Welcome new full-time staff members Joan Cummins, Senior Museum Program Associate, and Lacey Shaw, Senior Museum Store Associate to the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. External Communications Coordinator Jenny Phillips sat down with them in their office right off the Museum Store – pop in and say ‘hi!’ – to chat about Lincoln, their new roles, and tarot cards (naturally).
Hey guys. Nice little office you got here. Joan, let’s start with your title and your role here.
Joan: I’m the Senior Museum Program Associate which means I’m somewhat in between the ground floor and the upstairs of the programs department. I spend not quite half my time giving tours, and on the front line, and also I assist with group tours and school groups. I keep track of who is coming and what we can do to serve them better.
Joan, I know you were a part-time Museum Program Associate (MPA), can you explain when you started and give us your whole Cottage evolution.
Joan: I started in April 2016 as an MPA. Before that I had been to the Cottage exactly once and I thought it was really cool. I found out about the Cottage through my graduate program at American University for public history. I finished my graduate degree in May 2017. The other thing I do professionally is I create theatre; particularly interactive theatre. So I do the research on the historical background of a show, but also if it’s a new play, advise the playwright and director on the structure and form of the script.
Interesting. How’d you get into that?
Joan: It’s actually my other degree. My undergrad degrees are in theatre and history. And I spent about three years freelancing in the DC theatre community before I went to grad school for public history. My favorite project I’m working on now is a called “A Tarot Reading” and it’s a series of 21 interactive one-on-one experiences over the course of an evening, themed on the subject of tarot cards, but tailored to the performers.
So do you know how to actually read tarot cards?
Joan: No, I know more about the meanings of the cards after working on this project. For example, the moon card can mean specifically the celestial body, but it’s also about darkness and the other side of things and secrets and cyclical experiences. It doesn’t have to be literally about the moon.
I just got my tarot cards read for the first time ever, and the reading was spot on. Lacey, do you ever do anything like that?
Lacey: I actually do tarot readings. It’s usually just a reading for myself or personal friends. It’s a lot of studying, understanding the meanings. Sometimes I feel like the cards are talking to me, it’s so accurate.
Ok, pivoting away from tarot cards — although I could talk about how I need to embrace my high priestess all day — Lacey, explain your title and role here at the Cottage?
Lacey: I’m the Senior Museum Store Associate, and I’m in charge of doing everything for the store and the merchandise. I’m in charge of the invoices, making new orders, as well as being the person on the frontline taking calls, selling tickets, etc.
What about your background?
I went to college on the west coast — Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. My college was unique, they don’t require you to declare a major, but I tend to say I earned a degree in anthropology because that feels the most fitting. I did a gap year that was credited. It was ten weeks in India, a couple of retreats in California, and then I did an internship on a tiny island in the Caribbean for three months focusing on archaeology. I volunteered for a while after college, made the move to the east coast and worked at Tudor Place here in D.C. before applying for the Sr. MSA position.
What did you do in India? In the Caribbean?
Lacey: We were in northern India, there was a group of ten of us and we went to different ashrams, studied yoga and meditation, we did some volunteer work, we went hiking in the Himalayas, and we rafted back out of them, we worked with an orphanage, and a sustainability education group. It’s called “Leap Now,” providing a meaningful “leap year.”
In the Caribbean I was working with an archaeological foundation on the island. Not many people know about this island, but it was the first entity after the United States that declared independence, that gave them their first salute as an independent country. Benjamin Franklin would get his mail transferred through this island.
Joan: Wait. What island is this?
Lacey: It’s called Sint Eustatius. It’s super tiny. There’s a ton of shipwrecks so it’s well known for scuba diving. It was originally a part of the Dutch Antilles. We were doing an excavation on an 18th century house that had been built on top of a 17th century house. I went to another island for a week where they excavated human remains. They were building a shopping center, so they had to remove the burials and move them somewhere else. It was like a little family plot of Irish immigrants. There was a huge amount of Irish immigrants on the island.
Ok, I’ve asked this question before, but since it’s obvious we all “love” history, what was your first history crush?
Lacey: A lot of why I was interested in history in the first place has to do with reading Dan Brown novels. My sister was living in Paris, and I had visited Italy. So I read about the places, and then I got to go and stand in the Pantheon, above the tomb of Mary Magdalene. Stand by the rose compass. For some reason that resonated with me than when I just learned about in some class.
Joan: I don’t think I always knew I wanted to do this, but I loved American Girl and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then I took a hard left and got into fantasy/ sci-fi. I didn’t think I would do history professionally for a long time. So, as a historical place, this is the first one I’ve actually fallen in love with.
Why is that?
