The Peale: A Museum Model for Community Storytelling

Episode 05

Amanda Meeks:  Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent, and I'm also your podcast host.

In this episode, I'm joined by Heather Shelton. Heather is the Peale's digital curator, registrar and communication specialist, focusing on the Peale's online presence and it's growing collection of Baltimore stories. She has undergraduate degrees in Art History and English Literature from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University. With more than 25 years of museum and archives experience, Heather has held positions in virtually every department from curation and collections care to public relations and education. From 2004 to 2006, she worked exclusively in print, writing, and editing exhibition scripts and educational materials at the Smithsonian, but in 2006, with the advent of Facebook and social media, she transitioned almost entirely to the web, becoming the leading digital voice of the Smithsonian Institution. Traveling Exhibition Service. Today, Heather works with the Peale and other innovative cultural organizations, like the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program to provide structure and meaning to a sea of digital content.

This was a particularly exciting interview because the Peale is such an incredible Baltimore institution that's uniquely positioned to build a true community museum as they're still technically in their startup years, but they're housed in a building that so rich with history and culture. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Hi Heather. Welcome, and we'll go ahead and jump right in. But my first question is just how are you?

Heather Shelton:  Doing well, I'm excited to be here today, so thanks for having me.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah, thanks for being here. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about yourself and how you're involved at the Peale.

Heather Shelton:  Sure. My name is Heather Shelton and I'm the digital curator and registrar at the Peale, which is Baltimore's community museum based in the oldest museum building in the United States. Built in 1814 by Rembrandt Peale, the building itself has had many, many lives. Everything from city hall to the first secondary school for African Americans in the state of Maryland, to an organ factory machine shop, and everything in between. But now we are officially Baltimore's community museum.

Amanda Meeks:  That's awesome. I was so happy I got to see the Peale when I was in Baltimore last fall and just right after your grand opening, grand reopening, I should say. And it's such a beautiful space and there's so much care that went into it, so I just really appreciate it.

I'm honestly also just really inspired by the work you all do with the community, and I was wondering if you could talk a little about the history and the current mission of the Peale. I know you kind of touched on all of the different things that the building has been used for, but if you can share a little bit more in-depth about that, I think that'd be super interesting.

Heather Shelton:  Sure. Well, I think the history of the Peale is actually pretty fitting for where we are, because ultimately it's about reuse and reinvention. And when the Peales opened the museum in 1814, whether or not they anticipated that it would be a museum for 200-plus years, that's probably not the case, we don't, you know, project ourselves out for centuries.

But they were sort of the masters of reinvention too. So the building itself went up for a public auction in 1830 and the city actually bought it and turned it into the official first city hall of Baltimore. So it was city hall for a while. It became Male and Female Colored School #1 in the 1870s and 1880s.

From there, we moved into a point where the building actually was the city's water works. So really down to the most utilitarian function that you could possibly imagine. And by this time, the building probably was in a pretty bad state. You know, after almost a hundred years, no idea what level of renovation had occurred up to that point, although there was probably renovation that was going on when it was turned into city hall, and then again when it became the classroom space.

But really into the 20th century it became, as you might expect, you know, relatively neglected, a space that was threatened with demolition. And ultimately sort of concerned citizens, so to speak, but you know, people that were really interested in history and preservation, rallied together to save the building. And this was really in conjunction with the rise of the Colonial Revival Movement in the 1930s.

So the building was renovated, reinvigorated in the style of what they interpreted, you know, the colonial period or the early federal period to look like, and it stayed a museum for the next really 50 plus years until 1997 when the museum that was erected with that initial renovation in the 1930s closed.

So the Baltimore City Life Museum, which was a major blow to Baltimore because it really had a tremendous amount of collective history about the city of Baltimore and everything that had transpired there. 1997, the museum closed and the collection went to the Maryland Historical Society, which is now the Maryland Center for History and Architecture.

