This is an interview with Ashleigh D. Coren, Women’s History Content and Interpretation Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series on non-library jobs for library workers.
On Curatorial Work :
an Interview with Ashleigh D. Coren
Q1: Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what Curatorial work is and how LIS folk can get into this field. First could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you got your MLIS (or your educational background) and what you do?
Sure and thank you for letting me share my story! I am an alum of the Archives Management program at Simmons University, and my undergraduate degree is in art and visual culture.
I am currently the Women’s History Content and Interpretation Curator for the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative (AWHI). AWHI seeks “to research, collect, document, display, and share the compelling story of women. It is inclusive, highlighting the stories of those who identify as women and those who were identified female but self-identify differently.”I am one of five AWHI curators assigned to various Smithsonian institutions.
I am not a curator in the traditional sense – I do not manage a physical collection or develop physical exhibitions, although I do research gaps in NPG’s collection related to gender. Roya Sachs’ definition is more suited to the work I do, which is “someone who connects people and ideas and creativity and finds a way to create a universal language between them.”
My job is split into three parts:
- Conducting original research on women in historical and contemporary portraiture.
- Developing public programs (talks, films, lectures) related to the National Portrait Gallery’s collections and my original research on women’s history.
- Designing lesson plans, teacher programs, and digital resources related to women in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.
Over the last nine months I’ve helped to add NPG images to Wikimedia Commons, conducted teacher workshops and co-facilitated videos for teachers, helped run a public program, and so much more. Right now I’m developing a tour for the SmARTify app, an NPG virtual exhibit for Google Arts & Culture, and working with other educators at the Smithsonian on a virtual summer institute for teachers. My work is (and will always be) very much centered on promoting the narratives of the underrepresented voices in our collection.
Q2: Now can you tell us how You personally got into doing this type of work?
Oh gosh. It took me a few years to find something that was the right fit, but the job I currently have is a perfect blend of all of my professional experiences and interests. I graduated from college right before the recession hit, so I quickly had to pivot from wanting to work in museums/galleries and luckily found librarianship/archives. For about seven years I committed myself to learning as much as I could! I knew I was interested in three things: working with underrepresented groups, education, and special collections/art. During this period I did reference work at school and academic libraries, completed a stint with AmeriCorps (where I did many things including teaching information literacy), and was a resident librarian at West Virginia University. Before joining the Smithsonian I was the Special Collections Librarian for Teaching and Learning at the University of Maryland, College Park. Every single one of these jobs prepared me for the work I’m doing now – working with K-12 educators, coordinating public events, researching and promoting stories of unsung women in history, and working with data scientists to mine information from our collections.
Q3: What makes this a great field for LIS workers and likewise, what do you think makes LIS workers strong candidates for hiring managers in this field?
There is so much overlap between the LIS field and museum work. Professionals in both fields manage and curate collections, design displays and exhibits, focus on educating the general public, work with donors and write grants, and struggle with digital preservation and access.
LIS folks have so many skills that are necessary in the museum world: information management/metadata; information literacy/instruction, managing special collections and archival records, outreach/event planning, and work with copyright and intellectual property.
Q4: What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first curator job?
Places like the Smithsonian offer internships (many are paid!) year round. Don’t be afraid to pursue opportunities that are not directly related to what you’re interested in, like audience research or advancement. Audience research is basically another way of saying UX, and an advancement internship can provide crucial skills needed for fundraising/grant writing. If you’re looking for a capstone project an internship in a museum can be a great way to expand your skill set.
What’s important is being able to translate your skills so they can be easily identified by recruiters when you’re applying for a job. Below I break down my position into relevant areas of librarianship:
- Conducting original research on women in historical and contemporary portraiture. (research services, archival research and description, data services)
- Developing public programs (talks, films, lectures) related to the National Portrait Gallery’s collections and my original research on women’s history. (Adult services, community engagement, public programming)
- Designing lesson plans, teacher programs, and digital resources related to women in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. (Information/Primary source literacy, distance learning, instructional design, web and digital services, copyright/scholarly communication)
- For example, “I have x number of years reference experience” can be rewritten as “I have conducted and/or directed content and expertise research in the humanities” (which is taken straight from the job description).
Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them? Any last tips?
I work for the federal government, so all of their job classifications can be found on the website for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The basic qualifications for a museum curator can be found here. Make sure you at least have the basic qualifications before applying to any federal job. The field itself is so massive and there are so many types of museums that it’s not just for folks who have studied art history or museum studies. My colleagues have degrees in anthropology, history, education, musicology, and many of the STEM fields.
Also, if you have friends/family/acquaintances that work for a federal agency and you’re applying for a federal position, please have them look over your resume and cover letter before you submit your materials! It’s great if you know someone who speaks “fed.”
My final tip? Be open. I’ve met a lot of folks who are very much dead set on working for a specific university/museum/library. I understand that everyone’s circumstances are different, but I know that I’ve probably missed out on wonderful opportunities in the past because I used to be so laser focused on certain things. I definitely would not be working for the National Portrait Gallery if I kept the same goals I developed in 2014.
Ashleigh D. Coren (she/her/hers) is the Women’s History Content and Interpretation Curator at the National Portrait Gallery. Ashleigh is also an adjunct lecturer for the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and a facilitator for ACRL’s Immersion Information Literacy Program. She holds a BA in Art and Visual Culture from Bates College, and an MS in Archives Management from Simmons University.
Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not INALJ or their employer. Photo provided by the interviewee and permission granted to use it for this interview.