SUNY Plattsburgh Senior Helps Update Underground Railroad Exhibit
People of Plattsburgh
SUNY Plattsburgh’s Dr. Amy Mountcastle described her student Teagan Benjamin as a “ball of energy” with “infectious enthusiasm.”
Benjamin, an anthropology major, brought her positive energy to her internship at the local North Star Underground Railroad Museum, said Jackie Madison, president of the local North Star Underground Railroad Museum and Benjamin’s internship site supervisor.
‘Immersed in Underground Railroad Museum’
A video called “Northward to Freedom” was produced in 2011 before the museum opened.
Benjamin endeavored to update it to reach younger audiences better, Madison said.
The SUNY Plattsburgh senior has worked with two TV-video production majors on the video, doing research and working on the script.
At the end of the spring 2023 semester, Benjamin said she thought the video needed more work for professional-looking results, so she opted to continue with the internship in the fall.
“Typically, interns take on a project, but do not go out of their way to learn more. Madison said.
“Her willingness to improve on the first video that she did shows a dedication to doing the very best at any project she takes on.”
Benjamin said she can excel in her internship work because of the support of faculty on campus.
The Plattsburgh native said Mountcastle, associate professor and chair of anthropology, “has always been there to help me whenever I’ve had hard life stuff. She’s ok with me going to her and helps me figure it out.”
Applied Learning Opportunities
Students from various majors like psychology and marketing have participated in internships housed in the anthropology department, Mountcastle said.
“We emphasize these skills and offer opportunities for students to practice and apply them throughout our curriculum, which includes independent studies, teacher assistant opportunities and guided internship experiences,” she said.
Anthropology students have interned at the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum and the Kent Delord House Museum, she said.
“We are seeking to develop more opportunities with local agencies, nonprofits and businesses,” Mountcastle said.
Students Collaborate with Faculty on Research
There are many options both for anthropology internships and careers post graduation.
“Anthropology is a dynamic major that enables us to understand people and ourselves better. It provides students with skills that will serve them in whatever career or work path they choose or find themselves in,” Mountcastle said.
Students also have access to undergraduate research done in partnership with faculty, Mountcastle said.
Half a dozen students worked with her on her study of northern border migration throughout an irregular border crossing at Roxham Road in Champlain.
The associate professor curated the exhibit, “Borders: Migrations North + South,” which includes art, photography and artifacts related to migrations across the country’s northern and southern borders.
“Borders” is on display at the Plattsburgh State Art Museum through March 2024.
Exhibits Updated but ‘History Remains the Same’
Restructuring museum exhibits is necessary to uphold the museum’s mission, which “seeks to bring in the next generation of historians to preserve and share the story of the Underground Railroad for the future.”
“It’s important that we listen to the youths so the history can continue,” Madison said.
“For knowledge to be retained and grow, we must understand how it is accepted by those who are learning it. That makes talking and collaborating with the students.”
For the video, Benjamin interviewed Neal Burdick, the great-great-grandson of Stephen Keese Smith, who housed runaway enslaved people at his North Country farm between Keeseville and Peru.
The internship led to an additional learning opportunity, giving her further experience in a setting that aligns with Benjamin’s future career aspirations.
“I’m most impressed with Teagan’s willingness to learn the history and volunteer as a docent,” Madison said.
Benjamin said she plans to pursue a museum archivist job in the Albany area after graduation.
“I can digitize everything really easily. I can organize files. I can take care of important paperwork and you also get to handle documents of historical significance.”
Connecting with Museum Visitors
An experience she had over the summer while she was volunteering as a docent at the museum will stick with her, she said, adding that it united her interest in languages with anthropology.
Benjamin previously took an American Sign Language class at the university and practiced on her own with workbooks.
While working in the museum, she saw some visitors signing with each other.
“I know sign language, and I was able to communicate with their daughter and father,” Benjamin said.
While her ASL wasn’t perfect, the visitors signed to her, “’I’m so happy that you’re able to understand me and are trying to have this conversation.’ It was just really beautiful having a language barrier like that but still being able to get past it to meet new people.”
— Story, Benjamin photos by Assistant Director of Communications Felicia Krieg with Madison, Mountcastle photos provided