Alumna brings history to life at the Petterson Museum

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Rachel Wilson’s peers would be unsurprised to learn that less than a year after graduating from Occidental in 2015, the charismatic, nearly six-foot tall blonde — a member of the Occidental’s swim and dive team and an Orientation core leader during her time on campus — is running a museum. A history major at Occidental, Wilson translated her academic interest into a job as the newest museum specialist at the Petterson Museum of Intercultural Art in Claremont, California.

“I would characterize it as part curator, part director,” Wilson said.

As the only employee, Wilson takes the reins on every aspect of museum management, from acquisitions to budgeting to the curation of the 12,000 piece collection of world art and artifacts.

The Petterson Museum is approximately the size of Rush Gym, according to Wilson. The space is situated on the grounds of Pilgrim Place, a retirement community founded in 1983 for missionaries.

“Enough of them had these pieces of great value that they thought, ‘We should showcase these because they’re just sitting in my home,’” Wilson said.

In the past three decades, the collection has grown through donations from the outside community and from other museums, but Wilson appreciates the vested interest the members of Pilgrim Place continue to have in the Petterson. Still, she was hired in part to help improve outreach and entice local residents to discover the collection of global art, some of which dates to 1,000 B.C., including a Qin Dynasty terra cotta soldier standing guard at the entrance. Wilson hopes to strengthen the relationship with the college community in Claremont through a stronger presence on social media and potential collaboration with the Claremont Colleges — she herself is currently studying history and archival studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Wilson credits an internship at the Autry Museum during her senior year at Occidental with confirming an enthusiasm for history through engagement with historical art and artifacts. She said it also gave her an edge in her application, as she was able to showcase hands-on experience.

“I think most liberal arts majors think, ‘Am I going to be employed after Oxy?’ … So that’s actually why I tried the Autry internship, so I could see, ‘is [curatorial work] actually something I would like?’” Wilson said.

Her recommendation to current students is to take advantage of the resources available at Occidental, such as the Hameetman Career Center, and to remember that there is no harm in sending out applications. To history students in particular, she says to “keep the faith.”

The Petterson’s current show, “Liquid Assets,” brings together drinking vessels from different cultures. Vessels range from ancient pottery to a retro bear-shaped pitcher hailing from Rancho Cucamonga. Wilson prizes the eclectic nature of the collection.

“Every day I see something that I think doesn’t really fit, but that’s sort of the beauty of the Petterson … every day I have a new favorite,” Wilson said.

Not yet a month into the job, Wilson is already thinking ahead to her first exhibition for the Petterson, which will be displayed over the summer. The museum generally switches between thematic exhibits and those based on a particular region or time period. Currently, Wilson is thinking of employing the museum’s vast headwear collection in a clothing and costume-focused exhibition, perhaps using some of her favorite pieces: the kimono collection.

When asked to identify the most important quality for a curator, Wilson paused, before delivering an ardent — if brief — response.

“A love of research,” said Wilson.

For Wilson, curation is as much about the process of discovery as it is about the slow trod towards a greater understanding of the way humans have interpreted the world — pouring meaning into the creation of objects both functional and aesthetic.