Hannah Sisk, Freshman year at Brown  (2009)

It was early in the fall of my first year at Brown – muggy and overcast (nothing like the crisp New England autumns I had eagerly anticipated!). A few weeks into the semester, I had some time between classes on the Main Green and found myself outside Manning Hall. I had peeked into the Haffenreffer gallery before, after a campus tour as a prospective student, but hadn’t gone through the space on my own. In that precious hour between seminars, the gallery presented itself as a cool refuge from the humidity outside, but, more importantly, as a welcoming and intellectual space that ultimately shaped my time at Brown and my career pursuits since.

I lurked around the Haffenreffer gallery throughout my freshman year, attending pizza roundtable luncheons with noted anthropologists and museum professionals and volunteering to help with larger lectures. In May of that year, Geralyn Ducady, then the Curator of Museum Programs and Education, approached me and a classmate to ask if we would consider spearheading the creation of a student group for undergraduates interested in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.     

Our subsequent creation of the Haffenreffer Museum Student Group provided an outlet for undergraduates interested in anthropology, archaeology, and museum professions. Nurtured by Brown faculty and the Haffenreffer Museum’s staff, we worked on “bringing the museum to the student body and bringing students to the museum.” We were shuttled to Bristol to visit the Collections Research Center and encouraged to brainstorm ways to make the extraordinary collection accessible to students beyond required class assignments. We hosted student nights in the gallery, curated small exhibits, and facilitated family programming.

This all happened under the tutelage of some pretty incredible Haffenreffer Museum staff and Brown faculty.  As students, we literally knew nothing of the hands-on skills and methods required for museum work (or even the process of developing exhibition narratives – so different than writing a research paper or thesis!). The kindness, patience, and legitimate skills demonstrated by the Haffenreffer Museum’s staff showed us another side of scholarship and a chance to explore previously unconsidered career paths.

Student Group founding members visiting the Collections and Research Center in Bristol, RI

As graduation approached, I felt confident in the skills that I had learned with the Student Group, but also equally aware of how much I still wanted to learn about curatorial processes and exhibition development. I interviewed for a curatorial assistant position at a small museum in Philadelphia, and it was during the interview that I first realized how unique and valuable my experiences with the Haffenreffer had been. I remember the interviewers being pleasantly shocked by the generosity of Haffenreffer staff to make time for curious, passionate, and decidedly inexperienced undergraduates. For me, the Student Group had been another wonderful iteration of my incomparable Brown “build-your-own-adventure,” where, as the architect of my own education, I was encouraged to seek out experiences and make them my own. But, it was true, without the support of the Haffenreffer Museum’s staff and faculty, I never would have gained applicable museum skills and experiences.  

I was offered that curatorial assistant position, beginning work as a young museum professional just days after graduating. The skills and knowledge I learned from my time with the Haffenreffer Museum were indeed utilized daily at my first job and recently helped me land my current position as a Registrar Assistant at the Frick Collection in New York City.

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology is a perfect microcosm of the larger Brown University community. Still early in my career, I remain so grateful for the hands-on experiences and encouragement I received from Haffenreffer. Equally important to the professional skills imparted, I learned the importance of kindness and true mentorship from the Haffenreffer Museum’s faculty and staff.