‘Art can be a source of joy for people, and I like to make those experiences happen’
Rebecca Elliot is one of the creative minds behind the new exhibition Craft in the Laboratory: The Science of Making Things and lead author of the catalogue by the same name.
Rebecca Elliot is the assistant curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion at The Mint Museum. Her journey with art has taken her around the globe, from her student days studying abroad in London and frequenting the British Museum, to her jobs at the Cranbrook Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and finally to the Mint in 2012, where she’s currently the assistant curator of craft, design and fashion. Here, Elliot shares a glimpse into her life inside the museum, from the glamorous (handling 18th-century men’s suits and thrifting with iconic fashion designer Anna Sui) to the decidedly unglamorous (copy editing and emails). — As told to Caroline Portillo. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
I grew up in central Ohio in a town called Delaware, Ohio, about 30 or 40 miles north of Columbus. I loved to read fiction and liked writing. I loved art, especially drawing. My sister and I — she’s three years older than me — would have coloring contests. I even tried to design clothes. I would play with my Barbies and have them do fashion shows. For me, it was more about Barbie having a job, a career, and wearing stylish outfits.
For undergrad, I went to Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. I took art history during my sophomore year, and then I spent my junior year studying abroad at University College London, where I took a lot of art history classes. UCL was close to the British Museum and I would often go after school. In London, I also visited the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery. It was really cool actually seeing the scale of the paintings and what the texture looked like, knowing what it felt like to stand in front of it, and noticing what other people did when they were there. That’s when I first started thinking about working with museums. The interface between the art and the public was interesting to me.
Here’s a snapshot of a recent day in my life. First, I helped Annie [Carlano, the Mint’s senior curator for craft, design, and fashion] lay out the jackets from two 18th-century gentlemen’s suits for a Zoom call with a curator from the V&A in London. Because I’m the copyeditor for all the Mint’s exhibition texts, my afternoon was spent answering emails and reviewing exhibition label proofs. I spent the evening on one of my hobbies: ushering for a show at Actor’s Theater. I enjoy theater, and ushering is a great way to help out and see a show for free.
I love thrifting and actually got to join fashion icon Anna Sui on a thrifting expedition. Anna was in Charlotte in November last year for the opening of The World of Anna Sui at Mint Museum Randolph. After lunch, we ventured to Sleepy Poet Antique Mall. I have admired Anna Sui’s style ever since her clothes started appearing in my favorite ’90s teen magazine, Sassy. I was thrilled when I got to join her entourage and go thrifting in Charlotte. I walked around with Anna and Vogue’s Senior Fashion News Editor Steff Yotka, observing which items they gravitated to and occasionally commenting about things that reminded me of Anna’s style. I was with them as Anna found and inspected a tablecloth — the three of us unfolded it together — and decided it was worth the $20 price. It’s fun to know that I was there when she found a small souvenir to take back and enjoy in her home.
Speaking of Sleepy Poet, I made a point to go there just before they moved out of their old location, knowing there would be bargains. Sure enough, I found a Heywood-Wakefield wood headboard and footboard, possibly mid-century modern, for $25. Whenever I’m thrifting or antiquing, I look for interesting mid-century modern items. I like old stuff, decorative stuff, fashion, and art.
When I’m visiting a museum, I nerd out. I look at the objects and the labels — how are they written? Would I do it the same way? I look at what objects are next to each other, how they play off each other. I look at what’s in the room, how the wall colors are, the pathway.
I love working at a museum because museums give people so many different kinds of experiences. Art can be a source of joy for people, and I like to make those experiences happen. Art can also be something that makes people uncomfortable, that makes them question and think about things they may not have before. We are facing many difficult issues, everything from the environment to social justice to politics. The work I do matters in those areas. We’re not trying to be political, but we are trying to make society better.