So imagine, you know, an entire huge collection full of items, everything from paintings and fine art all the way down, really just being packed up and shipped off. And, you know, we definitely know it was an emotional experience for the people who had worked in the building, but I think probably in the back of people's minds, they knew that the building hopefully, would survive and come to be reborn again.

So after that point, in the late 1990s until the early two thousands, In mid-teens, two thousands really, I mean, it was used for various things, meetings and such, but it really became derelict. I mean, it was a building that needed some serious renovations; leaking roof, plaster falling off the walls. I mean, everything that you would associate with a 200-plus year building.

But there was a group of people who were really committed to saving the structure itself and sort of, you know, just saving the history of Baltimore to some extent. And by 2016/17, there was a plan, you know, before, I think it was just an ad hoc sort of group of folks that were working perhaps independently and collectively, but there was a real concerted effort in the 2000-teens to get it going again to raise money for renovation.

And they hired, you know, their first executive director, which was Nancy Proctor, and she's still actually at the Peale now, but to lead the museum into a brand new life and to raise money for what would ultimately become about a $5 million renovation.

Everything from getting a new roof to having the windows repaired and replaced in some instances, you know, flooring refinished, everything that you could possibly imagine. An elevator put in for greater accessibility, fire systems, everything that would bring us up to the 21st century as far as facilities maintenance, as well as accessibility.

Amanda Meeks:  I love, yeah, just so much rich history there. And it's interesting to hear kind of how it's been used and all of the different kinds of challenges that came up over the years for the Peale. And I'm curious how people use it today.

Heather Shelton:  Well today it's really become a platform for Baltimore storytellers.

So our goal and our mission is to allow the building to reflect Baltimore itself. And I think it's a really sort of radical idea in some ways that we invite the community in; artists, storytellers, performers, makers, doers of all kinds. And they really set the stage for what they wanna see. And so in a lot of ways it's sort of crowdsourced programming, which is, I think, really unusual and really does reflect the community.

So we're happy to have come to that point. I mean, I know it at some instances it was hard to get to a point. You know, where we really had enough sway or enough swagger or brand in the community that people would come to us because they didn't know about us. You know, they didn't know what we were about.

But we had a grand reopening last year, last August 2022 after the renovation, and I think we sort of came into our own. So we had a lot of press. We had a lot of people coming out who had supported the renovation over the years, but people who were also very curious about what the building was gonna be like and how the museum was gonna evolve.

And I really feel like we've sort of come into our own and we're now at a point where people really are engaged with the museum and they're interested in showcasing their work there. And sometimes it's artists, but sometimes it's just folks who are interested in hosting a program or even having a meeting.

So to some extent, you know, the word community museum or the phrase community museum is really not just a gimmick. It is really what we do. So the community is invited in.

Amanda Meeks:  I love that mission and the way that you all approach really centering community storytelling and being the community museum. I think that it's a democratization of the museum, right? Which in most cases, it's so hard to do and, and most museums don't even try. I think that there's often a feeling when people walk into, you know, let's think about like the Smithsonian or something. When you walk into the Smithsonian, you don't immediately feel at home. You don't immediately feel like you can contribute meaningfully to that space or the collections or like you can engage with them in similar ways. So I just really love that and I do feel like when I walked into the Peale, I did get that sense. I did feel like it was bustling, it was full of people. You know, I met some of your staff. I met Nancy and they shared a lot of really amazing stories about the Peale as well. And then they also just made everybody in our group feel so at ease in the space and it was just such a wonderful experience and I think that's like the best we can hope for with museums.

So I love it. Thank you for sharing that.

Heather Shelton:  Well, I'll say, Amanda, that one of the things that makes it feel accessible is the fact that it's a sort of a homey space. I mean, sometimes I think when you come in, it's not overwhelming at scale. It feels like a home. And in a lot of ways it was actually designed as, you know, sort of in the style of a federal townhouse. It wasn't designed to be a colossal institution.

