The Curator’s Behind Chattanooga’s Museum Exhibits

When you walk into a museum, you’re met with artful exhibitions designed to be intriguing and informative. Successfully curating a museum involves more than picking the next display – it requires knowledge of preservation techniques, attention to what visitors enjoy, and passion for the topic at hand. Read on to meet the pros operating behind the scenes of Chattanooga’s museums and find out how they curate exhibits with excellence.

Photography by Kris Hacker | Hacker Medias

(First) Robert Rauschenberg, Opal Reunion, Gift of the Benwood Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Davenport Jr., Ruth S. and A. William Holmberg, and Mr. and Mrs. Olan Mills II  (third) Alyson Shotz, All Equations are Wave Equations (fourth) Installation shot, Amy Pleasant: Passing Through

 

Nandini Makrandi: Chief Curator at Hunter Museum of American Art

Tell us about your position.
I’ve been at the Hunter for 18 years and served as chief curator for a little over nine years. Overall, I am responsible for all art at the Hunter – from setting the artistic and interpretive direction to managing the museum collection, to organizing exhibitions and research and writing.

What led you to this career? 

A degree in art and a love of painting and drawing. I have worked in various types of museums since I was 14 and found out that it could be a career when I was in graduate school.

Tell us about the museum you work at.

The Hunter is focused on American art from the 1700s to today, and it’s wonderful to relate the artwork we acquire and exhibit to people’s everyday lives. Art speaks to the things that matter to all of us, and we can use it as a starting point for dialogue and opening doors to understanding among us.

What does your curation process look like?

A curator’s role is multi-layered. I track art world trends and follow the development of artists, which involves museum, gallery, and art studio visits, reading and researching, and understanding the larger world and issues affecting it. In planning an exhibition calendar, I’m looking five to seven years down the road, as exhibitions are confirmed years in advance.

What do you enjoy about curating?

Artists can make us see the world in new ways. I enjoy learning from artists and seeing what compels them.

What are some challenges that accompany curation?

Balancing the wide variety of art forms and styles – from the past and the present – while telling stories that speak to the different people who visit us. We’re also balancing regional and national expectations – the Hunter is one of a few museums dedicated solely to American art, and we try to bring nationally renowned artists and artwork to our area.

What do you hope guests will gain from their visit?

I hope they will find something that moves them, something that challenges them, and something that makes them curious enough to go to the library or to Google to learn more. I want guests to enjoy the museum and to feel it is relevant to things they are thinking about in their own lives.

 

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Reed Caldwell: Executive Director at Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum

Tell us about your position.

I am the founder and executive director of Songbirds Foundation. I have been with the organization for six years. I am responsible for the entire nonprofit, which includes our Guitars for Kids program, music therapy programs, and Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum and its exhibits.

What led you to this career?

I have worked in nonprofits for 22 years and played guitar for over 30 years. A nonprofit guitar-based program was an ideal fit.

Tell us about Your Museum.

The Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum is an educational museum that offers guitar-centric, hands-on, and STEAM-based activities; celebrity guitar exhibits that include amazing guitars like those owned by Merle Travis, Chuck Berry, Duane Allman, and Loretta Lynn; a Chattanooga music history zone; cultural exhibits showcasing the significance of the guitar throughout the decades; a spotlight on the career of The Impressions and their musical contribution to the Civil Rights movement; and a custom-built stage for hosting concerts, workshops, master classes, and events. New exhibits allow visitors to learn the science behind the guitar – teaching how amplifiers work, magnets channel sound, pedals manipulate sound waves, microphones work, and more. The space also features several rotating exhibits about Chattanooga music history that highlight the area’s major musical influences, e.g., The Impressions, Bessie Smith, Clyde Stubblefield, Valaida Snow, Roland Hayes, The Big Nine, and more. All profits generated by the museum help support our Guitars for Kids program that has provided thousands of free guitars and music therapy to kids across the South.

What does your curation process look like?

We select items that tell the best musical stories and showcase Chattanooga’s amazing musical history.

Do you have a favorite exhibit?

It was great to create the hands-on exhibits such as “How Guitar Pedals Work” and “What Is Sound,” but creating “The Impressions: Chattanooga to the World Stage” exhibit was the highlight of the museum. Interviewing Fred Cash and Sam Gooden was absolutely amazing, and their story is fantastic.

What do you hope guests will gain during their visit?

We hope that visitors will leave with an appreciation for the guitar’s place in history and an understanding of how music can be used as a tool for social change.

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Marty Mitchell: Curator at Bessie Smith Cultural Center

 

Tell us about your position.

I have been in the curator position for approximately five years, although I have been with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center for 14 years. My daily responsibilities consist of documenting incoming artifacts and finding the historical significance of the artifact so that it can be incorporated into an exhibit.

What led you to this career?

