ML: It sounds really exciting to get a dream job.
EC: Oh yeah. It's both exciting and complicated at later phases in one's career, because it was the dream job and I loved it for many years. I don't know if it's the falling out of love or just the hunger for new and different, but I don't think subsequent to having that hope and vision that I’ve ever had as much clarity again in my life. And what a weird thing to be in your mid-twenties and realize that dream. By no means am I saying that I haven't had fabulous chapters and amazing experiences, but I haven't had that same sensation of matching my work to the dream. There's a lot to be said for realizing that later in one's life. But listen, I feel lucky! [Laughs]
ML: Can you tell me more about your clarity of vision?
EC: At the Mead, I saw that important as the New York festival was –the four-day or the seven-day festival within the museum walls – the real opportunity with that project was packaging titles and getting them to communities that don’t have access. For a lot of places both around the US and the world, [with] these kinds of film, the level of impact is indescribable. As an example, I was once on a jury on the Pärnu Ethnographic Festival in Estonia. Democracy had just been realized after years of Soviet oppression. The audiences were [genuinely] watching these films to think about, “How do we craft our society? How do we live differently?” They had been so limited in the kind of access they had to other stories and ways of living.
The power of that had never left me. It really inspired the creation of the Margaret Mead Traveling Film Festival, which used to circulate to about 26 or 28 communities from small public libraries in the south, to film centers, to other museums and cultural [institutions] nationally and sometimes internationally. [It was] just recognizing the importance of getting this kind of work beyond the communities of New York, because – let's face it – we are already so privileged in the kind of material we have access to. While people might not have seen those films, we largely watch these kinds of films as a method to think and converse and be inspired.
ML: Could you describe the process of establishing yourself, including the meaningful moments and challenges?
EC: I’ve established myself comfortably as an outsider to the disciplines I’ve been working in subsequent to my time at the American Museum of Natural History. In going to the New York Public Library at the level I was brought in, most of that senior staff had either been involved with other major urban libraries, had library degrees, and [possessed] a different kind of thinking. It was a challenge to help them understand that they were actually a cultural organization. So, just something as minor as, they never used words like “public programs” in their language - it was always “a library program for a young person.” Nomenclature is meaningful…so many institutions can be very insular. I was really trying to help the library understand that they are a “cultural institution” and there are ways to bring in new audiences.
The Intrepid Museum, [where I currently work], is largely focused around science, technology, history, math, and, to some extent, the arts. I have limited expertise in many of these fields. In fact, I sweet talked my way out of US history when I was in high school because I was so obsessed with global culture that I figured out a way to do an independent study. I am a total outsider to the basics of US history, so it was the challenge of having a voice, having a very large role, but not necessarily having the depth of knowledge about the specific subject matter that a lot of my colleagues and more junior staff held.
That’s the exciting thing about always taking challenges and using them to create new [opportunities]. It was certainly a way of including more voices and looking to younger and different staff for how to learn and think about this subject matter. I was bringing an eighth grader’s viewpoint to an organization; I brought more of a child’s view to a lot of the content there. And it actually can be beneficial to be that outsider. Because then you can help your colleagues appreciate how audiences who aren't deeply steeped in this might find new pathways, or different kinds of ways to engage with the collections and the stories of the museum.
ML: What motivates you?
EC: Large-scale, impactful projects across many disciplines motivate me. Whether it is film-related or exhibit-related – and honestly those two things are very similar – it's all about storytelling and engaging publics.
[As] I mentioned, the Mead Traveling Festival really motivated me.
When I was at the [New York Public] Library, we created a major exhibition that was called “Lunch Hour NYC”. What was so cool about that is few people knew that the main branch of the library has one of the most excellent menu collections in the US. That sounds so obscure, but it's such a fascinating way to tell stories about [immigrants and] foodways, and to look at New York City, especially. Whether I brought the threads of the Culture and Media Program or I’ve always been awash in it, I’m always thinking about what's missing, what are the gaps? In the NYPL collections, it was largely “mainstream menus” of the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. But what was absent were immigrant stories, cultural diversity as represented through food. It made me think a lot about getting beyond the collections and inviting in various stories of [lunch hour] food carts in the twenty-first century. As part of the exhibition installation, there were actually a few food carts within the exhibit. We did some oral histories with current food cart vendors, who are largely immigrants from Central America and South Asia. It was a really wonderful way to celebrate the library's collections, but also to celebrate the diversity of New York City.
At the Intrepid [Museum] what has been a very exciting project is, surprisingly, a major exhibition we did about three years ago on drones. On the one hand, people associate that museum as a military site and, yes, that is an aspect of it. When we think of drones largely, we think of the next generation of horrific military equipment. But in truth, it's so much more complicated than that. We tried to create a framework illustrating a technology, frankly like the Internet born out of the military, but [one] that moves into all of these other disciplines. [We were] telling stories about how drones have been used in medical emergency blood drops to help communities where it would take too long to drive through deserts and mountains, providing instant medical attention for some. Or how they are used to help facilitate agricultural opportunities for farmers to recognize which fields might be better used. Drones are now used in art. We were able to get Lady Gaga’s drone dress that she used for the opening of a major album she staged several years ago. We were thinking about these concepts that are sometimes deemed monolithic [and] evil, but within that, recognizing that there are other pathways that these sorts of technologies can take, thanks to human creativity. That was a very successful exhibit. We partnered with an Australian firm and now it’s an exhibit traveling internationally. That was an unexpected but wonderful outcome from all the work that we invested.