An Ornamental History

When you’re a museum fan and an ornament collector, you might end up with a very full Christmas tree. . .

Ornaments have long been one of my go-to souvenirs for big trips, so it’s little wonder that my tree is full of a lot of historic house museums. Several years ago, my friend and colleague Bob Beatty started posting #25ornamentsin25days and I found his posts so much fun, I started doing the same. But with this being a year full of many changes in my museum career, I thought it might be even more fun to do a sort of museum career retrospective through ornaments. Here goes!

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a little farmhouse within walking distance of my 1980s tract home. In the early 1990s, it opened for tours. And I wrote a note to the organizers and asked if I could volunteer. Now, I will freely admit that I had visions of wearing a very pretty, old-fashioned dress during my volunteer time. This didn’t happen, and years later, I learned that wearing period-appropriate clothing is rather uncomfortable. At any rate, I volunteered with the Florence Ranch Homestead through high school. The same director was still there when I returned to the Dallas area after college and grad school. Running into her at museum conferences and gatherings was a treat, and she almost always mentioned that she still had my note and volunteer time card in the files. So, here’s an ornament from that very first historic site where I gave a tour, primarily in the kitchen area. I visited them just last week for their 150th birthday–and will admit that I didn’t remember a lot of the details of the family! But it was fun to see the interior of the house again.

In spite of this early historic house experience, I didn’t head off to college planning a career in museums. Instead, my plan was to be a high school English teacher. The summer after freshman year, my mother insisted that I find a job. I knew I didn’t want to work fast food or retail, so applied to the ExxonMobil Community Summer Jobs Program–and ended up spending my summer in the basement of the Dallas Historical Society, identifying primary sources for a new curriculum. That started a series of summer jobs at area history museums–and I suddenly realized the advantages of growing up in a suburb of a major metropolitan area. The summer of 1999, I primarily worked at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, but also had a small research project on the history of the building that was to be the home of The Women’s Museum. The summer of 2000, I helped prepare the Women’s Museum for their grand opening. They closed 11 years later, but I do have this lovely ornament to represent my summers of interning around Dallas.

After grad school, I returned to Mesquite, because rent was cheap at mom and dad’s house. I started working at Old City Park in March 2004 as the Program Manager. And I left in March 2021 as the President and Executive Director of Dallas Heritage Village at Old City Park. Needless to say, with that amount of time at an institution–and the fact that our biggest event was a holiday event–I have a lot of ornaments representing my time at DHV. But this one will probably always be my favorite. After all, how often can a person say they work with a couple of asses–and it not be an insult? Both Nip and Tuck have left for greener pastures, but I know that they aren’t forgotten by their fans.

Part of what kept me fresh and inspired at DHV was due to regularly exploring other museums. It’s rare for me to go on a trip and not visit at least one museum. Sometimes I pick up ideas, and sometimes I just enjoy myself.

While I have no desire to work in a museum as large as The Field, it’s definitely one of my favorites. I was a fan of Sue the T-Rex on Twitter long before I made my first visit. When I went to Chicago for a friend’s wedding (who I met through SHA, a professional development program), visiting the Field was on the top of our list. Since that first visit, I’ve returned a few times. And I’ve also been known to import multiple bottles of their Field Gin from Illinois.

As fun as giant museums are, my heart is definitely with small museums. I especially love the small museums that don’t try to do “everything” but rather focus closely on just a few stories. The Smokey Bear Museum near Ruidoso, NM is a great example. Conservation, popular culture, and more! Highly recommend. Plus, isn’t this ornament adorable?

And then there are those places I just keep going back to. I love books. I love historic sites. So, I’m naturally drawn to those places that tell a writer’s history. And sometimes on a return visit, I have to get a second ornament. That happened at Mark Twain’s House in Hartford (and of course, I’ve also visited Hannibal), so that’s how I somehow ended up with three ornaments–even though I wouldn’t include him on my top 10 list of authors.

But I’m sure no one is surprised that I have multiple Laura Ingalls Wilder ornaments (and many, many Betsy-Tacy ornaments due to a long standing ornament exchange.) The one of the house was picked up on my big road trip earlier this year.

As I continue this new chapter with consulting, I’m looking forward to adding ornaments representing clients to my tree. One of these days, I just might have to set up a “museum” tree!

Published by Melissa Prycer

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. Working to help other small museums however I can. Museum educator and executive director, most recently at Dallas Heritage Village.

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