Laura DeNormandie (MA 2001) is the chief curator at the Texas Historical Commission where she oversees the management of over twenty historic sites throughout the state. Earlier in her career, she worked for the National Park Service’s Northeast Museum Services Center and at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard. Laura recently talked about the BGC and her career.

Why did you choose the BGC master’s program?

I was attracted to the BGC’s programs in 1999 because of the school’s excellent faculty, culturally diverse course offerings, and its absolute commitment to decorative arts, design and material culture studies. At the time, my training and work experience had been traditionally art historical in approach. Since I was interested in post-colonial museum interpretations of West African and Native American ritual objects, I was ready to enhance my methods of inquiry beyond the parameters I was familiar with. The institute’s unbeatable location in the cultural playground that is the “Empire City” also was a major attraction.

What was your focus of study here, how did you find yourself involved with it?

A recurring area of investigation for me was the cultural and political meaning found in revivalist vocabularies of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century manufactured and hand-crafted American furniture. Another was tracking the historic preservation initiatives and means of memorialization that came out of depression-era America. My thesis, on Mary Gregory (1914-2006), a Massachusetts woodworker, furniture maker and architect, made me wrestle with those areas and underscored for me that the meaning of a chair or a case piece can be derived purely from the myriad practical decisions made by the skilled craftsperson.

An overall highlight of my time at BGC was the faculty’s commitment to exposing their students to an encyclopedic array of methodologies (theoretical and hands-on) for meaningful object analysis. These perspectives provided me the capacity to expand my curatorial career in useful, engaging and culturally dynamic ways.

You are currently chief curator at the Texas Historical Commission. Describe your position there and your current projects.

My current position is my dream job. I work with an interdisciplinary team of architects, archaeologists, historians and art historians to manage twenty historic sites located throughout Texas. The sites include forts, house museums, Native American burial grounds, rural colonial and urban Tejano settlements. As I oversee all aspects of collections management for the sites, I work directly with a small staff in Austin and advise division curators who work around the state.
The collections in Austin include extensive archaeology collections, architectural type collections, historic furnishings and decorative arts collections. Amassed over the last fifty years, their origins, disciplinary approach, and documentation vary widely. Seven years ago, when I first took this job, one of my duties was to collaborate with our division architect to design a curatorial facility to fit our division’s needs. Four years ago THC’s Curatorial Facility for Artifact Research (CFAR) opened and now accommodates all of our collections. An 8,000 square foot space, it includes an archaeological processing lab, multiple collections storage vaults, open warehouse storage areas, and a small public conference space.

My work duties are partly curatorial in nature, including collections care and registration and conservation. They are also interpretive as I work closely with our Austin division team towards public exhibit development. Last but not least, I am responsible for the facilities management of the curatorial facility (other duties as assigned!)

Some exciting past projects I have worked on as chief curator include the conservation of site-associated depression-era bronze and marble monuments as well as the restoration of an 1,000 pound 1870s mansion furnace. This year we will embark upon the in situconservation and stabilization of two Bessemer engines that served the early Texas oil boom over a century ago as well as the conservation of a collection of late nineteenth-century machine and hand tools from three of our agency’s fort sites.

Currently, our small curatorial staff in Austin is inventorying and rehousing tens of thousands of artifacts from Levi Jordan Plantation (south of Galveston). This 300 box collection was generated by a fifteen-year excavation of the enslaved people’s living quarters. Once the site opens to the public in a year’s time, it will be the only plantation in Texas that presents a plantation story through the material culture of the enslaved people who lived there before, during, and after the Civil War.

What ultimately is your professional goal?

My degree at the BGC spring-boarded me into my most recent career phase in state and national park collections management (which has lasted for the last twelve years). There are so many positive elements to my current professional situation that I would like to maintain them into the future regardless of whether I remain in Texas. I hope to always apply my expertise in a very hands-on way towards the stewardship of a variety of material culture and historic furnishings collections. I enjoy working with an interdisciplinary group of people towards the preservation and care of past and contemporary cultural forms. Lastly, I am compelled by the public service aspect of collections management as it adds meaning to my professional life.