New museum directors see role as educators in Mississippi
By Emily Wagster Pettus
The newly hired directors of two Mississippi history museums see their jobs as being educators as much as curators.
The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum are two entities under a single roof. They are being built near the Capitol in downtown Jackson and will open in December to culminate the state’s yearlong bicentennial celebration.
Pamela D.C. Junior comes to the civil rights museum from the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, just a few blocks away.
Smith Robertson is housed in a former school where Richard Wright was once a young student, and it showcases a broad scope of Mississippi’s African-American history. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will be larger and will focus on the pivotal years from 1945 to 1976 — a period that included violent white backlash to massive black voter registration efforts, court battles over school desegregation and economic boycotts to push for fair treatment of black customers and hiring of black employees.
Junior, 58, grew up in Jackson and earned an education degree from Jackson State University. She has been manager of Smith Robertson since 1999 and said she enjoys guiding students and seeing “the twinkle in their eyes when they get something that you’re talking about.”
Sometimes, youngsters bring an unexpected perspective that makes Junior think about history in a different way.
“I had a young boy ask me, ‘What was the difference in the water that they were drinking when the water fountains were separate? Did it taste different?’ Those are the type questions that I’m interested in because then it takes them further in their own researching,” Junior said.
Rachel Myers, 30, comes to the Museum of Mississippi History from the museums division of the Jackson-based Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. She grew up in Connecticut, earned a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University and moved to Mississippi for her job nine years ago.
“I’ve been saying that I chose Mississippi, and I’m so honored that Mississippi chose me for this position — to be able to teach and tell and interpret the Mississippi history that I have come to love and appreciate so much,” Myers said.
The two museums are run by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, where Myers and Junior begin work March 1. They join a longtime department employee, Cindy Gardner, who will work as administrator for the two museums.
Gardner, 43, grew up in Florida and earned a history degree from Stetson University. She moved to Mississippi 18 years ago for a job with Archives and History. She has been collections registrar at the Old Capitol Museum in downtown Jackson, and has been project manager for the two history museums during their development.
“I will handle all the day-to-day operations of the building in general, where Pamela and Rachel can focus on the programming, the temporary exhibits, the tours that go on in each individual museum,” Gardner said.
The state has spent about $90 million for construction and exhibits for the two museums, and private donors have given $17 million.
Reuben Anderson of Jackson, an attorney who’s now in private practice in Jackson, was the first African-American justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, serving 1985-91. He’s currently a trustee for the Department of Archives and History and is raising money for the two museums.
At the Capitol last week, Anderson said the museums will function as the state’s largest classroom: “They will change Mississippi for the better and have a positive impact on the many generations to come.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.