And of course that sort of reflective of the fact that Baltimore was not a colossal city at the time that it was it was erected. So it does feel homey. And I think another reason why people feel at home there is they can sit down on furniture, which sounds strange, but you know, the things that we have in the museum are not roped off.

You can come in and you can sit, whether it's a contemporary chair or reproduction or something like that, but, in most cases, things aren't behind glass, they're not behind ropes. They're accessible to people and we are interested in having people touch things.

I mean, for the most part, that is the narrative that we like to create. In the same vein as a children's museum where you go and you have this sort of experiential learning that's going on in formal learning. But I do think that the Peale makes people feel welcome. Not only, do we have a really friendly staff, but we also have that just sense of coming into somebody's home and sitting down and making comfortable, contributing a story, which is where our collections lie now, not in physical collections, but in oral histories and storytelling from the community.

By putting yourself in that space and sort of being invested not only in its success, but also in how you sort of see it reflecting on the greater culture of Baltimore.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. Let's talk a little more about storytelling and how you all are capturing stories from folks in Baltimore.

Heather Shelton:  So we do a couple of different things. Initially, we were sending sort of a message out to the crowd. We were just broadcasting, "Hey, does anybody wanna talk about what makes their neighborhood special? Or tell the real story of Baltimore from your eyes, as opposed to a show like The Wire, or what you see often represented in the media."

And that project was a call-out called Be Here: Baltimore. And, folks contributed stories. A lot of people talked about their neighborhoods, they talked about art programs, they even talked about some of the best restaurants in town. It was really a nitty-gritty cultural experience as told by the people who live in the city.

And we started off in that vein, and we still do some crowd-sourced storytelling. So we have an app called Be Here Stories, and you can just go to our website,, and you can record a story from anywhere. So you actually don't have to be from Baltimore, you can talk about where you live.

But the idea is that wherever you live in Baltimore or beyond that, you're telling your version of what your community is like. You know what people do in the community, what's fun to see, what challenges your community faces. So that model of collected, sort of crowdsource story, story curation and story collection is still something that we do on a regular basis.

And we also have targeted projects where we put a call out to the community about a specific theme or a specific type of story that we're looking for, and we ask people to contribute. They can contribute using our app, or to be honest, any other tool, including their phone. You know, that's always the easiest way to get people engaged is to encourage them to use the tools that they already have at hand.

So over the last couple of years, I think we've talked to people about their experiences with Covid, which is extremely powerful talk to people about, you know, everything from the rise of the new Lexington Market, which is the world-famous market in Baltimore.

So some things that are very heavy and really talk about that particular moment of time and other things that are more sort of celebratory and talk about Baltimore history and culture, but either way, we're trying to bring the community along. Sometimes we pull in local storytellers to do the interviewing and sometimes we set them up on Zoom. It really just depends on what folks are more comfortable with.

But at the end of the day, it's all about sort of making them feel like they're part of the larger narrative.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah, that's important to help weave their stories into the larger narrative and to give them the opportunity to like see themselves in that as well is just so powerful.

I'm curious how your work with Permanent fits into your storytelling and digital preservation goals.

Heather Shelton:  Well, I have to be completely honest, we're a very small staff as a startup. I mean, we really are a startup museum, which is sort of ironic in the oldest museum building in the country.

But we are a startup. We have a very small staff. And you know, the effort that it took to get the building reopened with that $5 million renovation, you could imagine that almost all of our resources were dedicated to that, so the physical building. So we've been slow in some ways to develop the infrastructure to manage a collection regardless of whether it's a physical collection or a digital collection.

And that's where Permanent comes in because we just simply don't have the resources in many cases to pay for things that are as fundamental as storage. And I know that, you know, a lot of folks, particularly outside the museum field, might think, " Well gosh, you know, where does that?" they wouldn't have even considered that storage was a cost that a museum would have to add to their budgets, and certainly not digital storage.

