Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology

Becoming Museum Magicians

Behind the Scenes with Museum Studies Graduate Students and Interview with Coral Doyle and Meegan Sims

Coral Doyle (left) and Meegan Sims (right) paint the museum gallery space. Far right, Coral and Meegan have fun while building a museum interactive.Coral Doyle (left) and Meegan Sims (right) paint the museum gallery space. Far right, Coral and Meegan have fun while building a museum interactive.

Museums are places of magic. They present visually appealing exhibitions, expand visitors’ understanding of the world, and help preserve centuries-old knowledge. This magic would not be maintained without the magicians--or the museum staff. 

In fall 2018, we began our journey at CSU, Chico, with the goal to learn how to become museum magicians. Through the Master of Arts in Anthropology program with an option in Museum Studies, we took classes, created projects, and participated in an internship that all revolved around museum work. We invite you to learn more about our experiences by reading below.

Introduce yourselves and explain why you chose this program.

C: My name is Coral Doyle and I grew up in the Sacramento area. I found a love for museums at a young age, but my passion for the museum field came from working on my undergrad degree in anthropology.

I decided I wanted to pursue a career in museums because working with the collections and creating exhibits for the public was fascinating and fun. 

M: I’m Meegan Sims and also grew up in the Sacramento area, which was a blessing because of all the local museums. My parents instilled in me a love of museums and learning. 

I was finishing up my BA in English and was researching graduate programs when I stumbled upon the Museum Studies program at Chico State. The program provided hands-on training and experiences that many other museum graduate programs lacked.

Describe your favorite and most challenging experiences while in the Museum Studies Program.

C: This program was challenging, at times, but I learned a lot and met amazing people in the program. Meegan Sims became a quick friend and ally in the program. My main motivator was looking back at all the moments where I told myself I couldn’t, but ended up finishing anyways.

M: Overall, my favorite experience while in the program was helping with some of the exhibits. With every exhibit, I met and worked with talented people who taught me something new. I also enjoyed helping Adrienne Scott and Heather McCafferty create activities for various age groups that corresponded with those exhibits. Since my background was in writing and literature, anthropology was an entirely new field. I always felt like I was running to keep up with my studies to learn the various theories.

From left, Coral and Meegan at the opening reception for Unbroken Traditions exhibition. Upper right, Coral working on exhibit installation. Bottom right, baskets from the Meadows-Baker families on display in the Unbroken Traditions exhibit.
From left, Coral and Meegan at the opening reception for Unbroken Traditions exhibition. Upper right, Coral working on exhibit installation. Bottom right, baskets from the Meadows-Baker families on display in the Unbroken Traditions exhibit.

Who was your support system in the program and how did they help?

C: While I had to find my own self-motivation in this program to keep moving forward, I could not have done anything without the love and support from my family and friends. Of course, the faculty, Dr. Georgia Fox and Dr. William Nitzky and the Valene L. Smith Museum staff, Heather and Adrienne have been a major support system lifting me up when I made mistakes, but holding me accountable to not only learn and grow within the field, but to finish the program. 

M:. First and foremost, my family was always there whenever I needed to talk, cry, or laugh.. Coral also played a huge role in my support system. Not only did her positive outlook help in every situation, but my weaknesses were her strengths.

How did the pandemic affect your life? How did it affect your graduate work?

C: During this isolating time away from staff, faculty and friends, I separated myself from the program and developed a hardy procrastination streak. Without zoom meetings I would not have made progress towards my thesis; however, the time in quarantine gave me some blessings as well. I was commuting less, saving money, spending more time with family and I had more time to work on school.

M: Similar to many others, the COVID-19 pandemic was jarring. It completely cancelled plans that I had been looking forward to. However, I will always consider the quarantine period a blessing. My stress levels decreased and the online elements of school and work were beneficial. The lower stress levels and absence of commute time, allowed me to focus more on researching and writing my thesis. 

What exhibits have you worked on while in the program and what was your favorite aspect?

C:. My favorite thing is to make interactive displays and Meegan and I were able to make many for exhibits. I love being able to connect with a visitor through hands-on activities because that is exactly how I learn. I need to be touching, doing or creating to better understand a concept. 

M: The Unbroken Traditions exhibit will always have a special place in my heart. It was the only exhibit where Coral and I had the freedom to make a majority of the decisions. We also had the opportunity to work with Native Representatives from the Tribal Relations Office at Chico State. It was amazing to learn and understand the importance of including multivocality in museums. 

How did you develop your thesis topic?

C: I was on the fence about my thesis topic. It was considering two topics; sustainability in museums or decolonization of museums. As I researched the environmental labels for the Unbroken Traditions exhibit, I learned about the devastating effects of colonization on people as well as native habitats. The local native community has and continues to push for environmental protection.  I believe that it is all of our responsibility to care for the land and work towards a sustainable future. I believe that museums have a role to pay building a better world. This is why I am writing my thesis on the greening of museums.

M: When we first began preparing for the Unbroken Traditions exhibit, we talked about the importance of practicing decolonization. At the time, I was not familiar with the term, but quickly learned that it is necessary in museums with content addressing lifeways of ethnic populations such as Native peoples. In the exhibit, we practiced decolonization by acknowledging the importance of the voices of the individuals in the Meadows-Baker family, incorporating those voices throughout the entire exhibit, and consulting with Native representatives through the CSU, Chico Office of Tribal Relations. However, after doing research on other museums, I found that there were not clearly defined guidelines regarding how museums should practice decolonization. This gap led me to write my thesis on decolonization in museums. 

What are some important tools that you have taken away from this program?

C: I typically surprise myself with how much work I accomplish and the task now seems smaller and more manageable. This has greatly reduced my stress when working on assignments. 

M: I have learned that it is important to develop relationships with those around you. The friendships I made with my peers, mentors, and professors helped make the difficult aspects of graduate school bearable. Two other tools that go hand-in-hand are organization and self-motivation.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone interested in entering the museum field or the Museum Studies graduate program?

C: No matter how corny this may sound, one piece of advice I could give would be to never stop believing in yourself and your capabilities. I believe we are all smarter, stronger and more resilient than we think. Take deep breaths, eat good food, and exercise!

M: I agree with everything Coral said! Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself. Developing and maintaining self-confidence can be a struggle at times, but looking back and seeing how far you’ve come can help. Also, don’t let your past education limit your goals. Although I received a BA in English, I was not limited to opportunities only in that field. Your strengths can be applied to anything.