Texas Tech University

Graduate Student Has a HEART for Heritage

Hope Lenamon

December 8, 2017


Jessica Stepp attended disaster readiness training for cultural institutions and historic sites at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Jessica Stepp
Jessica Stepp

Jessica Stepp had not walked the halls of the museums at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., since the eighth grade. Now, a graduate student in heritage and museum sciences at Texas Tech University and an administration intern at the Museum of Texas Tech University, she had the chance to see the exhibits in a whole new light.

Stepp was in Washington, D.C, for more than an ordinary visit - she was there to participate in the Heritage Emergency and Response Training (HEART).

HEART was organized by the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF), a partnership of 42 national service organizations and federal agencies cosponsored by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Smithsonian Institution. HEART prepares cultural stewards, first responders and emergency managers to work together to address emergencies and disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes or floods that affect cultural institutions and historic sites. Training took place within multiple Smithsonian departments and gave attendees the opportunity to network with other museum professionals.

Before arriving at Texas Tech, Stepp attended undergrad at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where she majored in history and minored in education, and she holds a Masters of Arts in history from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. After moving to West Texas and seeing what the Heritage and Museum Sciences program at Texas Tech had to offer, she decided to apply for graduate school.

Jessica Stepp
Jessica's group during the documentation exercise.

Stepp originally heard about the competitive HEART program through the Texas Cultural Emergency Response Alliance. After seeing the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, she was motivated to apply on both a personal and professional level.

"I enjoy volunteering, especially within the cultural heritage community, and I felt confident I would learn skills to help me assist with disaster recovery in the future and assist with pre-disaster preparedness," Stepp said. "Furthermore, part of my internship at the Museum of Texas Tech University is to assist with the museum's disaster preparedness program, and I felt the HEART program would help me better fulfill my internship responsibilities."

Only 25 participants were selected from more than 100 applications. This was the first year HENTF opened training to American professionals. Previously, HENTF offered training for international professionals.

Jessica Stepp
Jessica with her completion certificate.

Gary Morgan, executive director of the Museum of Texas Tech University, said he is proud to have an intern who has completed one of the most highly regarded training programs of its kind in the world.

"Because museums house the treasures of the nation, they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of natural and human-induced disasters," Morgan said. "Our next generation of museum leaders and managers, such as Jessica, must be well trained in all types of emergencies."

During the week-long program, participants met from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or later) and learned about first aid for cultural heritage professionals, principles of evacuation, damage assessment, emergency documentation, handling damaged materials and more.

"The training instructors used a variety of teaching methods including lecture, discussion and experiential learning," she said. "The lectures and discussion with my peers were invaluable, and I gained a deeper understating of disaster response by combining theoretical knowledge with practical application during the experiential learning exercises."

Jessica Stepp
Post-evacuation exercise group photo

Stepp said the program has made her a stronger museum professional, and it has given her the capability to help the Museum of Texas Tech University. Her goal is to one day serve as the director of a museum, and she said the HEART program has instilled within her the critical disaster preparedness knowledge essential for the path to directorship.

"While I am not an expert after one training, I am more confident in my ability to assist the museum in drafting a disaster plan, conducting risk assessments, training fellow staff members and knowing where to look for additional resources," Stepp said.

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