History professor adds to RIT connection with local museum
When Tamar W. Carroll became a trustee of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in 2020, her appointment added to the web of connections Rochester Institute of Technology has with the cultural institution.
Carroll, associate professor and chair of the Department of History, is the third RIT professor to sit on the SBA House board. The relationship between the two institutions precedes both her 11 years at RIT, and the 12-year-old museum studies program. “Students have been interning there before that,” Carroll said.
Over the years, some museum studies students began their careers by working at the SBA House after graduating from RIT. A variety of staff and faculty have also volunteered there, including RIT’s archivist, who became the museum’s archivist, and professors from several disciplines who took on duties such as organizing 2017’s VoteTilla to mark the centennial of women securing the right to vote in New York.
For some students, their first exposure to the museum dedicated to the leading figure in the first women’s rights movement comes in a class field trip that’s part of an introductory course in museum studies.
Juilee Decker, a professor and director of the College of Liberal Arts’ Museum Studies program, was on the SBA board immediately before Carroll. She has witnessed the awe students experience when introduced to the house. “Many students who come through during their education career are stunned to know the Susan B. Anthony House is headquartered here in Rochester,” Decker said. Being physically in the place where Anthony lived, worked, and died can be a profound experience. Some students go on to volunteer as a docent at the museum, others to work part time in collections or administration. “The volunteer training, too, at the museum, is really wonderful. Even though it’s about Susan B. Anthony and the past, students see in it a way to connect with their own identity and what matters to them today.”
Carroll said the most recent field trip was a virtual one. Afterward, the students created an exhibit online about women’s suffrage and Carroll later delivered a Zoom lecture about the exhibit for the museum’s Monday lecture series. Volunteering and interning at the house is temporarily on hold, but when COVID restrictions lift, Carroll and the staff at the house expect students will resume activities there and do even more.
“We’re a great place to have on your resume,” said Deborah Hughes, the president and CEO of the museum. “It’s a great opportunity for someone interested in museum studies.” The house is one of just two Rochester sites – the other is Kodak founder George Eastman’s residence – registered as a National Historic Landmark, and one of just a few in the nation with a focus on women’s history.
For faculty, work at the SBA House can provide a place to practice what they teach. One of Carroll’s assignments there is leading the collections and education committee of the Board of Trustees.
“What I think is exciting is we’re building a new visitor’s center,” Carroll said. The interpretive center is scheduled to open in 2025 within walking distance of the house, and is keeping Carroll’s committee busy now. Working with the Louisville, KY, museum exhibits design firm, Solid Light, Inc., they expect to have a plan for the center’s exhibits within a year. Clearly relishing the challenge, Carroll said, “Conceptualizing a whole building is new for me.”
Carroll’s background in women’s studies, along with public and digital history, make her an ideal person for the job.
“I’m thrilled that we have Tamar at this point in time for the museum,” Hughes said. Carroll’s work as co-editor of Nasty Women and Bad Hombres: Gender and Race is the 2016 US Presidential Election, is “an example of what Tamar brings to the table, not only her own area of specialty, in which she has great depth, but across the spectrum.”
Likewise, it’s a good time at the Susan B. Anthony house for the RIT community to be involved.
“The new interpretive center is going to be really an amazing opportunity for faculty, staff and students to be a part of helping to tell the story of Susan B. Anthony and help students engage in that experience of what we call ‘meaning-making,’” Decker said.
The center will offer more exhibit and storage space, Carroll said, as well as a reading room and space for RIT students and other scholars to really access the documents and physical collections the house holds. Currently the collection is tucked away in spaces so small, perusing them is difficult. Much of the historic print material is also uncatalogued.
“I always wanted to work in partnership with universities to do more of that cataloging,” Hughes said. “We can’t have that partnership now because we have no space. The collection is bursting at the seams.” Hughes estimated that several PhD dissertations could come out of what’s in the storage areas if only the documents were truly accessible.
Melissa Sagen '15 (museum studies) knows firsthand how crowded those storage areas are. Now archivist of film and media at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC, Sagen interned at SBA under former RIT Archivist Becky Simmons to expand documentation of the collections. She took digital pictures of items to include in a collections database, sometimes going on “scavenger hunts” to locate items mentioned in the database but missing information about where they were stored. One storage area was so small only one person at a time could work there.
“Dedicated space is the best thing you could get in an archive. I hope that brings in more students and I hope it brings in more than one at a time, because I think it could benefit both the students and the Susan B. Anthony house immensely,” Sagen said. Learning of the museum’s expansion plans, she added, “I’m excited for their future and I hope this relationship builds so they can get the help they need so they can be the institution they deserve to be.”
Her classmate, Joshua Stapf ‘15 (museum studies) was Hughes’ assistant for two years, helping with finances, fundraising and volunteer engagement. During his time, he managed the annual SBA luncheon that featured tennis player Billie Jean King as speaker and drew 1200 attendees.
“I loved the work. It’s a great organization with a wonderful mission,” said Stapf, now director of another nonprofit, Literacy Rochester, that he says has benefited from his working at SBA . “The knowledge I was taught at the museum really helped me stabilize the organization financially and bring it onto a much firmer foundation.”
Amanda Wilck ‘16, (museum studies) is now collections manager for the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, NY., using skills she gained as the registrar and visitor center manager at SBA. A museum registrar documents new items brought into the collection.
“Because it was my first professional museum experience, it really shaped how I wanted to go forward in my career. It taught me who I wanted to be, what my standards would be and how much of a team player I would be,” Wilck said. “It shaped my work ethic.”