courtesy University of Tulsa

Students organize upcoming Special Collections exhibit

Students present, as part of the course, “Cultural Responses to War in the 20th Century” on WWI from a millennial point of view.

Soon Special Collections at McFarlin will host a new exhibit, this one coordinated by students. For Professor Kirsten Old’s Cultural Responses to War in the 20th Century class, students organized an exhibit entitled “Routine Amidst Chaos: WWI Through Millennial Eyes.”

Designing this exhibit was the main research project for the class. Olds said the project “allows students to learn about how to work with archival material, how to put on a display, how to make meaning out of things/context and display them for a public audience.” While Olds initially hoped the class could create the exhibit on the Vietnam War, but because Special Collections has so much material related to WWI, she decided that would be a better theme.

The class divided into five groups, which each created a vitrine, or display case, each dealing with a different theme. The vitrines will be organized around: “comradery,” which will discuss how soldiers formed bonds with one another; “injury,” which will include both physical and psychological injuries; “I won’t be home for Christmas,” which will look at celebrations of Christmas and other holidays; “homefront,” which will primarily look at women who stayed at home; and “technology,” which will show how old and new technology functioned side-by-side during the war. For each vitrine, the groups decided what items to present, how to present them, and what to label them as.

Aileen Polanski, whose group created the “homefront” vitrine, said their theme came out of the first items her group found. “The two I remember finding were a set of postcards that were saved from an exchange between someone in the front and someone at home, and a manuscript for a memoir that someone had written. She’d gone to work in a factory when everyone else had gone to war,” she said.

Catherine Duinick, whose group created the “technology” vitrine, said the biggest factor in choosing their theme was the new use of gases. “It was shocking to read about how the poison took so many lives in such a brutal way,” she said. Working with the fragile and important materials was difficult, “it’s not like just going to Google and searching for something. You have to work with many people in order to find materials and create a successful exhibition.”

That memoir was the most interesting item they found, because it not only documented her experience, but was filled with notes of her edits of the manuscript. Special Collections does not have as many items related to the homefront as they do the war front, which became a problem for Polanski’s group, but in the end, their vitrine will feature five or six items.
Although Olds did have to give some feedback at the beginning to separate groups’ focuses, Polanski said that it was surprising to her how little groups’ vitrines overlapped. Overall, Olds tried to oversee, troubleshoot or give feedback when needed, “empowering them to make their own choices.”

As the class is an art history course, some of the students are museum studies majors, some are art students, while others are in other majors. Even if the students don’t plan to go into museum work, Olds believes the project serves an important purpose. “These are transferable skills, even for someone who’s a historian, for instance, that they are still learning how to write for the public, think thematically and come up with ways of making meaning or processing unsorted information and those are useful skills regardless of what you’re doing.”

“It can be a difficult skill to know what’s important when presented with a lot of material that hasn’t been digested,” she admitted. For Polanski, who is earning a museum studies certificate, it is a useful project.

“You get the idea of what goes into setting this up, you have to think about the display, how the items fit together,” she said.

Olds sees the project as a “way for students to be able to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in a hands on way, which is something we can do here at TU.” In her own life, she’s been an art historian and curated galleries, so she has experience in the field.

In addition to the vitrines, the students will write individual essays on objects in their vitrines, which will be featured on the Special Collections blog.

While the project “poses its own organizational challenges, ultimately it’s really rewarding,” Olds said. Special Collections has embraced working with the class and Olds has done similar projects in previous classes. According to Olds, “Special Collections is there for researchers but also as an educational tool for the TU community,” and she hopes students will visit the upcoming exhibit to support their peers’ work. “Through this experience I learned how vast TU has grown in their Special Collections,” said Duininck, “If you’re interested in history you should definitely check it out!”

Post Author: Michaela Flonard