Meet Matthew Sarnelli: Curator of Collections 

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a museum? At the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, three curators cultivate artwork, programming and ideas: a Curator of Exhibits, a Curator of Education and a Curator of Collections. All three curators interact with the collection in different ways. From Olen Bryant sculptures to Nora Witzel photographs, the Customs House Museum’s collection is particularly special to Clarksville’s unique history.

Who cares for that collection? At the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, that person would be Matthew Sarnelli. Matthew has been with the Museum only since last February, but he’s already hard at work caring for the over 22,000 artifacts, artworks, documents and photographs the Museum has accumulated over its 40-year history. Read on to find out more about Matthew and his work at the Museum.

Who Is Matthew Sarnelli?

Matthew has known for a while he wanted to work in a museum setting. After graduating from George Washington University with a Master’s in Museum Studies and concentration in Collections, Matthew started work in his hometown of Raleigh, NC, at the State Archives.  

Matthew liked the work, but it’s not where he wanted to stay. He applied everywhere, including a job posting for the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center that he saw on the Southeastern Museums Conference website. Matthew thought a role as Curator of Collections was a high reach so early in his career, but he applied anyway. However, Matthew’s educational background was enough to impress Executive Director Frank Lott, and he was happily surprised when Frank gave him a call.

Though he is from Raleigh, Matthew does have a connection to Clarksville. His father, an Army veteran, was once stationed at Ft. Campbell. When Matthew was hired at the Museum, his parents were happy to show him around town, helping Matthew feel right at home.

Matthew in the Customs House Museum’s Collections storage facility. Photo by Justin Kaicles.

What Does Matthew Do?

The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center’s mission is to collect, preserve, interpret and share the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit for audiences today and into the future. Matthew is the Curator of Collections, and what he does can be divided into two distinct and specific roles: registrar and curator.  

A registrar is simply the person in a museum who keeps track of the items in a collection. When Curator of Exhibits, Terri Jordan, needs a specific item from Collections for an upcoming exhibit, it’s Matthew’s job to know where that collection item is and to retrieve it. If it’s a big item, like a vehicle, Matthew is there to make sure it is transported properly.

At the Customs House, this task isn’t always so simple. Working for a museum with an accumulated four decades of history and items in the collection, Matthew has learned the storage facility can be a maze. Sometimes he has to go on a deep dive to find an item. When he locates it, he updates the database. Matthew also makes sure all the items in the collection are well-maintained and handled properly. He assigns each item a unique accession number when it is accepted into the permanent collection. 

The curator role is a little more fun. For Matthew, being a curator means helping to shape the permanent collection. People can donate items to the Museum’s permanent collection. If they have a family heirloom that they no longer can care for, or if they found a box of interesting photographs in grandma’s attic, they can submit it to the Museum for consideration. However, it’s Matthew’s job to decide if the item in question will be a good addition. He then brings that item before the Collections committee for a final decision.

Matthew takes the job of deciding which items should be considered for accessioning very seriously. “It’s a big responsibility,” Matthew says. “It’s hard to turn people away. Every item is interesting.”

Also, Matthew can recommend an item to be deaccessioned, or removed from the collection, yet that’s not a decision that a museum takes lightly. Again, any final deaccessioning would be made by the Collections committee.

Matthew looks through recent photos of tobacco farming in Clarksville from the 20th century that were donated to the Museum. Photo by Justin Kaicles.

What Does Matthew Enjoy Most About His Job?

At the core of any curatorial role is the chance to tell a story. Every collection has a theme and a purpose. As Matthew says, the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center is “Clarksville’s place to show off.” It’s where people new to Clarksville or just visiting can come and see what Clarksville is all about and learn its story. Matthew has a crucial role in shaping the story that’s told. 

When a member of the Clarksville community brings in items they intend to donate to the Museum, Matthew gets to hear their stories and the stories of that item’s past. He savors his role in bringing new pieces of Clarksville’s past into the Museum and having the opportunity to share those stories with others. 

“This job is interesting to me. The people and stories behind each item are interesting. Each item is personal to me, and I like learning a little more about Clarksville. I want to be part of shaping the experience for other people,” Matthew says.

Like any other career, working as a curator has its challenges and its rewards. Caring for the Collections at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center means keeping Clarksville’s memories safe, to use now and for future generations. 

Come out and see the Museum’s exhibits Tuesday through Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 1pm-5pm, and get a glimpse of some of the items Matthew gets to interact with in his day-to-day work as the Museum’s Curator of Collections. 

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two children. 

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