You know, I think most folks think of collection storage as being like climate controlled and it's off in some warehouse somewhere. And you know, there's boxes and all those sorts of things. But for us, since we don't have a physical collection, you know that storage is something that happens on a server.

So you know that, believe it or not it certainly is associated with costs and budgeting. And the assistance like the folks at Permanent provide is really helpful for us because what we're trying to do is to build best practices into our planning.

So what that means for a museum is that there's a level of redundancy with everything that you do. So if it was a physical object, you know, you can't obviously replicate George Washington's teeth and put a duplicate somewhere or something like that. But for digital assets, you can have duplicates that you can put in different locations for disaster planning and for preservation. So that's what we're trying to do, is we're really actually trying to store our assets or our files, those oral histories in different locations.

So in the event of something catastrophic happening, and you just never know, we have a backup of those so that people know that their stories will be safe for the long term.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. Yeah, the digital preservation piece it's tricky and it's a new-ish problem for people, and especially if you're really building those digital collections and you know, that's part of what the Byte4Byte program is meant to support. It's meant to support small organizations and more grassroots community archiving efforts, so we definitely want to be part of the digital preservation landscape and solution to the issues that folks like you are having.

But yeah, it's challenging. It's also really challenging to find the capacity, like you said, as a small staff. I think that's a common thing that we hear among our Byte4Byte partners. So, yeah.

Heather Shelton:  I'm shaking my head, I mean, I'm nodding in agreement. I think the idea of capacity is always really challenging for small museums, but it doesn't mean that we don't wanna do/adhere by those best practices that would be set out by larger institutions, libraries, larger archives, et cetera. So you sort of have that vision and the path that you want to follow. So at some point you might have to sacrifice a few things because of your staff size or the resources that you have.

But I think when it comes to planning, you always plan for the best-case scenario and try to get there with as many resources as you have. So I think programs like Byte4Byte and in some ways any off-the-shelf technological solution that a small museum can implement, helps us get there because we just can't afford proprietary solutions that require a ton of maintenance or a ton of technical expertise to get it up and running and to keep it going.

So, It would be akin to buying a really expensive car, it breaks down and then suddenly you can't afford to take it to the shop and have it maintained. So we can't be in a situation where we have the expensive car that breaks down. You know, we need to have the resources at hand to be able to pull ourselves up and make a difference and get things going whether it's a staff person, a volunteer, or an intern.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. It sounds like you need something practical and reliable.

Heather Shelton:  Yes. I think we're in the to Toyota Camry zone. (laughter)

Amanda Meeks:  I really like that analogy.

Thank you for sharing that. And I wanna back up a moment to some of the stories that you've heard from the community. I'm curious if there are any that you could share that kind of exemplify the impact of what you all are doing.

Heather Shelton:  Hmm, that's a really good question.

I mean, I will say that we have a project called The Guardians, and it's a photo documentary project that was initiated by two really brilliant thinkers and doers in Baltimore; Whitney Frasier and Kirby Griffin. And Whitney envisioned an exhibition in a storytelling project that captured the voices of people in Baltimore, mainly black women, who were making differences in their neighborhoods.

And when I talk about resilience and just absolute perseverance and fighting in the face of incredible adversity, this is a group of women that have been through a lot. Many of 'em have suffered through gun violence in their immediate families. You deal with issues in their neighborhoods with lots of drugs and other issues that afflict neighborhoods across every city in America.

And instead of being beat down by a lot of these issues, they stood up, got together, and started making changes. I mean, they were the squeaky wheels in their neighborhoods and could immediately see that what they were doing was helping people. And that storytelling project included large-scale photographs of each of those women in addition to an oral history with them.

So this was actually a couple of years ago that we started the first iteration of this project, but you could come and you could see these larger-than-life portraits, and then you could scan a QR code and hear their story. I think so many of the women were just blown away by the Peale's and Whitney's interest in featuring them, that it really was a highlight for a lot of folks and it brought the community out and droves.

