Davenport Jail Museum Project Supports Undergraduates through Pandemic Uncertainty
By Zoe Quinton
The museum at the Davenport Jail—an extension of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History—is an example of local history at its best. It highlights how modern historians are taking advantage of technology to tell history in new and innovative ways, particularly during the time of COVID. The students currently working at the museum as part of their studies of public history are Wyatt Young, Mary “Miki” Arlen, and Diana Leon Garcia.
Wyatt, a doctoral student in History with a focus on collections and community engagement, originally came to the museum for his year-long Public Fellowship through The Humanities Institute and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. As a public historian, Wyatt found that the fellowship at the Jail was a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience at a local historical site, and he was “blown away” by the variety of people who come visit from all over the world.
After the fellowship ended, Wyatt was instrumental in extending the project, this time with the addition of two undergraduate positions for students also interested in pursuing careers in public history and curation. This kind of position is relatively rare for undergraduates, and would not have been possible without the generous funding of the Helen and Will Webster Foundation.
Miki and Diana were the students chosen for the two new positions. Wyatt says they have been a “wonderful” addition to the museum staff—creative, brilliant, and vibrantly engaged with the local community. Miki is a third-year double major in Literature and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. She describes herself as an “aspiring activist ethnographer,” combining interests in curatorial practices and collaborative community service, both of which dovetail nicely in her work as a Davenport Jail Assistant Curator.
Diana is a fourth-year, first generation undergraduate, majoring in History with a focus on Africa and the Americas, with a minor in History of Art and Visual Culture focusing on museums and indigenous arts. Her goal is to pursue a career in museum curation—and, as a native of LA, her dream job is to become a curator at the Getty Villa. By allowing her to join the team at the Davenport Jail Museum, this fellowship has enriched her time at UC Santa Cruz and also helped her gain valuable career experience in working toward her goals.
Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the three were focusing on increasing in-person visits to the museum by using it to build connections within the community. For example, they were planning to do a special event with a local winery, inviting community members to bring in their photos of the town for digitalization and making the residents of Davenport into curators of their own local history.
Since social distancing now means that they can’t do these events, the students have had to shift the focus of their work into the virtual realm. The Undergraduate Public Fellowship has enabled Miki and Diana to keep doing the work they love during this difficult time, and allows them to be “flexible and creative” in their community-building efforts.
As a result of this Fellowship, these students are able to explore innovative methods of outreach and pedagogy to keep the museum’s work alive and relevant during lockdown.
As a result of this Fellowship, these students are able to explore innovative methods of outreach and pedagogy to keep the museum’s work alive and relevant during lockdown. In fact, Miki says that the past few weeks of sheltering in place have allowed her to “better connect with our community” by focusing on social media outreach, sharing content and uniting the local community virtually instead of in person. Such efforts have included a game of “Davenport Trivia” on Instagram and creating a 3D tour of the museum, which they will make accessible to local schools in order to do virtual field trips during distance learning.
These new online efforts have led to building unexpected global connections, including one former resident who reached out to share her fond memories of Davenport from her current residence in Australia. As Miki notes, “Connections like that couldn’t have been made if it weren’t for the outbreak motivating us to revamp our online presence!”
While the coronavirus crisis has made these students’ work at the Davenport Jail museum more challenging, it has also given them an opportunity to explore new digital practices in museum curation and public humanities. Gaining such hands-on experience—and learning to navigate the difficulties inherent in keeping historical content alive for modern audiences—is essential to preparing students for careers in multiple fields: in and beyond history, museum studies, archival and curation work, collaborative community service, and ethnography. By making their studies possible both before and during the coronavirus crisis, the 2019-2020 Undergraduate Public Fellowship has helped bring these students closer to their dreams of one day being public historians and custodians of community history.
Follow along on Instagram for updates from the Davenport Jail team.
Read our 2019 Public Fellow profile on Wyatt Young here.
The 2019-2020 Undergraduate Public Fellowships are generously supported by the Helen and Will Webster Foundation.