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'Practical Scholar'

Curator Combines Scholarly, Practical Approach.

For his job, Randy Davis has to like objects, know how to handle them and tell a story.

Sometimes when the Maryland resident comes to work here, he wears a tie and dress clothes, and at others, he is in jeans and a T-shirt. He might be using construction tools for building exhibits or wearing clean white gloves for moving objects.

Davis has both the practical and scholarly skills needed for being Loudoun Museum’s curator, said Christie Hubner, collections manager for the museum.

“He has an amazing range of talents, both for scholarly [work] and for practical hands-on exhibit design and installation,” Hubner said. “He’s come up with a lot of exhibit ideas that are new and fresh that we haven’t had before. We have the best aesthetically pleasing and scholarly exhibits.”

Davis has been the museum’s curator since October 2000, arriving with a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and six years of experience. He has worked at museums such as the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Va. and the B&O Railroad Museum in Ellicott City, Md.

This fall, Davis went to working part-time at the museum, so he can participate in a museum studies master’s program at George Washington University’s Washington, D.C. campus under a Career Development Fellowship.

“This is a very prestigious fellowship. I hope when he completes his studies, we can keep him here as long as possible,” said Douglas Foard, museum director. “He’s brought a lot of professionalism to our preservation efforts.”

DAVIS COORDINATED redesigning the exhibit area of the museum, adding reversible changes that could be altered for different exhibits while increasing panel and display space.

“We couldn’t increase our square footage, so we had to make better use of our space,” Davis said. “We want a systematic approach to having new exhibits on a regular basis. Rotating our exhibits means we get repeat visitors.”

Two of the exhibits are changed on a regular basis to allow for a spring and fall opening of new exhibits. New exhibits require using the museum’s existing collection and possibly borrowing from other collections. A comprehensive exhibit can take about a year to finish, Davis said.

Davis volunteered to build some of the exhibits, a skill not required of most curators, but something he could do to save the museum money, he said. As a result, Davis could take care of an entire exhibit with staff help, designing and constructing the display areas, mounting objects on panels or in cases and interpreting stories for each of the objects on display.

Davis said he needs “an unique set of skills” to work on the exhibits, including scholarship to know how to conduct historical research along with practical skills for handling and preserving objects.

“You have to be passionate about the objects to do this … also about the history,” Davis said, adding that the objects can be used as “tools of the discovery of knowledge.”

THIS PASSION developed from growing up with a father who was an amateur historian and an American history reenactor on the side. Davis’s father took him to sites in the mid-Atlantic area and constantly talked about history, he said.

Davis, who grew up south of Baltimore, developed an interest in the material culture and in objects, questioning why things were made a certain way and what uses they had. For more than 20 years, he volunteered for the National Park Service and for state and private parks to do costume interpretations, focusing on men’s costuming for the 18th and 19th centuries. For his research, be began looking at museum collections, including the one at the Dinwiddie town museum, where he was also a costume interpreter.

“I was really exposed to that collection. That’s when I decided I wanted to pursue curatorial work,” Davis said.

As a curator, Davis conducts research to select the most representative objects for an exhibit, then develops and writes out scripts to explain what the objects did and their functions, along with their place in history. The scripts are written interpretations of the research and of any artwork, clothing, furniture, utensils and other historical objects included in the exhibit.

“He’s got a real thorough knowledge of material culture. He can tell what an artifact is, how old it is and what it’s used for, in most cases, by just looking at it,” said Mark Summers, director of education at the museum. “His knowledge of Loudoun County history is excellent, and he makes exhibits both educational and easy for the average person to understand.”

DAVIS’S LATEST PROJECT was interpreting the causes and effects of General Robert E. Lee’s march through Loudoun County in “The Road to Antietam Creek: Lee, Loudoun and the Invasion of Maryland, 1862.” Summers helped with the exhibit, which will be up until May 10, 2003.

Currently, Davis is working on an exhibit of needlework pieces, which will open in November, and one on development in Loudoun for a January opening. His next large exhibit will be on the Battle of Gettysburg in Loudoun County, which will be on display in May 2003.

“Randy is especially interested in the Civil War,” Foard said. “In terms of the museum’s operations, our Civil War exhibits are very important because Loudoun has so much Civil War history. He brings a perspective to that history that no one else on staff has.”

Davis manages the museum’s entire collection and keeps the database and records up to date. He oversaw organizing and cataloguing the museum’s 6,000-piece collection, a project expected to be completed within the next six months. Two years ago, Davis, with the help of museum staff, began inventorying the items in the collection and compiling information about each piece into a database.

“He has a lot of integrity about what a museum should and should not do, and is very dedicated to bringing the museum forward to modern standards,” Summers said.

Davis lives in Baltimore in a 100-year-old home that he is restoring and stays part-time in Leesburg.