American Studies
American Studies

Erin McClelland- Museum Consultant

Sat, April 14, 2018
Erin McClelland- Museum Consultant

Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, we've been conducting interviews with UT AMS grads who utilize their American Studies degrees in different ways in the world outside the 40 Acres. Next up in our series is Erin McClelland, who owns her own exhibition development and museum consulting firm. 


Gaila Sims: When did you graduate from American Studies at UT, and with what degree?

Erin McClelland: I graduated in 2005 with a master’s degree. I took a one-year leave of absence after that before officially leaving the program in early 2006.


GS: What is your current job, and how did you decide to enter into your chosen field?

EM: I own a small exhibition development and museum consulting firm specializing in history museums (although we do everything). We provide content development, interpretive master planning, and strategic planning services to museums and historic sites.

While I was working toward the master’s degree I became aware that my work as an academic would likely have a limited reach. I wanted a career that would have what I felt was a more tangible impact. I realize now that I like to see immediate results, and creating an exhibit that takes a physical form and that I can see the public interacting with is really important to my feeling satisfied in my career.

After completing the master’s degree I took a summer internship in the Historic Sites Program at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. The goal was to explore a career in public history. Instead, I quickly became interested in the work of another group at TPWD, the Interpretation & Exhibits Branch. My supervisor gave me a little time to learn about interpretation and I discovered that’s where my real interest – connecting the public with stories about history and culture - was. The following year TPWD created a temporary position for me before eventually hiring me on full-time. I’ve been developing exhibits ever since.


GS: What projects or people have inspired your work?

EM: I admire museum industry professionals who take risks and grapple with big ideas and problems. Nina Simon, the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, is a personal hero of mine. She’s constantly exploring ideas of accessibility and collaboration in order to make her museum more relevant to her immediate community.

The Newseum is my favorite museum. It’s not that it has a great collection or even an especially compelling story. Instead, I love that it has a strong point of view. Too many museums shy away from tackling tough issues or making strong assertions. In contrast, the Newseum takes a stance – that the First Amendment is fundamental to our democracy – and then supports that argument throughout all its exhibits. It also creates forums for the community to discuss and debate timely issues, including hosting forums to discuss Trump’s relationship with the press and allowing visitors to express their own views on whether hate speech should be afforded the same protections as other forms.


GS: How does American Studies inform your work? How does your background in American Studies help you in your work in the museum field?

EM: Many people come to the museum field as content specialists, meaning that they have deep knowledge of a specific historical era, or subject in natural history, or period in art history. That’s fine if you’re in an academically-minded museum where you can be the Curator of American History, but most museums don’t operate that way anymore (budget simply doesn’t allow it most times). Instead, museums need generalists who can curate an exhibit about Texas rodeos this month and border violence the next. The broad understanding of American history and culture that I gained in the program gives me a good starting point for interpreting most subjects. I build on that foundation using the skills I learned in American Studies. Knowing how to conduct research (especially quickly!), structure an argument, and write clearly and concisely are crucial to creating a compelling exhibition.

The interdisciplinary nature of American Studies has also been valuable. The program taught me to be open to what different subjects and objects have to teach us. I learned how to do more than just read at historical documents; I can also “read” a photograph or a historic advertisement and interpret material culture. A lot of people who come to museum work from more traditional disciplines have to learn those skills on the job.


GS: How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in American Studies?

EM: Quite honestly, I’m so far removed from the current conversations in American Studies that I can’t really answer that question. However, I will say that I feel like the work I do now is related to the work I thought I would do in academia. While I was studying in the program, I was interested in meaning making and sense of place.  Today, I’ve come to believe that museums (and historic sites and landscapes) are crucial to helping communities build shared identities rooted in a specific place. Museums should also facilitate conversations about difficult issues facing the community. Fundamentally, small history museums should be doing the work of helping people understand their shared past so that they can create a better present and future in their communities.


GS: Do you have any advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their experience at UT?

EM: I encourage you to take as broad a range of courses as possible to discover what truly interests you. You may discover new passions and interests that you never anticipated.


GS: Do you have any advice for students in our department who are interested in pursuing work outside academia, but still want to utilize the training they've received from American Studies?

EM: Start looking for opportunities to apply your American Studies skills outside academia as early as possible. If you can take on a fellowship or internship at a museum or public history organization (or advertising agency, or whatever you might be interested in doing), you’ll gain first-hand knowledge of whether you really want to work outside academia.

You should also build a portfolio of relevant work. For example, when you interview for a museum job being able to show them an exhibit that you assisted with developing will be more valuable than handing the interviewer a copy of your thesis. 


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