Judith Stewart-Abernathy’s life has been dedicated to interpreting the stories behind artifacts and caring for family bibles. For the last 26 years, she has invested her time and energy into Arkansas Tech University.
“I was hired to create a professional museum facility by the board [of trustees],” Stewart-Abernathy said. “The history club was in the 1920s to 1940s and their sponsor kept some things after that. Those items were boxed up and moved around campus and ended up in the basement of what was the art building.”
In the 1980s, the university felt the need to unearth the Native American and River Valley artifacts and put them on display. Soon after, a partnership was formed.
The U.S. Forest Service, a local Arkansas Archeological Survey Research station and Tech partnered to create the museum.
“Our first mission focused on human experience in the River Valley and Western Arkansas from about 10,000 years ago to present,” Stewart-Abernathy said. “
We did a lot of things for K-12 in the 90s and early 2000s.”
Stewart-Abernathy is no stranger to the classroom herself. Before coming to Tech, she went on to get her master’s degree in anthropology and archeology and involved herself in exhibitions soon after, applying her learned skills in the field. She has been involved in what she calls exhibit-type work since 1982, and now she mentors the 10 student workers and one volunteer at Tech’s on-campus museum.
However, museum work is a far cry from the veterinarian work she wanted to pursue up until her eighth-grade year of school.
“I obviously wandered far afield,” Stewart-Abernathy said. “My biology teacher led me astray one summer to help her do a collection project from an archeological site on her property, and I got quite interested in that, collecting it and analyzing it.”
In 1980, Stewart-Abernathy left her pet sitting service behind, married her husband and later moved with him to the River Valley from their then Pine Bluff home. His work with the Arkansas Archeological Survey now has him on Petit Jean Mountain, while Stewart-Abernathy has been dedicated to serving Tech.
“I’m very vested in the museum after this long,” Stewart-Abernathy said. “This is like my house. I know every inch of this space. I’ll miss the familiarity; it’s like moving almost.”
Stewart-Abernathy’s advice will stay with the current and future historian hopefuls that pass through the museum. For the workforce specifically, Stewart- Abernathy advises job-seekers do a bit of self-examination.
“Is this seriously what you want to do? If you get involved in it and make it your passion, it’s not an eight-to-five job,” Stewart-Abernathy said. “You need to be passionate about it, not just interested.”
Aside from self-examination, future historians should also have a broad skill set and be able to write grants, budget and manage their time and workers, Stewart- Abernathy said.
“I advise people to think a little bit,” Stewart- Abernathy said.
Ever the leader, Stewart-Abernathy takes her own advice, thinking about the environment of the community when she came to Tech and the environment she’s leaving.
“When I first started here, there was a lot of curiosity about Dwight mission, Russellville history and Native American history. It was kind of a periodic thing, where people got very curious and it drops down for a little while, then it surges again.” Stewart-Abernathy said. “Right now, going out, it’s muddy to me. There’s a lot of interest in a sense of place, but also people are grappling with what it means to be patriotic. What does it mean to have a sense of honor? What is your home place and what do you need to protect?”
For now, it seems Stewart-Abernathy’s home is her second floor, book-filled office of the Nutt-facing side of the Techionery.
“I’m going to volunteer some, that’s my hope and plan, to finish some things I just can’t quite seem to get done,” Stewart-Abernathy said with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll have more time. I don’t know how that [volunteering] works.”
Stewart-Abernathy will officially retire December 2015.