So the mayor of Baltimore came out and spoke at the opening and it was just such a celebratory event that featured real people in the community who are really making a difference. And those stories are actually archived on our website. They're also on SoundCloud. They will be on Permanent, eventually when we get to that point.

But, it's the type of thing where I feel like those stories will make an impact with people 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now. So that particular moment that they were dealing with has so much relevance just for the human condition, regardless of whether or not it was happening in 2020, 2021, et cetera.

So it's a really incredible sort of anthropological record of what was going on in 2020 and 2021, and it just so happens that we have a second cohort of Guardians that are gonna be featured at the Peale at the end of the summer. So it's another group of black women in Baltimore that are making change in the community who will be featured in round two of this exhibition.

So they'll have their stories recorded and the photography and the whole nine yards. So I think that's the most sort of concrete example of how the digital experience of curating these stories and transcribing these stories and in turn, placing those in the museum and putting those out on the web has really solidified what happens in both the physical space and the digital space.

So we've been excited to make that happen and really make it available for people.

Amanda Meeks:  What an incredible project and example. Thank you. That's exactly the kind of thing that I would imagine that you all are doing, but I feel like it's hard to envision it without knowing some of the examples.

So thank you.

Heather Shelton:  You know, it really takes somebody in the community to be the one that takes the first step to do it. So for us in the museum, particularly Nancy and Daisy Brown, who is our storytelling ambassador, and they have connections in the community. But it's often somebody in the community that knows all the stories in the neighborhood that leads the project and really tries to get their friends along, because ultimately it becomes an issue of trust and of collaboration with people, you know, because as, as they say, "it's all about who you know," and that's really, really true.

So, one thing I can say is that I've never been with an institution that I felt like that happened easily because the museum was sort of always on the outside of the community looking, maybe looking and wanting people to join, but not quite knowing how to do that. Whereas the Peale is sort of doing the opposite.

We're opening our doors and saying, "Come on in." Or we're walking out into the community conversely and saying, "What can we do in your community? What can we do in your neighborhood to highlight the good works that are going on?" So I think to some extent, it all boils down to real people with a real desire to make a difference in their own neighborhoods and their communities, and just to get their foot in the door.

And I think that speaks to the impact too, because there's so few places where you can get a fresh start with something if you're not considered, quote-unquote, a professional. And a lot of the folks who show at the museum or have programs, or that they're just getting their start,

They're just, they're musicians, they're performers, they're high school students, and there's just not a place out there that allows that group of people to showcase the things that they're doing. So I really believe that the Peale has sort of found a niche that nobody else is occupying in the museum space right now.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. Yeah. It is kind of that problem of museums being on, as you said, the outside. And I kind of also think of them as like elevated because of that professionalism and that sort of gatekeeping that I think tends to happen. And I love that the Peale is like, so to speak, on the ground, doing the work, building trust and really like working with the community as opposed to doing their own thing that they think is best for the community.

I think that's really admirable and really amazing.

Heather Shelton:  And I sort of feel like we consider ourselves a service organization to some extent.

Amanda Meeks:  Mm-hmm.

Heather Shelton:  And that customer service is a real core tenant of what we do. So we obviously try to be friendly and all that, but it's a matter of following through with people , showing respect and what they're bringing to the table, and to my knowledge, I could be wrong, but I don't think we've actually had to turn people away. You know, if people apply to show at the Peale, they bring their own resources as far as subsidizing the rent to occupy that space for a specific amount of time. But we haven't actually had to turn people away.

So it's really open to the gamut of people and like I said, all different types of performances and exhibitions and everything in between. So that I think we can be really proud of is that we really are not occupying that space of gatekeeper anymore.

Amanda Meeks:  Mm-hmm.

Yeah, I think there's almost an element to the Peale that feels more like a public library than a traditional museum, which, you know, as a librarian, I of course love.