Joan: Visually it’s beautiful. It has an important meaning, and also a really clear, peaceful energy. I’ve been to a lot of different places, but this one gives off a really strong vibe. There’s only two places I’ve been to that give off that strong of a vibe. One is Jerusalem: but it doesn’t give off a “please stay and rest here,” vibe, it’s like “I’m really old and I don’t really care if you’re here or not.” And it wasn’t the people there, but the actual place. It was like, “I’m venerated, and I deserve to be venerated, but you’re insignificant in the wake of what I’m doing.” This place is the other one. It tells you to take a deep breathe, sit for a while, look at the light.
Lacey, what’s your favorite item in the store?
Lacey: It’s too hard! I love the book “What Do You Do With an Idea?” It’s a gorgeous book, I love how much it works with the mission. The artwork, the simplicity. It doesn’t go overboard with its message. It doesn’t make the idea seem like something specific. I also love the free-trade metal, bronze ornaments we sell. They’re from a community in Thailand that creates this project, now for twenty years. Their community is able to stay whole and together because everyone has a piece in the process. Our entire book collection is solid, too. The variety is great.
Ok, down to brass tacks: Lincoln. What do you like about him?
Joan: My favorite thing about him is that he seems like a person who thought deeply about how to move forward and how what he was doing would affect other people. And that he was trying to make things work in a situation that was really complicated. And that he was very deliberate.
Lacey: Along the same vein, I really like how he shows how a person, particularly someone in such great power, has the ability to change and evolve in their thinking. I think we have a tendency now, especially in politics today, that there’s never going to be any hope, that the person in power is resolutely on the side they’re on. That they’re on one side of the aisle and they aren’t interested in growing and learning. A great example of Lincoln evolving was his view on colonization, especially after he met with Frederick Douglass. I feel like up until the day he died, he would have continued to evolve and change.
If you could invite anyone to dinner, alive or dead (Lincoln is already at the table) who would it be and why?
Joan: Maya Angelou, and Ida B. Wells. She seems like a total boss. I really admire Ida B. Wells, I admire her intelligence and her unwavering commitment to just never backing down. I’d like to meet her and ask her, “how’d you do that?” and also, “thanks.”
Lacey: Amelia Earhart, just because of the boundaries she constantly pushed. She didn’t let anything get in the way of what she really wanted to do. And even when she had already broken a record, she continued to live her life full speed ahead. The other person would be Carrie Fisher, despite her battle with bipolar disorder, she was still happy and goofy and didn’t care what Hollywood thought of her. She always wanted to make people laugh.
Joan: You know what would be a really wild party? Carrie Fisher and Alice Roosevelt. And Lincoln. I feel like it’d be you and Lincoln and you’d just sit back with some popcorn and watch.
Ok, I ask everyone this. Give me your pitch. In your own words, why should someone come to President Lincoln’s Cottage?
Joan: This place gives you practice in thinking about historical people as human beings; it is a place that gives you the space and time to think about what matters to you about history, about the United States. I genuinely hope people come and leave feeling refreshed, which is the reason Lincoln would come out here.
Lacey: It gives you perspective on a place in Lincoln’s life not often talked about. I think it presents a really interesting picture of Lincoln, about how he was just a man. He got impatient, tired, frustrated, but he was also hopeful, witty, human.
What is one surprising thing no one knows about you? Besides the fact that we all like tarot cards.
Lacey: I made a web series that is currently airing. I wrote and filmed it all. It’s based on a novel, “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell, and it’s the same time period as Jane Austen. It’s a modern adaptation, called “Maggie Hill’s Corner,” because the main character is Margaret. I started writing it October 2016, and we finished in the end of September.
Joan: I lived abroad several times as a kid because of my mom’s job in the State Department. I spent two years in Haiti as a kid, so my French is pretty good. I lived in Israel for a while. My mom went on to live in a bunch of other places we weren’t allowed to go live with her, like Sudan. But the list of places I’ve traveled to with mom include places like England, Spain, Greece, Finland and Chile.
Alright, seems like you’re both pretty well traveled. How many places have you been to? Let’s see who wins the competition. Disclaimer: airports don’t count.
Joan: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Chile, Canada, UK, Ireland, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Israel, Jordan. So, that’s 15?
Lacey: Between 18 and 20, and that’s just because my dad’s a pilot. I fly for free.
Ok, final question: If you could ask Lincoln one question what would it be?
Joan: It’s not a question, but I’d like to give him some time to take a nap.
If you would like to talk about group tours or have a tailor-made performance based on the tarot card you choose from a deck, contact Joan Cummins at email@example.com.
If you would like to talk about merchandise or have an actual tarot card reading, contact Lacey Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’d like to compare frequent flyer miles, you can stop by Lacey and Joan’s office (they share!) right off the Museum Store.