Becky Beaulieu is a graduate of GW's American Studies department. She is currently the Director of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. We reached out to Becky to feature her in our weekly alumni spotlight. Read what she has to say. Reach out to [email protected] if you'd like to talk to Becky about a career in museums.
How does your American Studies background inform your work in Academia and History?
I regularly make use of my American Studies degree, both in my position as Director of the Florence Griswold Museum and in my research. The Florence Griswold Museum is dedicated to American art, history, and landscape, and its holdings consist of a a National Historic Landscape building, a fine art collection, and material culture artifacts. My American Studies background allows me to engage with multiple disciplines and to ensure our interpretation incorporates diverse voices and problematizes our assumption of conventional dominant narratives. My academic research over the past decade has focused on historic preservation of domestic architecture in the Midwestern region of the United States, which is deeply informed by the architecture classes I took at GW with Professor Richard Longstreth.
How did you become interested in working in museums and why did you pick the Florence Griswold Museum?
I began working in museums when I was 16 years old, my first internships at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine, the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. during my years at GW. I actually chose to attend GW because of my interest in museums and its proximity to so many museums. I’ve been fortunate to continue my work in museums through a number of institutions including the Winchester Historical Society in Massachusetts, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine, and now the Florence Griswold Museum. The multifaceted focus and mission of the Flo Gris provides me a truly unique opportunity to engage my interests in art, history, and preservation.
Is there a meaningful moment you remember from your time at GW that stands out?
When I first began at GW, I assumed that in order to forge a career in museums, I would need to pursue an art history major. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I took the Introduction to American Studies course with Melani McAlister that focused on Post-Civil War Reconstruction to the Present. We addressed everything from the advent of mass transportation to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to Charlie Chaplin. I was in love immediately! A field of study dedicated to culture?! It totally blew my mind. I immediately decided to major in American Studies and minor in art history.
Who is someone that you look up to from your time at GW?
It probably comes as no surprise that I consider Melani McAlister to be a true mentor, and someone who completely transformed my understanding of American history, as well as what I could accomplish in my own career. My interests had never aligned with traditional subject disciplines in high school, and it was gratifying and motivating to find a field in which I thrived and fit. Melani had so much to do with that.
What paths did you take to get to where you are now? What did you see as your path, your goals, that led you from one place to the next?
Knowing that I wanted a career in museums, I focused on creating as much breadth in my expertise as possible in a couple of different ways. In terms of my professional homes, I made sure to work with large institutions such as the Smithsonian; non-museum parent organizations like Bowdoin College; and small organizations, like the Winchester Historical Society (of which I was the lone employee!). My professional background includes finance, development, curatorial, and education focus, which I find really help me be an empathetic manager. Similarly, I made sure my educational background cut a wide, though totally relevant swath. Following my time at GW, I completed my first master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in art history and museum studies: for those who may not understand the rigor of American Studies, it provided me a traditional art historical approach. My second master’s in arts administration from Columbia University was a fantastic complement and offered me the chance to learn about the business of museums, with courses in marketing, accounting, non-profit law, and electives in the School of Architecture’s Department of Historic Preservation. Only after I had invested time in traditional scholarship and business training did I allow myself to return to the field of American Studies, in which I received my Ph.D. from Boston University.
Where do you see yourself going next in your career?
I do not consider one path to “success” in my career, but have worked hard to equip myself with the resources to be able to be a viable candidate for exciting opportunities. My American Studies background has been especially important in helping me learn how to adapt to different contexts and to work with a variety of institutions. Whatever may happen, I love my current position and find it extremely fulfilling.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received and what advice would you give American Studies students today?
The best career advice I got was to learn how to read a balance sheet (from my dad), but just as important was to find something I am passionate about. I won’t go so far to say that finding something you love means you never work a day in your life – I have days that are challenging or frustrating. But at the same time, I feel true satisfaction in my work and in the idea of making a contribution to the cultural field. American Studies is a field that allows us to identify our passions and to translate them into satisfying work. While I suppose one could say this about a number of disciplines, I consider American Studies to be exceptional in its ability to foster unique scholarship and singular career paths. I encourage current students to embrace every opportunity to explore via the curriculum different fields of interest – you never know what will resonate with you and make an indelible impact.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The American Studies department at GW is, in many ways, my academic home: I learned an extraordinary amount, both in terms of content as well as approach, and I found the community to be supportive and fun, all of which influenced me for the entirety of my career so far.