Museum curator thanks his inspiration: a sixth-grade history teacher

As a museum curator, I have the pleasure of working with lots of volunteers. Most of them are students who are interested in archaeology, anthropology and museum careers. This time of the year, as graduation nears, there is an uptick in requests to come visit with me and ask for information and advice. “How did you become a museum curator?” is a question I hear often. “How long do you need to study?” is another one. One of the first things I bring up is that finding employment in anthropology is not easy. However, it is possible. Moreover, I ask my visitors to suggest one field of study where one would be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I can think of only very few.

Van den Bossche, Gaston

Gaston Van den Bossche, a man who made a difference with his students.

The first question – How does one become a museum curator? – has many answers, I am sure. In my case, there was one elementary school teacher who made a difference, now 44 years ago, to be exact. The sixth and final year in elementary school, my class had a teacher who loved history. He loved the city we lived in too, and it just so happened that city had a very long history.

As the year went by, he organized us into groups and assigned various projects. One involved painting a bird’s eye view of what our hometown would have looked like in the Middle Ages. That required research. It also entailed getting covered in paint as we worked on that assignment. Eventually two different canvases were finished. Much to our delight, they were hung in the entrance to the library. In another assignment, we were divided into five or six groups, each named after a Medieval guild. Some of us were the “coopers” or barrel makers, others the “tanners,” “bakers,” etc.  We were given assignments. To get the answers, we had to visit museums and churches, observe and ask questions. It made us interact with the past, and made this past come alive. It became part of what I got interested in. All because of a teacher.

As time went by, that sixth grade class went on to graduate. I found myself continuing down this path of “studying old things.” This took me from a university in Belgium to a U.S. institution in New Orleans, always pursuing the study of these “old things.” Over the years, that meant studying Roman and Greek history, some Egyptian history, and ultimately the art, archaeology, and history of American cultures, especially the Maya.

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

I have been very blessed to find a job, and to find myself working at a museum, where I now teach visitors, young, old and anyone in between. Sharing what you have learned about a culture that happens to be the topic of an exhibit is a joy. It is very rewarding to see the light come on in a child, when they “get it.” I love hearing visitors say to each other “I did not know that…” as they walk out of an exhibit. I am indebted to my old teacher for this sense of awe. It never left him. I hope it will never leave me.

Sadly, I recently received news that the man who sent me on my quest, and created that spark in me, had passed. Reason for sadness? For sure. Another reason to keep guiding people as much as possible, and maybe, just maybe, make a difference with one or two people? Absolutely. Next time you see a teacher at a reunion, and you know they made a difference in your life, say so. Give them a hug. They deserve it.

Book List: Conquerors!

With the Genghis Khan exhibition now on display, the book list for March will feature the theme Conquerors: Their Lives and Times. Scholastic Books publishes a series of books, over 50 in all, whose titles all begin with You Wouldn’t Want to Be…  The books, illustrated with colorful cartoons, bring history to life in an engaging, entertaining way.
For example…You Wouldn’t Want to Be in Alexander the Great’s Army! by Jacqueline Marley begins with an introduction and a map of Alexander’s route.  You learn that Alexander’s father, Phillip II, united Macedonia and made it strong.  Phillip’s army controlled most of Greece when he died, and his 20-year old son Alexander III decided to embark on the trip that his father had planned.

Alexander The Great
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dime01

As you read you learn interesting tidbits:  At the Siege of Tyre (332 BCE) Alexander had to defeat the Persians; when Alexander’s men tried to scale tall walls, the Persian soldiers poured red-hot sand down on them. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Soldiers were not paid but were allowed to steal from their victims – and so looters learned to take only light things because they had to carry everything they took; soldiers were also allowed to pick up wives along the way. Alexander’s trip lasted 8 years; and soon after the trip ended, Alexander died at age 32.

This book contains a glossary and an index.  The books in this series are useful introductions to many topics.

The story A Medieval Feastby Aliki is 25 years old, and could have taken place during the time of William the Conqueror.  The pictures are timeless.  The King, Queen, knights, squires and other members of the court – maybe 100 in all – are coming to visit Camdenton Manor, and the lord and lady must prepare for the visit.

The serfs who lived on the lord’s estate helped with the preparations that involved everything from redecorating the Royal Suite to building fences for the horses—in addition to preparing for the feast. 

Sir Aiden and his charming squire
Creative Commons License photo credit: badlogik

The lord went hunting and hawking for meat, and they trapped and fished.  Fruits and vegetables were gathered; bread was made; butter was churned and wine and ale were brewed.  A rare “beast” called a Cockentrice was created by cutting a caponand pig in half and attaching one’s back to the other’s front and vice versa.  A peacock was cooked and then all the feathers were reassembled.  The upcoming feast, fit for a king, would begin at 10:30 a.m. and end at dark.  The next day it would be repeated.

Take time to look carefully at the illustrations!  Aliki’s detailed pictures enable the reader to learn even more about this time period.  The reader sees the serfs at work and play, the kitchen alive with food preparation, people trapping birds and so much more.  (For another look at life in a medieval castle, read You Wouldn’t Want to Live in a Medieval Castle! by Jacqueline Morley.)

medieval women
Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

Crabtree Publishers publishes an incredible number of nonfiction books which are illustrated, easily read and contain facts about a particular subject.  One of the books in the Medieval World series is Women and Girls in the Middle Ages. This book is divided into topics such as Having Fun, Housekeeping, Educating Girls and Beauty, and you learn interesting facts on each page. 

Did you know:
• That during this time all you had to do to get married was say “I Do”?
• That you needed bread, glue, turpentine and a candle to get rid of fleas?
• That employment opportunities for women improved after the Plague killed one third of Europe’s population?
• That women were told to comb their hair and “make sure that it is not full of feathers or other garbage”?
• That you can make a beauty lotion by mixing asparagus roots, anise, bulbs of white lilies, milk from donkeys and red goats and horse dung?

Books from the Conquerors: Their Lives and Times list will transport you to another time—and, as a bonus, probably make you very glad you are living NOW.