American studies students complete mobile exhibit
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The newest exhibit in the Penn State Harrisburg Library, “American Women and Modern Culture, 1890-1920,” on display until Feb. 8, has been repurposed with a new twist – mobility. Based upon the work of students in Dr. Erin Battat’s Women and the American Experience course the exhibit can now hit the road, with plans underway to have it on display at other Penn State campuses this spring.
Roughly 30 students analyzed materials in the Library’s Alice Marshall Women’s History Collection, considered one of the largest privately compiled women’s history collections in the country. The students selected pieces and wrote description labels for each.
The project offers a unique opportunity for students to work with archival materials, which showcases the vitality of undergraduate research at the college, said Erin Battat, assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies. “This project makes a major impact in [the students’] ability to analyze visual media, to develop arguments, and to support their claims with evidence. For many students, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
But benefits of the project don’t stop at student experience, according to undergraduate Library archives intern and American studies student Rosemary Yee.
“One of the archival missions is outreach. In addition to preserving items, raising public awareness of the existence of the archives is equally essential. An effective way to promote them is through exhibitions. By taking the exhibits on the road, not only will the entire Penn State community benefit from understanding the issues of American women at the turn of the twentieth century, but they will also develop an interest in archival research.”
The exhibit contains copies of 27 objects, ranging from historic postcards and valentines, to sheet music and a song book. The displays relate to themes like women’s suffrage, work and consumerism, and education, with the goal to highlight how everyday objects document the experiences of women throughout history.
The work that goes into such an exhibit is extensive, explained Katie McGowan, an American studies graduate student and archives assistant who contributed to the project. “Sometimes the entire process can take several months just to display 20 items.” Selecting an exhibit theme, studying related artifacts, creating digitized copies of fragile items, conducting in-depth subject and collection research, writing object descriptions, drafting short information labels, and marketing are all steps in the intricate process.
“Students are dedicated to this project because it has real-world impact,” said Battat. “After their first visit to the archives, they are eager to share this rich collection with the wider campus community.”
The process of mobilizing the display went smoothly according to Heidi Abbey, the Library’s archivist, humanities reference librarian, and coordinator of archives and special collections. Now transportable, the exhibit will be easy for host locations to set up and maintain. The exhibit will come to campuses supplied with foam-mounted display items, stands, and marketing materials, funded by the Penn State Harrisburg Library.
“Traveling exhibits widen the prospective audience. Penn State Harrisburg may have items that other campuses do not, and the traveling exhibit is a great way to connect the larger Penn State community,” McGowan said. “The mutual benefits may result in greater collaboration with other campuses in the future and maintain working relationships with other archives and museums.”
Images of the objects, created for Dr. Battat’s course, are posted online, enabling students to study the materials outside of the archives and at their own convenience.