One-on-one with Christina Shutt: ALPLM’s new director outlines vision, goals

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Christina Shutt is the new executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and is the fifth person to serve in the role, and the first person of color to hold the title.

For the first time in more than a year and a half, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has a full-time executive director leading the way.

This week, Christina Shutt — who is the fifth person to serve in the role, and the first person of color to hold the title — started her new job, after she was unanimously selected by the ALPLM board of trustees in March. In the midst of her first day leading the way for the library and museum, she sat down with The State Journal-Register for a conversation about her vision for the future of the ALPLM and what she adds to her new role in coming from Arkansas’ African American museum of history and culture where she served as executive director since 2016.

Having made the move to Springfield with her husband, John, and son, Jonathan, just this month, Shutt, 34, said the last week has “been a little bit of a whirlwind.” However, the ALPLM’s new leader is looking forward to getting to know the community, its history and the staff that surrounds her.

Tuesday morning, prior to sitting down with The SJ-R on her first day, Shutt emailed her staff to say hello, while expressing some of her goals and strategies for the ALPLM’s way forward. During our 30-minute conversation with Shutt — which is summarized in a question and answer format below — we discussed some her priorities as the library and museum begin a new chapter under her leadership.

More: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum breaks barriers in naming new director

“Thankfully, I’ve had experience dealing with that — with understanding that change,” said Shutt, who was named the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, Arkansas’ fifth executive director in eight years at just 29 years old. “That’s what I can offer. That’s what I can bring.

"This place has always been a national presence. People have always seen it as that. But I want us to fully step into that identity; to fully own that identity as a leader, not just for people in the Lincoln community, not just for people in the history community, but for people in a lot of communities — for people in museums, for schoolchildren to understand that they can have a career doing this someday. I want us to own that — to truly again be that kind of leader.”

"I’ve had people from all around the country reach out, which has been pretty incredible and impactful for me — just to see the breadth and depth of excitement — not just about my appointment, because that’s great. I’m glad people are excited about that. But really, about people’s excitement to reinvest, to rethink, to look at the museum and library in a fresh and different way. So that’s just been absolutely incredible. It has ranged from Lincoln scholars to people who do other Lincoln history and museum sites, to library folks — everybody. And that’s just been absolutely fantastic to be so warmly welcomed.”

Has there been a common theme or message in those notes you have received?

"Probably the number one thing that’s come out is, ‘It’s time.’ Even just my limited conversations that I’ve had with staff thus far today, staff have commented that, ‘It’s time. It’s time for us to be who we were always meant to be — to not be politicized by whoever is in office but to really be free to do our jobs the way that we always wanted to do our jobs, the way that we’ve been trying to do our jobs; the way that we have been doing our jobs. And so, it’s time.’"

Do you find it challenging to do the job in that way, without it being politicized since the museum and library is an agency of state government?

"I think there’s always challenges any time you work in government. There’s always challenges. But, what I will say, is that the governor and the legislators have been so supportive. I’ve already had a few reach out to just let me know that they’re excited about me being here; to welcome me on my first day. That sets a good tone. I think legislators are tired as well. It’s that de-politicizing it and making it about, who is Lincoln for our times? What does he mean for us today? And not only Lincoln but what does it mean to be a citizen of Illinois today? What does it mean for us to understand our history, to understand not only maybe where we came from — or where we moved to for transplants like us — but also, what does it mean for us as we interpret and reinterpret and think about our place in the world?

"… People feeling that they have a sense of ownership of their own history, that’s really what community history is about. That’s what public history should be about. That, to me, is not political. It may feel a little political, but it’s not. It’s about people understanding who they are, their identity, and their place in the world. That’s what we all want at the end of the day. So I’m hoping that we’ll elevate some more of those stories; bring some more of those things out of the archives that helps illuminate that for folks.”

Read this:Go inside the ALPLM exhibit ‘State of Sound’ exploring Illinois music connections

How would you approach taking some of the city’s longstanding untold stories and go about elevating them and sharing them with a broader audience?

“It’s hard to get into specifics about what we might do here. But in other contexts — other projects I have worked on — it’s often looked like doing walking tours or providing local history lessons for teachers; for classrooms. One of the things I think the museum has done really well — especially during the pandemic — is providing teachers professional development, to equip and empower teachers in this sort of changing and shifting landscape. … But how can we empower teachers to incorporate more local history into what they’re doing? So the students are learning about that, and not just in the history box.

