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‘Taking Care’: Scott Sagar at Taber Museum

July 15, 2012
dsp By BRIAN BUSH (bbush@sungazette.com) , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

The majority of curators profiled in this series are affiliated with art galleries and their responsibilities are, generally speaking, very similar. This week's curator is one of a different stripe. Scott Sagar has been curator of collections at the Thomas T. Taber Museum since 2002. As the curator of a history museum, Sagar takes care of artifacts more often than art. He oversees a vast range of cultural artifacts and archives relating to local and national history.

Sagar, who received a bachelor's degree in history from Susquehanna University, said he was interested in history from a young age. "On family trips, we'd always go to museums: state museums, the Smithsonian, various Presidential houses and so on," Sagar said. "When it came time to pick a major in college, I realized that was something I really enjoyed. I liked learning about history. I liked reading about it. The museum career seemed to be a way to explore my interest in history."

After Susquehanna, Sagar received a master's degree in museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Cooperstown, N.Y. This program prepared Sagar for all aspects of museum and curating work. "You take classes in collections care, in exhibitions, in educational programming, museum management, administration, all of those things," Sagar said.

Article Photos

PHOTO PROVIDED
Scott Sagar, curator of collections at the Thomas T. Taber Museum, 858 W. Fourth St., is shown among the shelves of the museum’s archival collection.

The Cooperstown program wasn't all theory, however. According to Sagar, it involved a great deal of practical, hands-on experience. "They require you to go out and do internships at museums," Sagar said. "And you have to do projects during these internships. For the exhibitions class, the final product is an exhibition at a museum site - not just something in the classroom, but something that's actually on display for the public to see. They try to get you out there practicing before you actually go out into the world and get paid to do it."

Sagar's first position out of school took him back to Lancaster County, where he worked as a curator at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia. Sagar spent six years at the museum before landing his current position as curator of collections at the Taber Museum.

"The Watch and Clock Museum was very specific in its subject matter, whereas the Taber Museum covers a broad range of topics," Sagar said, explaining his decision to change museums. "They have a little bit of everything in their collection and that appealed to me more so than working in a place that was very narrow in its focus."

Sagar, who was born in Pittsburgh, raised in Lancaster County and went to college in Selinsgrove and upstate New York, said he had some catching up to do when it came to the history of Lycoming County. "I had to delve into the history of Lycoming County," Sagar said. "There are some parts of our national history which are universal here. But other things, like the lumber industry - which is such a huge part of the history of Williamsport - I knew almost nothing about.

"I also had to get a handle on all the different topics our collection covers. So, for example, our American Indian collection is something I didn't have a lot of experience with and I had some catching-up to do, but I was happy to do it because it's very interesting."

Sagar said it is not uncommon for museum curators to end up working in museums whose area of specialization is far removed from their own. "For someone starting out in the field, it's a given -unless you're very lucky - that you're not going to land into a job that fits exactly into your area of specialty or interest," Sagar said.

This, in fact, was Sagar's own experience after finishing school. "When I went to college, I focused on European history and, let's face it, there aren't a lot of European history museums in the United States," Sagar said. "You have to be willing to learn and there are certain things that carry over no matter what kind of museum you work for. The basic skills you learn in graduate school and through work experience at museums are going to be relevant wherever you end up."

As curator of collections, Sagar's day-to-day responsibilities include handling donations to the museum, conducting research about newly acquired artifacts, ensuring that these artifacts are properly stored, doing inventories and putting together new exhibits. Sagar said there are many factors he and his colleagues consider when choosing an exhibit.

"We ask ourselves a lot of questions," Sagar said. "Questions like: What's something we haven't done before? Is this an interesting topic? Is it a story worth telling? Once those questions have been answered and we've decided on a topic, we think about practical things like: How are we going to display the exhibit? Are we going to be able to tell this story exclusively through our collection or do we need to go out into the community and other historical societies and get loans from them?"

Since the Taber Museum is part of the Lycoming County Historical Society, another factor Sagar must consider when designing an exhibit is its local relevance. "We want exhibits to relate to Lycoming County somehow," Sagar said. "For example, with the Civil War Weaponry exhibit that's currently on display, these weapons may not have necessarily been used by Lycoming County soldiers, but Lycoming County soldiers would have used weapons very similar to these. The experience of the Civil War soldier was universal in many ways."

Sagar said it's usually a matter of striking a balance between local and national history in order to cater to all interests.

"While we try to pick topics that will resonate in some way with Lycoming County, we don't want to limit it too much," Sagar said. "Obviously, we want local people to come to the museum, but we're also interested in going beyond that. We have people coming to see our model train display even though they're not from Lycoming County because that's their interest. But we have local people who love that exhibit, too. So we try to serve both audiences."

In addition to its extensive collection of historical artifacts, the Taber Museum also houses a significant art collection. The museum is currently planning its exhibits for the upcoming year, one of which will focus exclusively on art. Sagar spoke about the differences between curating an art show and curating a historical exhibit.

"Art exhibits tend to have a certain look to them," Sagar said. "It's a little more minimalist. When people go to an art gallery, they expect things to be all in a row on the wall; everything is very clean and straight and geometrical. Whereas an exhibit that has a lot of artifacts is often more of a mix. You'll have things on the wall, things on the floor, things not necessarily in a straight line. You're serving the story of the exhibit more than you are displaying things in a very even way."

One example of this "uneven" presentation style is the Taber Museum's Frontier Cabin, a room, which recreates the living conditions of early pioneers. Far from a minimalist appearance, the exhibit strives for a homey, lived-in look, as Sagar explained. "The people on the frontier didn't worry about having everything exactly five feet high on the wall. In an art gallery, you want that sight line across the whole space. But when you're trying to recreate a home, you don't worry about that. You're trying to make it look authentic."

For more information about the Taber Museum, visit tabermuse um.org.

 
 

 

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