Soderholm reflects on years with Clayton Museum

Walking through the unfinished basement of the Mackey Center in 2013, Amber Soderholm ’10 remembered smashing pumpkins and playing broom hockey there as a student. The concrete floors and bare walls made ‘The Underground’ the perfect spot for messy or potentially destructive activities. It was dark, dingy, and cluttered with everything from artificial Christmas trees to extra cafeteria equipment.

“How am I supposed to turn this into a museum?” she wondered. The task was daunting. 

However, Soderholm rose to the challenge. In September 2015, amid much fanfare and with the help of an honor guard of Roman centurion reenactors, the Clayton Museum of Ancient History was opened to the public. Since that time, Soderholm has continued to improve on the museum, adding a children’s interactive exhibit; offering classes in pottery and mosaics; bringing in guest speakers; and planning special events and exhibits.

In the past two years, more than 10,000 visitors have explored the collection of artifacts so impressively displayed where once pumpkins were smashed and Christmas trees gathered dust. 

Soderholm has been working with the Clayton Museum collection since 2013, first as a consultant and then as the curator and museum designer. “It was a learning experience,” she said. “Most of my experience up to that point had been with historic homes and working with a supervisor, someone I could go to with questions.” With this project, she had a collection of artifacts from many places and times, and the responsibility for planning how they would be displayed as well as cared for. Soderholm enlisted the talents of friend and local artist, Kate Fitch, as well as her father, Robert Soderholm. 

Fitch brought the designer’s eye and Robert Soderholm brought the construction skills. What did she bring? “All the crazy ideas,” she said with a laugh. “I would think of something that I wanted to do, but had no idea how to make it happen. Together we would figure it out.” One of the biggest challenges was trying to contextualize the artifacts so that museum-goers would have a deeper appreciation of the eclectic collection, from silver shekels to roman military equipment to Syro-Hittite figurines. 

The biggest take-away from her experience has been never to say never, said Soderholm. “Sometimes you limit yourself. You think ‘that’s not possible’ when really, it is possible, if you just keep trying and wait for things to work out.”

Her favorite part of the job with the Clayton Museum has been the introduction of the children’s programming. “It’s been fun to see kids’ interest come alive in the interactive area and to see where their imaginations take them,” she said.  She has a team of 15 Junior Docents, whom she works with on a weekly basis. “I wanted to teach them how to research and how to talk about an object and its historical context, and to give them a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes at a museum,” she said.

The Junior Docents have led museum tours at special events such as the Ides of March dinner last spring. They will host a special night at the museum on Thursday, December 14 at 6:30 p.m. All are invited to visit the museum for this free event and to enjoy the Junior Docents explanations of the artifacts. 

A temporary exhibit on Martin Luther is currently on display as well. Soderholm says she has been surprised at the popularity of the exhibit and the lecture event that accompanied it. This exhibit will remain up through the end of the year, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation Movement. 

In January, Soderholm will start a new adventure as visitor services coordinator at The Grove Museum in Tallahassee, Florida. While she admits she will miss the people the museum has brought into her life and York, the new opportunity is thrilling. The Grove Museum is a historic home on ten acres in the heart of Tallahassee, next door to the Governor’s mansion. The museum has just undergone considerable renovation and reopened to the public in March 2017. Soderholm is excited about working with an historic home again (her previous experience was at The Hermitage in Nashville, former home of President Andrew Jackson). Her hope for the Clayton Museum is that it continues to grow and be a vibrant resource for history lovers of all ages for many years to come.