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Passion for learning, museums leads Rockwell back to school

Julie Fether Rockwell smiles on her last day of internship at The Smithsonian Institution Archives in Washington, D.C. A love of museums — and of learning new subjects and skills — has lead Rockwell back to school in pursuit of a degree in museum studies and digital curation.

Julie Fether Rockwell is a familiar face in the south central Pennsylvania communities — she’s participated in many local arts, history and cultural heritage events since her youth.

Most recently, she volunteer-curated the current William H. Rau Pennsylvania Railroad Photograph Collection exhibit at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Altoona. A Johns Hopkins graduate student, Fether Rockwell recently completed an internship at The Smithsonian Institution Archives in Washington, D.C., which included writing “The Bigger Picture,” for the Smithsonian Institution Archives blog: The Born-Digital Diaries: “Interrogate the Floppy!”

She recently corresponded with Mirror Staff Reporter Patt Keith about her activities.

Mirror: What brought you to central Pennsylvania?

Rockwell: I was born in Johnstown and raised in Ebensburg. I lived in Ohio, Indiana and Oregon for most of my adult life but returned to Ebensburg in 2013 to be with my mother after my father passed. I met my husband, Curtis, in 2016, and we were married in October 2017 and live in Huntingdon, his hometown.

Mirror: Why did you pursue an advanced degree?

Rockwell: I have had quite an eclectic career my entire life — working in the theatre, the restaurant and hospitality industry and in higher education. I’m passionate about many subjects and learning new skills. I always wanted to return to school to complete another advanced degree. It was a “now or never” decision.

Mirror: Why museum studies and digital curation?

Rockwell: I have always loved museums and know that my talents and skills will lend well to work in this cultural arena. I felt the need to learn everything about museums, especially now in the digital age, from both theoretical and practical perspectives as well as obtaining the necessary technical skills for the digital information management of collections and archives to enhance my job prospects. The JHU program is highly reputable in the museum studies and digital curation fields taught by an esteemed faculty. The online program has allowed me to work remotely and study with students from across the world.

Mirror: Plans for after graduation?

Rockwell: I will be pursuing employment to work in managing digital collections and archives in libraries, archives or museums. I might also apply for appointed fellowships to pursue additional research and field study in born-digital collections access and born-digital access usability studies.

Mirror: What have you learned about yourself through this process?

Rockwell: You are never too old to take on an advanced degree. The oldest student that I’ve met is 65. I think taking on a degree such as this at this age has brought the wealth of experience and career accomplishments with me and that is a strength. I know how to focus, organize, meet deadlines and apply deeper critical thinking skills — basically “do the work.”

Mirror: What has been your biggest challenge?

Rockwell: Tackling my perfectionism. Just because it is an online program doesn’t mean it is easy. It is hands down the hardest professional challenge of my life. The work is demanding, and I spend every day, two courses per semester (seven total semesters to complete the program — I’ve just completed the fifth), “in the classroom” reading, writing, doing research, discussing coursework or working on course projects, and writing, so much writing! Since I want to absorb as much as I can while in the program and get the most out of this opportunity, I spend more time on school than anything else. It’s almost addictive. It’s a full-time job.

Mirror: Please tell us about your paid internship at The Smithsonian?

Rockwell: My internship project “Born-Digital Collections Access Research and Planning” prompted extensive research into the current levels of access to born-digital materials — items, objects or materials that have been produced in digital form — found in the archives’ holdings. My task was to research new standards in how born-digital materials in collections and archives are described for better access to the researcher, and how the implementation of born-digital archival description can be embedded into the archives’ finding aids. In one month on-site at the archives, doing research, interviewing staff, and understanding their collections management system and born-digital archives processing workflow, I then delivered a presentation to archives stakeholders recommending three “feasible improvements” to maintain best practices and response to emerging standards in the archival field.

Mirror: What surprised you most about The Smithsonian as a place of work?

Rockwell: The archives is one of the smaller “units” at The Smithsonian, but, to me, one of the most important. It is the memory keeper of everything Smithsonian — hundreds of varied collections are processed at the archives each year, most recently the Lonnie G. Bunch Papers, 1952-2010, papers of The Smithsonian’s 14th (and current) secretary; and The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Research Records, circa 1975-2001. Off the National Mall where the majority of The Smithsonian museums are located, the archives is a quiet, unassuming suite on the third floor at Capital Gallery, amidst the busy L’Enfant Plaza metro. The staff from records management, reference, digital services, preservation and Smithsonian history is amazingly kind and supportive — truly, experts in their fields. It was a great honor to work in their presence.

Mirror: Why should people support the arts, history and cultural heritage whether it be SAMA or the Smithsonian?

Rockwell: Especially during COVID-19, our cultural heritage institutions are struggling to stay afloat. Many will not survive. The Smithsonian is no different. The archives staff are working remotely, but the physical collections cannot be successfully processed without hands-on attention. Our local venues such as SAMA, the Railroaders Memorial Museum and the Mishler Theatre cannot survive without visitors and the selling of tickets. They are the lifeline to our cultural sustainability. So, in this time of crisis, it is critical that our local communities support these venues with donations, sponsorships, paid memberships and in-kind gifts. Take time to “virtually” visit cultural venues online and ask how you can help. Participate by “attending” a virtual program (SAMA has great online art classes and the area’s National Park Service sites have “live” history lessons both accessible from their Facebook pages). Be there for them and let them know how much they mean to this community.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

The Rockwell file

Name: Julie Fether Rockwell

Age: 52

Town: Huntingdon

Family members: Husband, Curtis Rockwell, Huntingdon; mother, June Fether, Ebensburg; brother, James Fether and family, Jarvis, N.C.

Employment: 2016-2018: Penn State Altoona, part-time lecturer, history

2014-2016: Penn State Altoona, part-time project coordinator, Center for Community-based Studies

2008-2013: Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon; special projects coordinator, Conference & Culinary Services

Education: Second-year master’s candidate, online Museum Studies and Digital Curation graduate certificate combined program, Johns Hopkins University, 4.0 GPA; 1995, masters in theatre history, theory, criticism, Indiana University-Bloomington, Ind.; 1989, bachelor’s in theatre studies, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio

Awards and honors: 2015 PA-Johnstown Branch Spotlight Award, American Association of University Women, Johnstown; 2013 Gold Paragon Award, Taste of Lane Cookbook, National Council of Marketing and Public Relations

Community Service: Volunteer, curator, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Altoona; volunteer, digitization program, Centre County Library & Historical Museum, Bellefonte

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