Jaclyn Spainhour is Director of the Hunter House Victorian Museum in Norfolk. She finished her B.A. history degree at ODU in 2011, and her M.A. in 2012. She is the author of Gilded Age Norfolk, Virginia: Tidewater Wealth, Industry and Propriety (Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015). In 2021 she was included in the ODU 40 under 40 Alumni Recognition Program.
Describe your experience researching and writing Gilded Age Norfolk, Virginia: Tidewater Wealth, Industry and Propriety. What challenges did you face as you wrote this book?
The primary challenge I have faced throughout my career, whether as an author or museum professional, has been my age. When I took on this writing project, I was 23 years old. I had recently left the graduate program and had been teaching as an Adjunct Instructor for a little over a year. In every area of my professional life, my age became the main point of contention. There are many area historians who had been writing local history books for decades who may have been better qualified to write a book on nineteenth century Norfolk, but I felt strongly that I had a unique story to tell and that if I did not write it down, then no one would. So, I decided to dive in to pitching the idea of a book about the Hunter family and their lives at the turn on the century. The History Press (now Arcadia) took a chance on me because I had 'Assistant Director' next to my name. They did not know my age, but when the book came out, it became quite the topic of conversation. I was 25 when the book hit the shelves of Barnes and Noble. When I made author appearances, people asked me things like 'when will the author return for the signing?' or 'are you a relative?'. I felt the graduate program prepared me for the research and writing of the work, but the actual interactions with the public and the aftermath of its publication were another issue entirely. I have received a lot of great feedback from those who know the Hunter House and appreciate the work for what it is- an account of one family during the height of nineteenth century Norfolk. The most difficult part of the process was receiving outside reviews, most of which were favorable, but one scathing review in particular from a local newspaper hit me hard. The writing process taught me to stand up for myself academically and professionally, and to be proud of what I had achieved at such a young age. There will always be people who are critical of your achievements; it is your decision whether or not to listen to them.
Did your work in the M.A. history program at ODU contribute to the making of this book? Which professors do you remember from ODU and why?
I do not believe I would have had the necessary training in research, writing, or oral presentations without experiencing the ODU history graduate program. The program taught me how to think critically and how to defend my conclusions. Part of my exam coursework focused on the idea of identity during the Victorian Era, which influenced part of the content of my book. Looking back, I believe the biggest influence on my career path has been my interactions with Dr. Hametz. She has believed in me when I did not and pushed me in areas where I needed to grow. She has been critical, but in the most rewarding and caring way. She still reminds me that I should have gone the thesis route, and she is probably right, although I am happy where I have landed. Her History 600 class was one of the first I took, and I will never forget her opening lecture. She was blunt- if you want to succeed you have to work for it. You are not guaranteed success in the field. I loved her candor and her spark, and I still admire her for all of the battles she fights on behalf of female academics everywhere. It is vital for anyone in an academic program to pick a mentor, and she has been and will continue to be mine.
You have acquired extensive experience in Cultural Resource Management. Can you describe how you became involved with the Hunter House?
I have been with the Hunter House in some capacity since 2009, when I was a sophomore in the undergraduate history program. As part of the Honors College, I had to select a place to act as an intern for a semester. Back when the newspaper was still quite popular, my parents took out an insert and handed it to me. It was a list of places seeking volunteers in Hampton Roads. I looked through all of the advertisements and stopped when I saw one which spoke of an historic house with tea time. I was sold. I volunteered with the museum after my internship, sometimes just for a few hours a week when my school schedule became hectic. In 2012, the Director and her assistant approached me about taking over the assistant position, which was mostly clerical but did have some museum management aspects, and I agreed.
Six months in, I decided the position was not fitting in with my goals, so I sat down with the Director and made a plan. I petitioned the Board of Directors to create a new position for me with bigger responsibilities. This was one of those moments wherein I channeled Dr. Hametz and asked for what I wanted directly. To my surprise, they agreed and even gave me a raise. It turns out leadership really does require standing your ground and knowing your worth. I spent three years as the Assistant Director, asking to be brought in on how my Director managed the facility. She was such a wonderful support system and trained me in all of the workings of managing an historic house museum. In 2015, she let me know she was planning to retire at the end of the year. I was delighted, scared, and excited. Did I mention this is the same year my book came out? I was a published author and a Museum Director at 25- I was terrified. Yet, I knew I could do it. I had the training and the skills thanks to the graduate program and my work experience. It would be hard, it would test me, but it would all be worth it. Three years later, I am doing everything I can to put the museum on the map. We are more successful and reaching more people than we ever have, and I am proud of what my team and I have been able to accomplish in just three short years.