Heather Shelton:  Yeah, I agree with you. I think public libraries, they're obviously feeling a lot of heat these days, but it's the best idea that Ben Franklin ever had right? It's the idea that you could come into a space and not to have to pay for anything. I think that that's very unique.

You know, 99% of the programs at the Peale are free and you come in and you can walk around and just take it all in, go out to the garden and we're happy to be that place where people can come and just sit if anything else, very much like a public library.

But that's a great compliment. We'll take that as a compliment.

Amanda Meeks:  Great. I know you said that when the Peale was first built, nobody probably predicted that it would go through so many iterations and not stay a museum, but end up a museum again. And I'm curious what you envision for the future of the Peale, even with that idea of like in 200 years, who knows, but what do you envision and what's like your kind of wildest, most utopian dream for the Peale?

Heather Shelton:  Oh wow. That is tricky. I would hope that we would continue to be a platform for Baltimore storytellers and have the resources at that point to also tell some of our core stories. So we have so many stories to tell at the museum and up to this point, we haven't necessarily had the resources to create quote-unquote, traditional exhibitions about those stories.

So I would love to see that unfold. And it is actually happening as we speak to some extent, we've partnered with an exhibition design firm called Quatrefoil. And Quatrefoil is helping us build out some of those core stories in exhibition format. And I think the idea is that we continue to be sort of a lab space, so I never wanna get to a point where we're the traditional museum with the traditional exhibitions and everything is sort of top down.

I like the idea of rapidly testing different ideas, of using different types of language, different types of technology to showcase different stories, but to do it in sort of a rapid way that it doesn't feel so permanent. And I think that's the trap that museums get into, is that they're obsessed with permanence.

And of course, you know, we're talking about preservation, but the idea that something is permanent is really, in my opinion, sort of an egotistical, inflated human concept. Nothing is permanent, right? So what can we do to sustain ourselves for the long term and set up that next series of goals for the next group of people who come along and may have a completely different idea for what they want the people to be?

So I think, you know, for me, when it comes to institutional, both history and then looking forward is just doing the best you can in that moment to envision what's gonna be happening in, say, the next five years, three to five years, but projecting out 50 years or a hundred years. I mean, my goodness, who knows?

I mean, in my wildest dreams I'd love to see Holliday Street where the Peale is become like this absolutely bustling commercial district with restaurants and a theater and all those things that make it just the epitome of culture.

And I think that brings people out. They want to have a street where they can walk down and they stop in and have some coffee and then they go to a bookstore and then they see a show, or they see an exhibition and you know, we're not at that point yet.

So I think the collective dream for the Peale is also tied into the dream for Baltimore or for all American cities in a lot of ways, cities or suburbs to be inclusive, accessible, culturally oriented, and just this idea that people are coming back to the cities to really enjoy themselves and the Peale becomes a big part of that. And I hope that that's the case.

But who knows? I mean projecting out 50 years is pretty tough.

And where we are with AI and everything that's happening across the political spectrum, I would venture to say it's probably not smart for me to project out till tomorrow cause you just don't know.

Amanda Meeks:  Mm-hmm.

Heather Shelton:  But I do think that the Peale is in it for the long haul and I'm really excited for the progress that we've made and am also very proud of where we've come, you know, coming up from 2016 and seeing pictures of plaster dust on the floor and that sort of thing. And now being in a space that's really beautiful but retains its historic character and is allowing people to really do something that they haven't done for maybe since Peale's days, which is, just showcase their professional talent or their amateur talent and tell the stories of Baltimore.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. I love that vision. And also the recognition that it's not necessarily wise to envision too far down the road. But I will say the work that you all are doing now, I think is really inspirational and is going to lead you in that direction of like really being kind of like a cultural hub and building a stronger community around the Peale.

And I think the other thing that jumped out at me was, but just the idea that nothing is permanent and we are working on ways to create permanence, to make our stories last so that they can have an impact on future generations and they can have an impact on future communities that we're part of and they can help people make sense of where they are and where they fit. And I think that that is a really important aspect of what you all are doing in terms of like building a nest for that, essentially.

