Greta Russell started in the museum field in 1994 when she volunteered to catalog a collection of dolls for the Illinois State Museum. She has been working with museum collections in various functions ever since, in Missouri, Illinois, New York, and Washington, DC. She recently moved with her family to Cody, Wyoming where she is the Senior Registrar at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
Listening to my grandmother’s stories about her childhood in a small town in Illinois is really what sparked my interest. She had stuff to go along with her stories as well, and I remember her showing me things like a darning egg, photographs, scrapbooks, and autograph books. What interested me the most was the idea that these people she told me about were so similar to me, and yet their objects and clothing looked so different from mine. That is probably what developed my interest in museum work, the desire to be around and learn about objects that people used from different time periods.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
When I realized that the historic sites being funded and preserved by the Missouri State Parks system were so vastly one sided (white, heterosexual, male), I started blogging about women in my spare time (www.missouriwomen.org) in order to try to document women’s history in Missouri. I envisioned the blog as a place to find resources about women and their experiences in Missouri: like Alma Nash, from Maryville, conductor of an all ladies marching band that marched for suffrage in Washington, DC. I also wanted viewers to find women’s history sites that they could visit around the state, like Alice Wing’s interpretive panels in Greenville, that document her traveling the eastern Ozarks on horseback rallying for the suffrage cause. In 2014, I authored a book geared towards 4-6th graders about Olive Boone, Missouri pioneer. Raising awareness about women’s lives in the state became a passion of mine due to the inequality of women’s representation in the state historic site system.
3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
The first ten years or so of my career was spent at cultural institutions with a history focus. After I earned my BA in History (Illinois State), and MA in Museum Studies (Fashion Institute of Technology), I worked at the Daniel Boone Home in St. Charles County, Missouri, where I revitalized their house tours and worked with their collection of historic objects. After that, I was the Administrator at Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville, Missouri. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with museum collections that have a strong focus on history, which has kept me personally interested in the collections that I manage.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
For me, it is knowing that I am not alone in this human experience. My interest in women’s history was fueled by the knowledge that someone, sometime before me had conquered similar challenges. I wanted to know how they faced adversity, felt about their life, and coped with outcomes of their decisions. Women who were victims of circumstances are very intriguing too, like Calamity Jane, and Carry Nation, because of the shared humanity of their experiences.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
Change makers interest me the most, those people in history who saw a problem and figured out a way to solve it. Jane Addams for one, who saw the problems for immigrants/lower class women and children in Chicago and decided to do something about it. Women’s suffrage, because of the lessons we can learn from people who saw a problem, organized, fought hard, tried different tactics, and ultimately got what was rightfully theirs – the vote (equality with men is another issue, see #2 above).
6. You recently started a new job at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. What is your job and what excites you about it?
Being the Senior Registrar is exciting professionally because I am in the position of working with my coworkers to care for thousands of objects that have been acquired at the Center or are on loan to the Center. I help implement policies so that these objects are cared for to the best of the institution’s abilities, and oversee things like shipping and packing of objects, contracts with lenders and borrowers, risk management for the collection, and making sure that the Center has the most complete records possible for the objects in its care. In addition to all of that, there are also all sorts of interesting pieces in the collection to get excited about, which you can see on the Center’s website. I welcome you to visit my online exhibit Women of the West, where you can see objects in the Center’s collection that once belonged to women whom I personally admire, like Calamity Jane, and Amelia Earhart.
7. What advice do you have for someone thinking about a museum career?Volunteer, work hard, watch and learn. Educate yourself on proper museum practices, and always be willing to learn from your colleagues. Spend time with someone doing the job you are interested in and ask them what the most challenging part of their job is. Understand that in museum work, you may have to relocate to get your dream job.