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Collection Care Network Blog: Interview with Melissa Thompson and Jenny Yearous on Motherhood in Cultural Heritage Collections

  

This interview is part of the Collection Care Network's (CCN) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at collections@culturalheritage.org.


This edition of the blog is an interview CCN Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Melissa Thompson (Head of Curatorial Services) and Jenny Yearous (Curator of Collections Management) at the State Historical Society of North Dakota in Bismarck. In honor of Mother’s Day on May 8th, Wendi asked them to discuss their institution’s innovative Infant-at-Work program, as well as objects in the Historical Society's collections that speak to motherhood. 

Left: Melissa wearing her daughter Hannah at work. Hannah was content walking around like this for as long as they could. This orange wrap is now in the SHSND’s collection. Right: Jenny and Hannah shopping for archival supplies in the Gaylord Archival catalog.

Wendi: Hi Melissa and Jenny! It is nice to be talking with you both, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us for our column that honors Mother’s Day, and all the ways that motherhood intersects with both our collections and our roles as collections care professionals. First, would you mind introducing yourselves, and telling us a little about your respective backgrounds? 

Melissa: I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a masters in anthropology with a museum studies certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I started out my museum career at Vesterheim in Decorah, IA as a collections assistant. In 2007, I started my job as collections assistant at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. I was the collections assistant for about five years, the assistant registrar for about five years, and am now the head of curatorial services.

Jenny: I have undergraduate degrees in anthropology and geology from  the University of North Dakota, a masters degree in anthropology from the University of Mississippi, and a masters degree in museum studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My first museum job was the collections manager at the International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, NE. I started my job as curator of collections management at the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1997 and have been here ever since.

Wendi: Melissa, as the assistant registrar in a large state museum, you likely had to make some changes to your work responsibilities to accommodate your pregnancy. Could you tell us what those were, and how you navigated them? 

Melissa: I had to inform the curators and registrar fairly early on in my pregnancy that I had certain restrictions due to complications and I could not lift heavy objects. I also stayed away from the taxidermy in our collections, which is mostly over 100 years old and preserved with arsenic. My coworkers were very willing to accommodate and assist in any way I needed help. 

Wendi: The State Historical Society of North Dakota has an Infant-at-Work program. Could you summarize that program, and tell us what it meant for you and your daughter Hannah during the first few months of her life? 

Melissa: North Dakota state employees have the option to bring their infant to work with them until the infant is six-months old. As long as our jobs allow and our supervisors agree, babies can join their parents in the office. My daughter went to museum collections committee meetings, exhibit meetings, did inventory, talked to donors, socialized with many coworkers, and helped train an intern. 

I worked in an office with two other people, so there was no privacy for breastfeeding. To make feeding easier, the administration turned the staff first-aid room (which had an attached bathroom) into a parent and baby room. They included a rocking chair, a refrigerator, a low light lamp, and a desk that could be used as a changing table. The room could lock and was just what my daughter and I needed for a feeding session. The staff was supportive and genuinely cared to see my daughter around the building. I loved being able to spend the extra time with my daughter before sending her off to daycare and the staff made working with her so much easier than it could have been if there was no support.  

Wendi: For some, it may be hard to imagine having your baby at work with you all day in a museum. Could you tell us what a typical day of work looked like during that time? 

Melissa: When I arrived at work in the morning, my daughter was sleeping in her car seat, which snapped into her stroller. I would take the time while she was sleeping to check my email and reply to any messages and work on any other computer work I could. When she woke up, we would go check in with my intern to see what she had going on that day and if she needed anything from me. Then we would go check in with my supervisor, the registrar, more so he could see my daughter than to talk about work. The rest of the day would vary due to the mood of my tiny sidekick. Some days she was completely content with tummy time on the office floor and other days she wanted to move around.  When she was a bit older, she wanted to know what was happening, so I wore her in a carrier and we would go visit coworkers in person to reply to their emails.  She would come with me to greet potential donors and to receive donations. She was a great ambassador for the museum. I would not take her into storage with me, but there was no shortage of people willing to watch her for a few minutes while I did what I needed to do.   

The corner of the office Melissa shared with two other coworkers. The pack-n-play was a bassinet and changing table. The stroller was parked between a bookshelf and Melissa’s computer, and a cozy play area fit underneath a desk. The stroller and infant car seat pictured here are now in the SHSND’s collection.

 

Wendi: Jenny, what was it like to have a newborn on your staff for six months? 

Jenny: It was quite interesting. We actually had three adults and a baby in one office for most of that time. While Melissa tried to be thoughtful there were times when the baby would be fussy and be slightly disruptive. I don’t recall ever being on a phone call and having a baby cry in the background though. There were a few times, to give Melissa a break, that I would sit with the baby on my lap and do my work. That was very nice. 

Wendi: Melissa, were there any moments from Hannah’s time as an honorary collections assistant that stand out in your memory? 

Melissa: One day I showed up at work and our graphic artist had made a name plate for her and put it on the office door next to mine. Everyone’s nameplate had a photo of their own request on them. He had taken a photo of a pair of baby moccasins and put it on her name plate. It was his way of welcoming her to work and I thought it was very sweet.  

