-in, a point of interest for tourists and passers-by. You came. You saw. Maybe you’d return one day and maybe you wouldn’t. For the average person, the value was in the visit. I don’t mean to disparage this iteration or make it sound like museums were less when they were before. Just different.
And then something started to happen. Advancements in technology accelerated and museums couldn’t meet the unprecedented connectivity and growing public demand for more—more online content, online collections, and online exhibitions. People wanted greater access and they wanted it immediately. Technology caused the problem, but ironically, also provided the solution. Digitization would save them and with scanners and cameras, museums meticulously digitized their holdings and published their efforts on websites and databases.
As this accessibility increased, a trend emerged that had been expected, but vastly underestimated. Call it an awakening or an enlightenment, but the museum and education worlds seemed to collectively realize what they had collectively been missing—the potential link between digital collections and public education. For too long, museums and schools had operated independently. School groups visited museums and museum volunteers visited schools. No one fully realized that museums could be so much more than destinations. They could revolutionize daily classrooms with their resources. Digitization had spelled it out for them in pixels and jpegs, and from that point forward, digitization was out. Integration was in.
While the collections were largely online, teachers and educators found they didn’t have the time to search for related materials. Someone with a history background and a working knowledge of museum collections could expedite and enhance the process. Enter the CIO. For nearly eight years, I’ve been collections integration officer at the Posey Museum of American History and Art. I’m a liaison between teachers and the museum, but also between the past and the present. Working with educators to enhance lesson plans, I help create a more dynamic learning environment. Together, we promote education through experience. Students retain information at higher rates when it is immersive and it is even more effectual when they identify or connect with the content. This is critical to my work. History can speak to each of us, but we listen differently. I was 10 when I heard it.
The piece of eight was larger and older than the other coins in my collection and settled into my palm with a cold weight. Strike marks skipped across the surface and spoke to borders crossed and travels made. I wondered about the coin purses it had filled, the transactions it had made, the hands that had held it. I realized that over 200 years ago, somewhere, someone, had held the exact same coin and it was profound. I felt linked to history, to places and people I had never seen or known, and suddenly the past felt very much more like the present. History took hold of me and I’ve been its ambassador ever since. People often consider it a series of dates and events. 1066. 1492. 1607. 1776. 1861. But this is just a list, this isn’t history. At its core is people. They had the same basic hopes and concerns as we do today; providing for and protecting their families, seeing their children live long lives—they felt the same emotions and faced similar situations. They were husbands and fathers, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends and when we read about history we are reading about them.
Every time I work with a teacher, this is my chorus, what I hear and hope to share. We brainstorm over the lesson plan and I compile a list of collection items that might be incorporated. Then they determine what to use and when. Say a teacher wants to discuss the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Before integration, and I’m speaking from first-hand experience here, the lesson would have included a textbook and maybe a short documentary. Not bad, but not great. Lincoln would have remained inaccessible and remote.
Today, we can do something entirely different. I can gather digital materials from art, archival, and anthropological collections to create a classroom experience that is comprehensive and personalized. I can even use 3D printers to provide object replicas. Oil portraits of Lincoln and Mary Todd. Playbills listing John Wilkes Booth. Newspapers that announce the assassination. Mourning armbands. The diary of a man who watched the funeral procession from his hotel window. The song that played as he watched. ALL this is possible with integration.
When I think about the remarkable relationship between museums and schools, I’m puzzled over how we missed it for so long. Have you ever contemplated the nature of lesson plans and exhibits? The parallels are striking. Both have themes, organization, flow, and didactic text. Instead of framed art or archives, lesson plans employed worksheets and handouts. At least before. It was always a natural partnership. Today, this collaboration is the hallmark of modern education that emphasizes immersive and meaningful instruction and experience. Both museums and schools have made tremendous gains. Through collections integration, museums not only play a more active and direct role in their communities, they also share more of their collections with a larger and wider demographic. The old “what’s on display is the tip of the iceberg” no longer applies. Exhibitions once held ultimate authority over an item’s fate: to display or not to display, that was the question. Today, even items on racks, shelves, and in drawers can be appreciated and utilized. In the classrooms, teachers have more creativity and flexibility. Students report higher grades, test scores, and most importantly, a greater appreciation of history. Not all students will love history, but hopefully they will find it more interesting and consider the everyday people who lived it.
As a CIO, I experience history and its relevance every day, but in the students I also celebrate the future. I can’t imagine a day when I tire of it—the learning, the challenges, the possibilities. The word museum stems from the Greek museion, house of muses. In this sense, museums are honoring their origins like never before. They are inspiring—inspiring conversation, collaboration, connection, and creativity—not just onsite, but in schools around the world. After centuries of waiting for people to come to them, museums have come to the people.