Can you describe your work at the Hunter House? What do you like about working there?
As a Museum Director, I am the protector of the facility and its collections, the face of the museum for the public, and the promoter of our programming in the community. What makes my job different than that of other museum directors is that I work for an historic house. I manage to make the museum run on a staff of three, wherein I am the only full-time employee. This is very representative of the small museum world, many of which are run only by part-time employees or even volunteers. I supplement my paid staff with a family of volunteers ranging from high schoolers to ladies in their eighties. Volunteers are the heart of the museum; I just give them a place to call home and a hot cup of tea a few times a week.
Due to the nature of my facility, I quite literally have my hands in everything. I create programs, take reservations, process transactions, schedule volunteers, manage accounts, create and implement all marketing plans, attend events on behalf of the museum, join and head local and national committees related to my museum, oversee our digital presence through social media and our blog, and a plethora of others tasks that are too many to name. Right now, I am redesigning our website, a task which is beyond the scope of my skill set but provides me with a new challenge.
On most days, I feel like I am the Hunter House and the Hunter House is me. As a result, I am fully invested in its success. The most rewarding part of my job is when someone who has lived in Norfolk for thirty years discovers us for the first time because they saw my Facebook post, or email blast, or marketing materials (and trust me, this happens A LOT). Above all else, though, I love the challenge. I have always done my best work under pressure, and this position is a high-pressure one. It is such a pleasure to introduce the community to this local treasure, and I am beyond honored my Board trusts me to do so.
What are your favorite historical sites (besides the Hunter House, of course) in the Hampton Roads area?
My absolute favorite historic site in the area is another hidden gem, the Hill House Museum in Olde Town Portsmouth. The Hill House is a fellow nineteenth century historic house museum with a very impressive collection of furnishings and other period items. Amazingly, the museum operates through an all-volunteer staff headed by David Reitz and Dan Schmidt under the umbrella of the Portsmouth Historical Association. Their facility is more than worth a visit and their afternoon teas are divine. I highly recommend them!
I would be extremely remiss if I did not also mention Elmwood Cemetery, wherein the Hunter family is buried. Elmwood is an 1853 Victorian park cemetery in the heart of Norfolk which boasts ornate carvings typical of the era, such as bed-like headstones and footstones and varieties of mourning figures and angels. The Norfolk Society of Cemetery Conservation offers tours and community programs throughout the year. This is certainly a cause worthy of your time.
What sort of history books do you enjoy reading?
Right now, I am reading mostly about Victorian art, architecture, and lifestyles. I am the Chair of the Book Award Committee for the Victorian Society in America, and as such, I read and review a lot of books. Of particular interest right now are Unmentionable, which discusses all subjects deemed taboo by nineteenth century folk, and a new book released by Rowman and Littlefield titled The Rural Cemetery Movement. I still flip back through my 'school library' of books I kept from my time in the ODU program. It is amazing to me how many of them still apply to what I am doing today.
Do you have any plans regarding future research and writing projects?
I have a few small projects in the works and one large project. I have reviewed and continue to review books for the Victorian Society in America's journal Nineteenth Century, which you can find on EbscoHost if you are interested. I am also finishing up encyclopedia entries on two local suffragettes, Louise Collier Wilcox and Elizabeth Aymar Cooke Hull. They will appear in a national online encyclopedia featuring those tied to the suffragette movement in honor of the anniversary of the 19th amendment.
My biggest project, though, is my second book. I just signed a contract in January for a work to be published by Rowman and Littlefield in spring 2019. My working title is Museums and Millennials: Marketing to the Coveted Patron Generation. I want to use my experience both as a millennial and as a professional in the museum field to help others in small and mid-size museums attract my generation to their facilities and keep them engaged. I have a two-year-old son at home and I work full-time, so to say this will be a challenge is an understatement. Still, I feel prepared to take on the task and am excited to branch out into the world of museum studies.
Do you have any advice to offer to those currently in the program who want to have careers in museums?
My motto has always been that 'you get out what you put in'. The absolute best thing you can do to obtain a museum position is finish your degree and build your resume with relevant internships and volunteer positions. Do not underestimate the power of unpaid work. Volunteering allows you to get a foot in the door, make invaluable contacts in the field, and prove that you are a hard worker with a passion for the subject matter. Most places find it easiest to hire from within, especially if they are small. I have had three opportunities to hire for my museum and in all three instances I hired from within. One person had been an intern and two others had been volunteers. They showed their commitment to the facility and deserved the opportunity. Your degree is necessary, but is not usually what will tip the scales in your favor. It is the experiences you have collected as a result of your pursuit of your degree that make you stand out.