"One of the things that I was probably most proud of during my time with mosaic was that we blended sort of history and STEM together — really, history and STEAM now — talking about history, but in the context of science and technology. So when teachers are teaching about math and math historians, or helping people understand context, why can’t they include some Illinois history? Or when they teach about science, why can’t they talk about Lincoln as a patent holder? Those are great opportunities to incorporate that stuff, where you’re helping to contextualize that history for people. I also hope to get involved in more community history projects, and working alongside our colleagues at the Illinois State Museum. … How can we work together as two state institutions to help the state really understand its place in the world? And of course, in our state.”

Earlier:Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum cuts ties with foundation

In your email to your staff, you asked them to commit to building an anti-oppressive space and emphasized a focus on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. How do you create that space and ensure there is a consistent focus on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion?

"Some of it begins with that sort of trust and transparency. I said it in our senior team meeting this morning — that my door is open, that people can talk to me, bring me their ideas, we can dialogue about things, we can admit that we’re growing and moving together as an organization.

"In a more tangible sense, it looks like rethinking the way that we think about doing business. Oftentimes when we go into museums — or really any place — it’s just one pathway. And if it’s not that, then it can’t be. So it’s really about kind of opening the sea — opening the doors and opening the windows too and saying, ‘No, we can have lots of ideas.’ We can explore new ways of thinking and new ways of doing that. We don’t just have to celebrate and think about Lincoln in the same way they did in the 1850s and 1860s. We don’t have to think about him just in that limited box. But we can think about him and what he means for our center and our times today.”

Where do you begin in working to add more of that context to Lincoln’s history and Illinois’ history?

"I begin first and foremost with conversations with people — understanding that a lot of that sort of unknown or little known history isn’t always the stuff we find in textbooks. In fact, it’s usually the stuff we don’t find in textbooks. So, really having conversations with people in the community to understand, what are the stories that are important to them? What are the stories that maybe they’ve heard about or that they’ve known from their own family history or own community contexts living in Springfield? And how do we shine a light on those stories? How do we think about those stories in new ways, and in bold ways? That not only tell us about the past but really connects us to what we’re dealing with in the present and gives us a hope and a vision for what the future could be. It’s reimagining what it means to understand and to think about history.”

With the revenue loss as a result of COVID-19, and with the ALPLM’s relationship with its independent fundraising arm ending, what will you do to ensure you have the funding and resources you need to accomplish some of what you envision for the future?

"We’ll continue to apply for grants. The library and museum received a grant to provide teacher professional development to do a kind of teaching primary sources workshop, and I’m really looking forward to being a little bit involved with. … But also, seeing what other grant opportunities there are out there, working alongside potential folks that are interested not just in financial donations but also donating their collections to the museum. It’s one of the things I’ve found in my work is that people often don’t think that they can donate their personal collections here — that they’re important to telling the story.

"Just like we’ve shown with the great oral history program that we already do here — people can donate their stories, they can donate their items that they have. That’s how exhibits happen, is because people have been generous with their donation or — in the case of the Illinois music exhibit — with loaning. That happened because artists and artists’ families were willing to loan items to us to help tell a small piece of their story. So it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to do different things."

Also:ALPLM to display rare copy of Emancipation Proclamation ahead of Juneteenth celebration

One of the goals you listed in your email to your staff was that you would like to earn accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. What needs to happen to take the museum from where it is now to get it to that point?

"We all have these ideas about how we’re interpreting or how we’re thinking about Lincoln or thinking about Illinois history. … By putting things down on paper, by writing out some of the ideas that were already in our head, or things that maybe the museum and library were already doing, we set a clear path forward for everyone to be on the same page to say, ‘Okay, this is not only how we’re going to interpret, but why we’re going to interpret. This is who that interpretation is for — who we’re trying to attract and see.’

"We’re going to start with things like — as I mentioned in my letter — having shared core values. Because again, that is ultimately part of the accreditation. But first and foremost, it is a part of helping everyone to be on the same page. What are the things that we as a staff and as the board — what are the things we value, not just about our workplace, but about the work that we do each and every day? How do we think about that work, and think about the ways in which we serve the public? What are those core values that we have and share? And how do we ultimately communicate that to others? But first, we have to identify those. You have to define in order to empower. So we’ll start with some of that.”

Contact Natalie Pierre at npierre@gannett.com or on Twitter @NataliePierre_

via The State Journal-Register

June 10, 2021 at 09:20AM

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