Meet the Johnnies: Francis Proctor (A23)
February 7, 2020 | By Les Poling
Francis Proctor, a current student at St. John’s College, grew up less than five miles from the Annapolis campus—but he didn’t learn about St. John’s until he was in high school. An avid history buff, his curiosity was piqued when he read “Founded 1696” on the school sign, and he made it his goal to become a Johnnie. Today, Proctor is in the midst of his first year of undergrad, and his passion for history has manifested itself in a work-study job at the Hammond-Harwood House museum. He spoke with us about St. John’s, history and social media, and the many nuances of museum work.
How did you end up at St. John’s?
I was around 16, and I kind of just decided: I want to go to St. John’s. I like the Program. I like the history of the school. It was a bit too big of a price tag for me initially, so I went to community college for a few years. As I was getting my associate’s, the [St. John’s tuition] price cut happened, and it turned out I was able to come here more affordably than some of the other schools I was looking at. And so it was just kind of a perfect storm, me being able to go to my first choice.
Did you grow up knowing about St. John’s?
Not really. Surprisingly, a lot of locals don’t know about St. John’s. But one day [I was] driving by College Avenue, and we saw the sign: “St. John’s College, Founded 1696 as King William’s School.” And that kind of started my interest, because I was looking at the date [on the sign], like, “that’s a really old college that’s still active.” I’m a big fan of history, so that was kind of my segue in. But then learning about the curriculum and what it all entailed, that really piqued my interest and made me want to be a part of St. John’s. So it wasn’t a lifelong thing, but once I was exposed to it, that was what I wanted.
How did the job at the Hammond-Harwood House arise?
I was on the waitlist for work-study, and then it turned out there were still some openings available. And they said: “What do you want to do?” And I said: “Well, I like history.” There were two options: Historic Annapolis or the Hammond-Harwood House. I wanted to get to work sooner rather than later, [and] Hammond-Harwood House fit that bill.
I ended up—probably not my brightest idea—but I ended up learning to do three jobs at once. I did my docent training last semester, I’ve been learning to archive and be an archive assistant, and I also help with their social media outreach.
You’re almost like a full staff member.
It’s definitely been interesting, especially trying to fit it in [with] all the time I spend studying. It’s been a really cool experience too, because a lot of the people at Hammond-Harwood House are Johnnies. Like [Executive Director] Barbara Goyette, she was a Johnnie; our social media supervisor, Eleni [Bozori], she was at the Graduate Institute. It’s really been interesting to have that similar Johnnie feel, even at Hammond-Harwood House. And then Rachel [Lovett], she’s just amazing. She wasn’t a Johnnie, but she’s our curator, and just the amount of work she puts into cultivating our collection, it’s really amazing.
It’s been really interesting to see how a museum works. Because it’s not just [presenting an artifact]. You’re trying to find a way of narratively displaying it within your location—especially with a house museum. House museums really have a different way of displaying information, because it’s not enough to just have individual rooms with different artifacts laid out in them. The nature of it being a house museum lends itself to forming a sort of narrative—seeing how the artifacts we display and [the way] we display them plays into that narrative is really interesting.
And then also just seeing the research aspect [of the museum]. I had to research for a presentation last semester, I have to research for one this semester. It’s not exactly easy to research these artifacts, and learning some of the hurdles you have to jump through to be able to get decent sources and understand everything gives me a lot more appreciation for what curators do, and archivists and people like that.
A lot different from a school setting.
Apparently—this came up with one of my discussions with Rachel—studies are showing that museums as a whole are being viewed as more reliable sources of information than schools. I think that puts a larger burden on museums to make sure that their information is accurate, and to make sure that they’re presenting something that’s cohesive, coherent, and factual. Again, [Hammond-Harwood House] is different than your traditional museum in the sense that they really do have a narrative associated with it. They have a location. They study the history of that location, and then they study the surrounding artifacts and individuals. We display Charles Willson Peale paintings, paintings from his family, John Shaw pieces, pieces that were done by his servants and apprentices. And then there’s just the interesting way the house [was built]; [on the lower level,] you see the original architect, William Buckland, his style and his influences, and in the upper level, his apprentice who finished the house, and his influences and his stylings. And so you see all these different parts moving in the same vicinity, and we just display that in the house. But we also tie it all together.
I can tell you really have to internalize the history and the information.
I think just the amount of connections that can be made is staggering. Hammond-Harwood House has connections, just due to its location and the time in which it was built, to Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, the Philadelphia Museum of Art—with Charles Willson Peale—Gunston Hall, even Monticello. So once you start analyzing these connections and seeing how many different directions you can go, it does present a unique challenge of making sure that you understand those connections properly.
It’s interesting—St. John’s has you direct your focus within the context of a text, as opposed to all the external factors. Here at Hammond-Harwood, we’re kind of doing the same thing. We’re looking at a connection, and we’re analyzing that connection within its own context until it’s time to extrapolate.
Do you gravitate more towards the docent training, the archiving, or the social media?
Social media outreach is fun, because you’re finding new, different ways of making the information relatable, and trying to make it a little bit fun and not too serious or boring. It’s a unique way of trying to subvert the commonly held idea that history is boring, and trying to make it relatable in a modern and fun way. That’s why I like social media—I have to try and come up with not just a consistent and steady way of presenting information, but new ways on a consistent basis.
I loved history growing up, and it was because of a [TV] show called Liberty Kids that essentially just made history fun. And so trying to find ways of doing that through social media is something I’m really into.
Could you see yourself working in a museum in the future?
History has always been the first thing that I’ve thought of when I’m looking at careers—[I ask myself] “how can I make history into a career?” And a lot of times, [the answer] would be a simple “Oh, be a teacher.” In various ways, I’ve tried my hand in academics. Not necessarily teaching at a school, but volunteering for classes at church, or volunteering for tutoring—things like that. And I find that generally, the traditional classroom structure doesn’t work for me.
I think history in a museum capacity or even something along the lines of a film is probably what I’ll end up going into if I continue to pursue that path. I appreciate what I’m doing at Hammond-Harwood because I think it’s giving me a better idea of what skills I need to develop, how I should develop them. So I do think I could potentially see myself in a museum.