I have always had a fascination with history and historical objects and how they came into use and why, especially African artifacts – the historical carvings and uses of the many masks from different tribes and cultures. When I was offered a position with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, it was an opportunity to further delve into the histories and cultures.

Tell us about the museum you work at.

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center/Chattanooga African American Museum tells the story of African Americans in Chattanooga and around the globe. You cannot tell true American history without including African American history. Without the African influences, America would be a very different place in regard to economics, culture, food, music, and art. The joining of cultures to make America a melting pot of wonderful experiences, sights, and sounds is very exciting.

What does your curation process look like?

When we first receive an item we would like to have in an exhibit or our archives, we research the item. What kind of story can this item tell? Where can we utilize this item to best tell its story or enhance another story? Then we determine how the item will be displayed and in what context it is going to be seen. What questions should we ask the viewer? How do we place the object in the exhibit space; how is the lighting of the object going to change the viewer’s perspective? What narrative can be written as a guide to the viewer? All these questions must be answered before the exhibit goes into the museum.

What do you hope guests will gain during their visit?

I hope guests will come in and take a walk through Chattanooga history from the 1700s to 2022 … Through our exhibits, you are able to see the important significance that African Americans have made to this country and to bringing us closer together as a community and world.

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Charles Googe: Curator at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

 

Tell us about your position.

I joined the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum team in 2018, working directly with the public for living history programs and exhibition work. Since then, I have had ongoing opportunities to handle and document additions to our extensive collection and research and assist in restorations for everything from full-sized locomotives to historic silver settings and original railroad china for our exhibition.

What led you to this career?

I have always had a fascination for hands-on history, how museums present items to represent topics through their artifact collections, and methods of communicating significant parts of our past to find modern relevance through living history. My grandfather and father both worked for the railroad, and growing up involved in railroad museums made TVRM a unique opportunity to combine many areas of my interests into a career.

Tell us about the museum you work at.

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is unique locally as it not only provides a historical cornerstone of Chattanooga’s modern development, but also allows you to experience historical time periods through our excursions. The ability to help create an impactful exhibit to further your experience behind coal-fired steam and diesel locomotives makes TVRM not just a museum, but a full transportation experience of the early and mid-20th century.

What does your curation process look like?

Our process combines many traditional museum methods of consideration of items for donation, condition reports, accessioning, researching items, and creating impactful learning experiences through our exhibits.

Do you have a favorite exhibit?

One of my favorites is our exhibit on the Railway Post Office and the United States Marine Corps, highlighting the “Roaring 20s” when mail trains were robbed, and United States Marines were ordered to guard Railway Post Office cars on a national scale. Coupled with this exhibition, we were able to conduct full-scale mail bag delivery drops “on the fly” from a moving train and reenactments of the “Mail Marines” behind our steam locomotive 4501.

What do you hope guests will gain during their visit?

We hope visitors will understand that railroads today are just as significant as the predecessor railroads we highlight at the museum, and, of course, we hope they have an enjoyable trip back in time!

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Miranda Helton: Collections Manager at Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

 

Tell us about your position.

I started interning with the Medal of Honor Heritage Center back in November of 2021, but I’ve been the collections manager since June of this year. The majority of my work centers around the care and preservation of artifacts and the maintenance and creation of exhibits.

Tell us about the museum you work at.

The Medal of Honor Heritage Center memorializes the history of our nation’s highest military award for valor with a focus on the six character traits embodied by the Medal of Honor: patriotism, citizenship, courage, integrity, sacrifice, and commitment. I’ve always loved history, so being able to work in a museum that brings history to life not only through the exhibits, but also through character education, outreach, and community engagement has just been the most wonderful experience!

What does your curation process look like?

We focus on curating artifacts and archival materials of and pertaining to Medal of Honor recipients and the military conflicts in which their actions took place. The collection consists of over 6,000 pieces including medals, uniforms, military equipment, scrapbooks, and everything in between. Because we have such a large and varied collection, a substantial portion of the curation process is dedicated to research and best preservation practices.

What do you enjoy about curating?

Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new! Whether it be an interesting artifact I haven’t come across before, new details to a Medal of Honor recipient’s story, or a change in best preservation practices, every day in curation is a new adventure.

Do you have a favorite exhibit?

Our new, redesigned display on Alexander ‘Sandy’ Bonnyman, Jr. As an intern, one of the first projects I got to work with was the Bonnyman archival collection. Learning about Sandy Bonnyman and his life through that collection and then helping create a display about the adventurous, spirited man and his equally spirited and dedicated family leaves this exhibit very dear to my heart.

Anything else you’d like to add?

For anyone out there who loves history and research and discovery, the museum world might be for you. If you think you want to get into this field, the best way is to just get involved! Start volunteering or find an internship. I promise you won’t regret it!

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