Alumni Profile • Christine Jacobs Mouw '88
Writing history in 3-D

Christine MouwA history major at Calvin, Christine Jacobs Mouw ’88 is still writing history papers. But now they’re in 3-D.

That’s how Mouw describes her work as a curator, first at the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, then at the Hoover Presidential Library, and, since March, at the new Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.

“It’s using objects to present a slice of past American life in a way that’s both accurate and interesting, exact and entertaining — even cool — for everyone from fifth graders to Ph.D.s,” Mouw said.

When Mouw was a Calvin sophomore, history professor Bert de Vries introduced her to the director of the museum at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, where she later spent two summers as an intern. She’s been hooked on the “stuff” of American history ever since. After 12 years as assistant curator at the Hoover Library, Mouw was ready for the challenge of head curator. When the Clinton Library opened last November, she got her chance.

And a challenge it is. At the Hoover Library there are roughly 7,500 artifacts from the life and times of the 31st president. The Clinton Library already holds some 75,000 artifacts — with no end to what may be added.

The 75,000 artifacts are over and above the paper and electronic record of the Clinton presidency. Each presidential library is composed of an archive (the presidential papers), an audio-visual collection (tapes, film and photographs of the presidency) and the museum collection (artifacts).

“Everyone thinks it’s stuff that’s presidential,” Mouw explained, “and some of it is, like a pen that was used to sign an important bill. But a lot of it is just stuff — stuff that could be in any other museum, except that it’s stuff somebody — whether an ambassador or an ordinary citizen — happened to give to the Clintons.” Examples include ceremonial flutes from China, handmade Christmas ornaments and a Michael Jordan figurine.

It keeps coming in. Weekly, people call or write Mouw, offering things they think the Clinton Library would like to have — paintings, quilts, knick-knacks. A committee at the museum decides what to accept and what to politely decline. Then each object is measured, described, photographed, numbered, placed in an acid-free box and packed away on a shelf. Some of these things may be loaned out for exhibits at other institutions. Or Mouw may take them off the shelf for an exhibit at the Clinton Library. In May the library opened an exhibit called “A World of Music,” showcasing the role of music in Clinton’s life.

From the objects on exhibit, Mouw said, visitors can get a sense of the atmosphere of the Clinton presidency and of American life in general from 1992 to 2000. “The president becomes more human to them — more real,” she said. “Often they can relate this slice of presidential history back to their personal experience better than if they read a history book. Part of the reason is that they can share an exhibit with another person. People go through an exhibit and tell each other their stories: ‘Oh look, that’s Bill Clinton’s saxophone. I played one just like it in my high school jazz band. That’s cool!’”