Living History

  • April 14, 2010, 5:43 p.m.

Living History

When most people think about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, they likely think about conspiracy. The grassy knoll. A lone gunman. Stephen Fagin just thinks about history.

Fagin, a 2009 graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Liberal Studies, is the oral historian at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. And he said there’s nowhere he’d rather be.

“I do not hesitate to say that my work in oral history, collections, and exhibitions at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is really a dream job for me,” Fagin said. “My graduate work at OU has, I believe, made me a much more confident and amplified museum professional. I went the opposite route of many by choosing experience before education, but now that I have both under my belt, I look forward to many more years working on the exciting projects that this museum provides to me." 

Fagin secured an internship with The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in August 2000 while an undergraduate history and English double-major at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That initial six-month internship was extended to a full year until after his graduation when the museum immediately hired him full time to coordinate its ongoing Oral History Project. Since opening in 1989, the museum has actively videotaped recollections with individuals from all over the world about the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath.

Today, as the museum’s oral historian, Fagin manages its ongoing Oral History Project, which now includes more than 650 interviews and continues to grow. He also functions as a member of the collections and exhibitions staff, contributing to programs, exhibits, and educational initiatives. He said while that alone was a rewarding career for the last 10 years, he decided in 2006 to go back to school to earn a Master of Arts degree in museum studies while still working full time.

Arriving at CLS

But Fagin didn’t always intend to go the route he ultimately did. He said he explored and studied a number of different degree programs before finally deciding to undertake the online option.

“Ultimately, I was impressed with the thoroughness of the program yet the convenience which allowed me to work at my own pace on nights and weekends. Best of all, I was genuinely able to apply the concepts studied in our virtual classroom to my daily work at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza,” Fagin said.

For example, Fagin said the collections plan and collections management policy that he drafted as a semester project with Professor Gail Kana Anderson gave him the confidence to actively contribute to the real documents being revised at the museum. Anderson is assistant director of OU’s Fred Jones Junior Museum of Art. The work he did on museum education in another class coincided with a renewed focus on educational programming at his own museum, and now he’s served as host or moderator for more than 150 school and adult programs. Also, for course credit, he completed a semester project on-site at the museum, digitizing video and working with the museum’s new collections database.

“And ultimately, of course, I completed my degree plan with a 320-page master’s thesis on the history and development of The Sixth Floor Museum within the context of the political and social history of Dallas,” he said. “For example, this manuscript, ‘Concrete, Grass, Bricks: Dallas, Texas and The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza,’ was really a labor of love and allowed me to combine everything I learned at OU with nearly a decade’s worth of practical museum experience to tell the story of the controversial site of a presidential assassination and its complex and evolving relationship with its city.”

Managing conspiracy theorists

Of course, any time the Kennedy assassination comes up, everyone wants to talk about conspiracy. But Fagin said the museum doesn’t take a stance on that and, in his mind, does an excellent job of handling the subject.

“Conspiracy theories obviously continue to fascinate people even 46 years after the assassination,” he said. “In researching my master’s thesis, I pored over the museum’s institutional archives to immerse myself in the genesis of the exhibition on the sixth floor in the 1980s, and I frequently encountered questions and concerns about how to deal with the sensitive topic of conspiracy within an exhibit inside the Texas School Book Depository. The museum founders, in my opinion, found a brilliant and delicate balance, emphasizing the two major government investigations but also acknowledging the lingering questions with a panel labeled ‘Conspiracy?’

“As oral historian, I have the unique honor of interacting with many of the key players involved in the assassination story, and I always try to ask relevant questions that might be useful to students, teachers, researchers and historians years from now when, ultimately, there is no one left with firsthand memories of the Kennedy assassination. The school groups I encounter are often just being introduced to this interesting and mysterious subject, and they are full of questions – based on their museum tour, their classroom discussions, or the various films and documentaries that they have seen over the years. In addition to the typical “where are they now” or “whatever happened to” questions, I often get asked for my own opinion about the assassination, but I never discuss my personal beliefs, not even with family and friends.”