Day in the Life: Courthouse Curator

Day in the Life: Courthouse Curator

June 14
12:47 2013

Brett Medeiros/Staff Writer

The courthouse museum on the Square holds and preserves thousands of words that tell the stories of decades-old families, traditions and historical events in Denton. One man transforms those blocks of text into interactive, visually appealing exhibits for all ages, like a full-scale model of a typical 19th century, Victorian style bedroom he designed himself.

Over the last year, the Denton County Courthouse Museum has received a makeover through the hands of Joe Duncan, the curator of exhibits.

Since coming to the Courthouse Museum about a year ago, Duncan changed the image of the museum through a better flow between exhibits and a constantly evolving vibe to allow a different experience each time someone visits.

“When I started here, the last time they had a regular exhibit change was eight years ago. Everything was very cluttered and almost overwhelming. It kind of had the feel of an old antique store,” Duncan said. “We’ve had a lot of issues image-wise with the fact that people come and see something here and then when they come back a year later, nothing has changed. It starts to discourage them from coming here again.”

In the year that Duncan has been working for the Denton County Courthouse Museum, there have already been two full exhibit changes and two main exhibit changes.

The job of Curator of Exhibits at the museum, in Duncan’s words, is an unorthodox position that involves a little bit of everything.

With a background in the fine arts, graphic design and traditional printmaking, Duncan, in many ways, is the art department for the museum but just has curatorial responsibilities. He views his job as very similar to that of a museum’s art director.

“I run a lot of creative meetings and exhibit designing,” Duncan said. “Basically I determine a lot of what an exhibit will be about or what the angle is going to be. A lot of what I have to focus on is information versus interpretation.”

Including work with his team, Duncan also works with the county Commissioner’s and the strong support from Judge Mary Horn. Together they are all involved in the preservation of Denton County’s historical heritage.

In the past, much of what the museum focused on was primarily information. Changing this mentality and process became Duncan’s first mission.

“History needs to be interpreted and sent through a lens so that people can understand it,” Duncan said. “I really try and bring my art background and create an interpretation concept and apply it to the exhibits, making it more relatable to the people that live in this town.”

One of his goals is also to provide a better experience for the younger visitors by adopting more colorful and visual exhibits, including a large poster just inside the doors of the museum that depicts how a dinosaur would have looked compared to current day downtown Denton.

“The stuff in the gallery is important and I do believe that the children that visit get a lot out of it, but at the same time children still do like to see things that are colorful,” Duncan said. “This illustration of mine helps create an interesting visual juxtaposition that catches their interest from the moment they walk in.”

By doing this, Duncan hopes to expand the museum’s demographic and appeal to a wider audience than in the past, and keep them coming back.

In the mornings, a majority of what Duncan does falls on the administrative side of his job, from answering emails, returning phone calls, running meetings or searching the web for items that fit into his next exhibit.

He scours the Internet for oddities like a World War II era paper cutter to go with a possible printing press exhibit, and considers offers from people willing to donate items or who pitch ideas for certain exhibits.

From there, Duncan moves to the museum floor to take care of his multiple exhibits.

One of the newest exhibits requiring a bulk of Duncan’s artistic eye is a transportation exhibit that he is trying to make relevant to the museum’s visitors. Duncan’s largest challenge is to move beyond the basic idea that there are historical trains and cars in Denton, a common perception.

Instead, he and the rest of his team are looking into the development of Denton as it ties into the progress of technology as it relates to Denton transportation.

“Denton, UNT and TWU wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the train system,” Duncan said. “That’s why Denton is the way it is today.”

When preparing for a new exhibit, Duncan has to think beyond just the art and history, incorporating advertisements, promotion of the museum and its new showroom.

Duncan has to find a way to place ads in front of the building and direct traffic to the courthouse because of a lack of awareness.

“A lot of people enjoy the building but not a lot of people realize that they’re invited to come in and better yet it’s free. We actually have a lot of people come in thinking it’s the actual courthouse,” Duncan said. “It’s an understandable mistake to make but we shouldn’t have more people coming in mistakenly than to see the museum.”

Duncan’s days are not the usual 9 to 5. Because of the variations in each day, he could either head home at five or if he is installing a new exhibit could be leaving hours later. Sometimes at the end of the day, Duncan takes a minute to educate himself since this is the first job of this kind at the courthouse museum.

“There’s a lot that we could do that just wouldn’t be good enough but I’ve never been a person to make something that wasn’t good enough,” Duncan said. “I want to exceed expectations. At the end of the day, I want to educate myself on what the professional expectations are of larger organizations. I am very appreciative of this job and the day to day challenge it gives me.”

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