When I would walk into administration to answer visitors’ questions about donating to the collection, the public would always be shocked that I was carrying a baby and I would have to explain the Infant-at-Work program. Most people were actually very taken with her and it made explaining the donation process a little bit easier.  

The nameplate for Hannah made by the graphic artist.

 

Wendi: As Hannah grew, you started donating some of your childcare accessories to the museum. Why was that important to you, and what objects did you choose to donate? 

Melissa: As the chair of the museum collections committee, I have personal knowledge of the types of technology and contemporary objects the collection requires to fill gaps in history. In addition, I am able to provide stories that are of interest for the history of the object and provide context for objects. For example, I previously mentioned the infant car seat and stroller set. I knew we did not have a car seat and stroller set in our collection and I knew that I could include photos of my daughter in the car seat and in the stroller along with stories of its use, making it a great candidate for our collection.  

I also mentioned wearing my daughter while at work. I donated two different versions of devices I used to wear her around the museum.  One was a really long strip of fabric that was wrapped and knotted in such a way that by some miracle she could not wiggle her way to the ground. The other was the newfangled straps-and-buckles option that required an advanced degree to sort out what got snapped into where. I used both equally, and my daughter enjoyed her perch in both apparatuses, so I decided to offer both to the historical society to show the diversity of options available at that time.  

I have also chosen to donate additional things that were used on an everyday basis that the general public may not think the museum would want such as sippy cups, snack cups, toddler carseat, and a travel plastic potty seat. I also donated a few things that were specific to my daughter’s childhood such as her cowgirl boots, gymnastic leotard, soccer uniform, life jacket, and Cinderella dress-up dress. I plan to continue donating a few items each year to represent her life growing up in North Dakota.  

Wendi: Jenny, owing to your position at the State Museum, you probably know the most about the content of the collection. Aside from what Melissa donated, what are examples of other objects in the ND State Museum collection that relate to motherhood or contemporary childcare? What are your long-term preservation concerns for those objects?  

Jenny: I really like the contrast of the breast pumps we have. We have two that are glass bell-shaped devices with a rubber bulb at one end. The nursing mother had to quite literally pump the rubber bulb to express the milk which collected in a small reservoir and then poured into a bottle. Our newest breast pump (that you yourself donated) dates to 2012. It is battery-powered, consists of tubes and valves, and the milk is collected directly into a bottle-like container. There is even a cooler so the milk can be safely stored for later use. The biggest concerns with this are the plastic and rubber components and the electrical parts. When possible we remove batteries but in some cases those batteries cannot be removed and then there is always a risk that a battery might leak or cause a fire.

Glass (left) and plastic (right) breast pumps in the SHSND’s collections.

Wendi: When I was registering for my own baby shower several years ago, I realized that the vast majority of childcare accessories today are made of plastic. What challenges does that present in terms of their long-term care in a museum context?   

Jenny: Plastic is a wild card - it might be fine for decades or it might start degrading next week– I never know which. So we have to be careful, try to keep them out of direct sunlight, not store them in sealed cabinets or bags and monitor them regularly to make sure they are not degrading.

Wendi: What is your favorite object in the collection relating to mothers, children, or motherhood? 

Jenny: One of my favorite objects is a maternity North Dakota National Guard Uniform. At one point in time women could not be in the military, then they couldn’t be in if they were married, then they couldn’t be in if they were pregnant. Now the military not only has pregnant women, but makes sure there is a uniform for them.

A National Guard maternity uniform (2008.83.1, 2008.83.8)

Melissa: When you think of pregnancy, you usually do not think about all the people that struggle with infertility or have complications during pregnancy. We were recently given medication applicators and syringes that women going through IVF need to inject into themselves on the infertility journey. The infertility story often goes unspoken, so I appreciate having just a little window into the IVF process in the collection. We also have a glucose monitor donated by a mother that had gestational diabetes during her pregnancy. Again, gestational diabetes is not frequently discussed and previously not represented in our collection. I would not say these are my “favorite” objects, because those would be the objects formerly belonging to my daughter (yes, nepotism) but I do believe they bring important issues related to the trials and tribulations of pregnancy to the collection.

Wendi: Is there anything you don’t have relating to this topic that you hope to acquire some day? 

Jenny: I would just like to continue to get contemporary items as we go into the future. So to have maternity clothes from different decades or whatever is the newest/best thing in baby care, or toys or whatever people feel is important to the story of pregnancy, motherhood and child care. As Melissa mentioned, it is good to tell some of the lesser known stories like IVF or gestational diabetes. What other stories are we missing? We are really open to letting people tell us what is important to them. 

Melissa: As for the future, I would like to initiate a collecting program that the State Historical Society of North Dakota has discussed for many years. Both parents and children will each pick a few objects a year that they feel best represents the past year. It’s hoped that choosing a few different objects will reflect how parent and child might remember the year in different ways. Along with the object, donors will supply a paragraph describing why that particular object was chosen. When the children are younger the parent might also provide an additional paragraph commenting on their child’s choice of object. As the child gets older, they might also contribute a commentary on the object the parent chose. I hope we would then receive contemporary items from all corners of the state and from different socio-economic groups. 

If you enjoyed this post, check out CCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Emma Gaia Ziraldo.

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