Q&A: Elba museum curator takes time to find niche

Apr 2, 2012

 

 
 

Judith Littlejohn took some time to find her place in history.

A native of Irondequoit, she pursued industrial relations/labor law at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. But just 17, out of place and unhappy with her major, she left school and went to work.

She eventually moved to Genesee County, and settled in Elba to raise a family. Curiosity brought her to Genesee Community College, where she explored a variety of fields. (One of her early ambitions was to get a degree in model making and then move to California and get a job at Industrial Light and Magic, the California visual effects company behind “Star Wars.”)

After earning an associate’s degree from GCC, Littlejohn went on to Brockport State College. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2010, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in history at Brockport.

Littlejohn returned to GCC as a distance learning advisor, helping students from around the world find their own academic footing.

She was recently named curator of the Historical Society of Elba Museum, and also blogs about her academic experiences at “HistorWhen” (http://historwhen.com).

(The following interview was conducted March 30 at Judith Littlejohn’s GCC office, by Opinion Editor Raymond Coniglio.)

Your blog features a quote from H.G. Wells, “History is a race between education and catastrophe.” What does that mean to you?

It has to do with the kinds of things Wells wrote — “The Time Machine,” “War of the Worlds.” And I also share a birthday with H.G. Wells (Sept. 21).

It goes back to what I said about the Industrial Revolution — I can’t imagine how exciting it would be, that whole sense of being able to harness electricity, of having the power to do new things. Those might be great things, but without education, without the knowledge of how to use that power, you have problems.

Think about the Enlightenment, when there was the idea that you could sweep away the past and remake society. But out of that, you also get things like the Nazis.

You’ve gotten involved with the Elba Historical Society pretty quickly, as a new member and museum curator. How did that all come about?

A couple of their members were here (at GCC) for a class on Wordpress blogging. I ran into one of them in the hall — Amy Vlack, who I’ve known for years. I told her I’d been wanting to join the historical society and she said, “Well, there’s a meeting tonight.” I told her I’m studying history at Brockport, she said, “We’re looking for a museum curator ...”

You’ll be speaking this week on “Materials Matter,” which can be anything from hats to undergarments. What does an historian get from those everyday kind of objects that you can’t find in a history book?

A book is subjective. It’s an interpretation of history. Objects can tell us about how people actually lived.

For example, something I’ve studied is early American writing implements. If you take something like a quill pen — you can tell if it was a man’s pen or a woman’s pen, because the cut of the nib would be different. The nib of a man’s pen would be wider, and a woman’s would be more delicate.

When did you become interested in history?

My father was a big Civil War buff, so growing up, we read books about the Civil War, and watched movies and documentaries. I’ve always liked the idea that there were people here before we were, that every building has a story to tell.

We used to visit my grandparents, who lived in Belmont, in Allegany County. Their next-door neighbor had an Indian museum ... in a barn behind their house. It was a collection of things, things they’d found or plowed up. And I thought it was so fascinating, the history, to learn about the people who were there before us.

You know what it’s like to start college without knowing for sure what you’re interested in. Is there advice you like to give to students, to help them decide what they’re really interested in studying?

I tell many of our students, if you’re not sure what courses to take, then go to the bookstore and look at the books you’re going to be reading in class. If you don’t look forward to the reading, you’re probably not going to enjoy the class.

(NOTE: Judith Littlejohn will speak on “Materials Matter” at Thursday’s meeting of the Historical Society of Elba. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the history Museum on Maple Avenue Extension. Light refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome to attend.)

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Quick take:

Family: Husband Martin Littlejohn; daughters Laura, 18, and Amanda, 16.

Favorite food: Avocados.

Favorite movie: “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but particularly “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Pastime: Camping, hiking — “outdoor things.”

Favorite song: “Mr. Jones,” by Counting Crows.

Besides family and friends, dinner partner of choice: Abraham Lincoln.

If I could do over again: “I would have stayed in college (at Le Moyne) and changed to a history major.”

What I should give up: Procrastinating.

Dislike: “Inequality, prejudice — any unfairness.”

In which period of history would you chose to live, other than our own?: “The early part of the Industrial Revolution.”