Heather Shelton:  Yeah. I mean, I agree with you. I just feel like just in the last 10 years or so, last 15 years, moving from an era where we were told that MP3s, this is a little nerdy tech stuff, but MP3s were going away and then, this file format is gonna die and this technology is no longer with us, or what have you.

So I think the concept of future-proofing is almost impossible. I mean, we just don't know what the next thing is gonna be, you know? But I think at the core of it, we can go all the way back to this idea of multiplicity and duplication and those best practices that we'd like to employ, even if we're not a typical museum.

We'd still like to employ some of those practices that are tried and true and not get stuck in the weeds with them. I do think that if you get too stuck in the weeds with those best practices, you're not necessarily open to trying new things. So you've gotta be nimble enough to try something completely new.

And that can be tough obviously for museums that don't have a ton of funding and often lack resources, but that's where we need to go. As an industry, I think is being a lot more nimble, a lot more inclined to try new things and to do it in ways that are completely atypical for what museums have traditionally done.

So whether that means going grassroots or eradicating a top-down infrastructure, just this idea that we're really trying to appeal to people at the broadest base. It's not just about an elite group of folks or art patrons, that's just not who we are anymore.

And I think the museum business itself has undergone like a really cataclysmic change in the last 20 years or so, moving away from catering to a certain group of people. And we're totally proud of that because we just feel like we're every person's museum and anybody can come through the door and learn something and we're not gonna judge you if you're coming in your tennis shoes or your whatever, you know, your hoodie. Or you can come in wearing in whatever you want and have any level of expertise, never have been to a museum, and still get something out of the experience. And that's what I think it's all about.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. I think you all are well positioned to be a model of that too for other museums and community spaces and whatnot.

So I think that that is just really powerful and unique. Like I think it's amazing that you essentially are a model for that and I don't know of any other museums that do quite this level of community-based work, but I might be missing some, so.

Heather Shelton:  Well, I think we're in good company in Baltimore.

There's a lot of museums that I think are really understanding the value of community and community contributions. Baltimore Museum of Industry is one that comes to mind. But yeah, as far as the larger institutions, that's like moving a locomotive. We're so small that we can turn on a dime and really come up with a strategy and implement it without a tremendous amount of negotiations with board members and things like that, whereas larger institutions don't have that luxury, although many of them I'm sure wish they did. So that also puts us in a unique position to try new things and experiment and to sort of break the mold.

So we hope that it's an experiment that lasts for maybe not another 200 plus years, but you know, of course to it would be nice.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. Well, thank you so much Heather for your time and sharing all of your insight into the Peale and your experience there.

Heather Shelton:  Thank you so much for having me.

Amanda Meeks:  Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Our Digital Futures.

We are so honored to work with the Peale as one of our Byte4Byte grantees and partners. To learn more about the Byte4Byte program or to apply, visit

The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations.

Our web and mobile app is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription fees. Anyone can create a free account and start archiving today.

Special thank you to our editors at Next Day Podcasts.

See you next time.


Heather Shelton headshot

Heather Shelton

Heather Shelton is the Peale’s digital curator, registrar, and communications specialist, focusing on the Peale’s online presence and its growing collection of Baltimore stories. She has undergraduate degrees in Art History and English Literature from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University. With more than 25 years of museum and archives experience, Heather has held positions in virtually every department–from curation and collections care to public relations and education. From 2004-2006, she worked exclusively in print, writing and editing exhibition scripts and educational materials at the Smithsonian, but in 2006, with the advent of Facebook and social media, she transitioned almost entirely to the web, becoming the leading digital voice of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Today, Heather works with the Peale and other innovative cultural organizations, like the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, to provide structure and meaning to a sea of digital content.



Amanda Meeks headshot

Amanda Meeks


Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.