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  • Tierany Griffin

Gaston County Museum of Art & History gets creative through crowd-sourcing and virtual exhibits

As the Registrar of Downtown Dallas's Gaston County Museum of Art & History, Markecia Koulesser had a long task at the onset of the pandemic, including one that would position her career as a legacy in the making: producing engaging, immersive experiences that would keep the public interested and involved—virtually. Enthusiastic and ready for the mission, Koulesser curated a fun and innovative project called People of Gaston that linked the county’s history to its current residents via social media.

Markecia Koulesser - Grant Baldwin, Gaston Outside

An expert in handling unique archival materials and museum collections, Koulesser has spent her career working in historical research. Even with an undergraduate in Anthropology with studies in History and Cultural Resource Preservation from Wake Forest University, a Masters graduate in Public History with concentrations in Archival Research and Museum Collections Management, and experience in her previous positions in research, science, literature, and art, Koulesser still found the process of identifying the importance of bridging the digital divide and engaging the community a bit challenging. And with a collection that boasts some of the finest— and oldest—local art and history artifacts in the county, Gaston County Museum is renowned for its immersive art experiences.

Innovative Exhibits Engage Pandemic-Era Audiences

Memorable exhibits like The Ties That Bind that showcases Gaston County's rich textile heritage; the experimental exhibition of the Hoffman Hotel Rooms that features three different period rooms and a hands-on hotel room; or even the Sculpture Garden that’s located in the museum's backyard and features eight sculptures from local artists. Each exhibit provides a little something for everyone who’s looking to embrace the region's history and artistic culture.

Grant Baldwin, Gaston Outside

And like many museums and galleries across the country, Gaston County has had to pivot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as restrictions continue to hamper visitor numbers or diminish them completely. An October 2020 study found that, on average, US museums lost 35% of their regular operating income in 2020 and expected to lose a further 28% this year. While institutions like Gaston Museum are innovating new ways to connect with their audiences, the reality is that this type of engagement is no easy feat.

"Typically, it's easy for the public to enjoy the collections when they're forward-facing," states Koulesser, "but when you think about viewing a collection on display and then having to move everything to a virtual setup, needless to say, we had to get a little creative." With the support of her team and Museum Director, Jason Luker, at the helm, Koulesser set out to unlock the Gaston collection's potential by ensuring that enthusiasts the world over could assess its resources from the heart of Downtown Dallas.

From Historic Photos to Crowd-Sourcing

Recognizing the museum's immediate needs and, more importantly, the public, she tapped into the museum's image archives of the nearly 100,000 amassed from notable photographers such as historian Ennis Atkins who took an archive of photos in the mid-twentieth century that are still in use today. Upon further review, she noticed that many of them contained unidentified subjects. "In thinking about what we could do with our images, I felt it would be nice for us to create a project where we identified these individuals in the photos while engaging the public. Thus, People of Gaston was born."

Initial Photo of People of Gaston Project, Dillings Mill - Photo Courtesy of Gaston County Museum

Kessler created a community-driven initiative, People of Gaston, designed with a highly collaborative approach to combat the museum's subject recognition dilemma. With the online community's help, photos are posted throughout the museum's social media page, allowing followers to respond with feedback and responses on who they believe the photo's subject is.

Rounding out the Project and Looking to the Future

1940s WWII Veteran, Part of the Pinkney D. Wilson Collection - Photo Courtesy of Gaston County Museum

Then comes a rigorous verification process that includes extensive research, determining the subject's identity—a big win for the museum—plus it gives bragging rights to the participants with correct guesses, which has been a difficult gap to bridge.

The project also enables residents to connect with the hidden stories of their ancestors in a new and tangible way, as this is the first time in the museum's history that the public has been able to view and interact with these images. It also targets emerging cultural aggregators who were physically separated from the museum but still wanted to support and participate in the institute's activities.

With new exhibit commitments and a significant collection move on the horizon this year, Koulesser is excited to see what’s to come through projects like People of Gaston throughout the new year. As always, her commitment is to ensuring that historic civility of Gaston County remains front and center at the museum, and she wants to continue to create collections-based initiatives that speak to that. "Our loyalty is to our supporters, so we want to make sure that we give them the captivating experiences that they want and deserve."

Help Gaston County Museum identify these former residents:

All photos courtesy of Gaston County Museum of Art & History

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