Jolie Johnson doesn’t have many childhood memories of visiting museums. The Louisiana native recalls a few field trips to the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge and the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, but never a visit to a more traditional museum.
Today, Johnson’s life revolves around museums—something that still surprises her even after working for more than five years in the museum field.
As the marketing and membership manager of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, La., Johnson uses her passion for museums to create more meaningful experiences for the people who visit. She said there’s no greater satisfaction than seeing visitors happily leaving a successful event after having learned something new.
“I don’t think I really gained an appreciation for museums until I was much older and realized their impact on informal education,” said Johnson, who earned a Master of Arts in Museum Studies in December 2011 from the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies. “I firmly believe in ‘work worth doing,’ and to me, that’s providing the public with services and opportunities to learn in a fun and informal way.”
Johnson didn’t become interested in museums until after she graduated from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in history. Her studies were focused on WWII history, and she planned to pursue a career in education. After realizing that path wasn’t for her, she took the advice of a career services counselor and began volunteering as a gallery attendant at various museums.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said.
Her career took a quick turn when she stumbled upon an Introduction to Museum Studies course at LSU.
“It’s cliché, but I fell in love with the museum world,” she said. “About a year later I applied to graduate school, and the rest is history.”
Johnson learned about the museum studies program at OU through her Intro to Museum Studies professor at LSU, Thomas Livesay. Livesay happened to be a former professor in the PACS museum studies program. Johnson knew it would be difficult to get into the field without working for years in a museum or going to graduate school. Desperately wanting to get her foot in the door, she took Livesay’s direction and dove right into graduate school.
“He recognized my heightened interest and encouraged me to apply to the OU distance learning program,” she said. “He thought it would be an ideal fit for me since I wanted to stay in south Louisiana and there were no strong options in state. He helped me get into the field and supported me throughout my studies. I owe so much to him, as he continued to mentor me through the years.”
Johnson said she was surprised at how flexible her PACS professors were. If there was an opportunity for her to adapt an assignment to something she was working on at one of her internships, her professors told her to go for it.
“I was able to use the real-world application more than I thought I would. It’s amazing what you’re able to accomplish when you love the subject matter,” she said. “School didn’t feel like a chore, and work still doesn’t feel that way.”
Johnson recalls one particular internship at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, where she worked under the museum’s registrar. Every Tuesday morning, she sat across from a volunteer named Herb, who served in the war.
“To hear his first-hand accounts were my favorite part of every week. He first introduced me to the ‘Monument Men’ story, and then I was able to meet Robert Edsel, the historian behind this book, a few years later,” she said. “I also worked on a project that created a cross-reference tool of shirts, jackets, and coats and which patches and insignia were on each of them.”
“I want [my daughter] to grow up and feel comfortable in a museum. I want her to know this is a place that welcomes every race, every gender, every age, every disability, every story. Accessibility to the arts is something I deeply believe in and work towards every day.”
While working on the project, Johnson was challenged with the daunting task of digging through each box and cabinet in the storage areas. There were hundreds, she said. The internship taught her the value of patience, and how small tasks need to be completed in order to achieve a larger mission.
“We worked on this over the course of a few months,” she said. “I saw so many amazing pieces of history during those weeks, and getting to hold one of the original Band of Brothers’ jackets is something I’ll never forget. It left me with a deep, unwavering appreciation for the sacrifice others made to ensure our freedom, and why it’s important for museums to exist—to tell the stories of others, to ensure that future generations know our history.”
Johnson is taking that lesson to heart not only in her professional life, but also in her personal life. She’s passing on her passion for the arts to her 1-year-old daughter, Margaret. Johnson takes her daughter to see the new exhibits at the Hilliard museum each season, and she makes a point to visit museums when the family travels.
“My daughter is my greatest achievement, corny but true,” she added. “I want her to grow up and feel comfortable in a museum. I want her to know this is a place that welcomes every race, every gender, every age, every disability, every story. Accessibility to the arts is something I deeply believe in and work towards every day.”
Johnson said feels grateful to have stumbled on a profession that she truly enjoys and jokes that she took her year gap after undergraduate school instead of before.
“I’m glad I did. I learned so much about what I wanted to get out life and a career. I feel very comfortable in museums, analyzing them and providing solutions that allow them to function at a higher capacity. It came pretty naturally to me, and I still enjoy the process,” she said. “I love waking up and coming to work in such a beautiful space. I’m incredibly lucky.”