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Turn Students into Museum Pros to Spark Interest in Local History

By partnering with the surrounding community, Dr. Sarah Scripps creates opportunities for students to create actual museum exhibits on local history.

Educator

Sarah Scripps, PhD

Assistant Professor of History, University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point

PhD in History, MA in Public History, BA in History and French Studies

Many students feel disconnected from history and its string of unfamiliar names, places, and happenings. But Dr. Sarah Scripps, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, is working to change that perception—and improve her community in the process.

Scripps embraces an academic subspecialty known as “public history”—the study of how to convey historical knowledge to the public at large. That “public,” of course, involves her students, including those in her Museum Exhibitions course. And for them, she has yet another subgoal: to help them see the relevance, usefulness, and beauty in local history—the novel facts, stories, and events that shaped the community surrounding UWSP.

“The history here is actually very rich,” says Scripps. “I tell my students that if you are going to work in the museum field—in history museums—the vast majority of those museums are local, so students need to understand how the study of local public history actually happens.”

To that end, Scripps has sought out partnerships with local organizations that have compelling stories to tell, but limited means to bring them to light. She has found that the resulting cocreated exhibits are tangible proof of a match made in history heaven, and a win for all involved.

Challenge

Students struggle to contextualize history

Many students view the study of history as a passive act: Read a textbook, then simply let the names, dates, and events march past. On top of that, Scripps has found that her students have had little experience of understanding how the history of Stevens Point fits into the bigger picture of US and world history.

Innovation

Use hands-on projects to liven things up

Students in Scripps’s Museum Exhibitions course have recently linked up with several local partners to research, write, design, and mount actual museum-style exhibits. These projects are designed to inspire people on campus and in the surrounding community of Stevens Point to gain a greater appreciation for the historical happenings in their own backyard.

Context

“As a public historian, I want to make sure that the teaching and the learning of history happens as much outside of the classroom as within it.”

— Sarah Scripps, PhD

Course: HIST 390 Museum Exhibitions

Course description: An analysis of the history, theory, and practice of museum exhibits.

 

See resources shared by Sarah Scripps, PhD

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Lesson: Build a real exhibit for a local museum

Scripps’s class has been able to produce outstanding work for a number of local organizations.

One class project called for her students to join with a local art museum to develop a retrospective about its founder. Another project—a traveling exhibit—highlighted the history of local fair-housing issues after a university faculty member ran up against outdated housing practices, becoming the victim of discrimination. Most recently, the local historical society partnered with Scripps’s class to create an exhibit and accompanying documentary about the impact of World War I on the Stevens Point community.

“I normally try to have Museum Studies courses be very applied and very driven by the community,” says Scripps. “In every case, the projects have arisen from a community partner approaching me about a particular topic, so it’s 100% driven by community demand.”

After Scripps has selected a community partner for the semester and, with them, has chosen an exhibit topic, she does her best to take a hands-off approach for the remainder of the project, serving as a facilitator and guide rather than a project leader. Here is how she guides students through the process of becoming museum exhibit researchers, writers, designers, builders, and promoters.

Divvy up the class and the work

This is really the only way to handle all the moving parts, says Scripps. A recent project encompassed five teams: two were devoted to writing and other editorial concerns; two were focused on designing and installing exhibit panels and related items; and one handled logistical and administrative duties, such as budgeting, issuing press releases, and scheduling an opening day reception for the finished exhibit.

“I have found that team leaders are also critical to the success of the operation, and they really do set the tone for their teams,” she says. “If a team has a really confident team leader, then it usually has pretty smooth sailing.”

Teams should be not too big but not too small, says Scripps, so that students are not overworked but still feel a sense of investment. Still, she chooses to leave the specifics to students, allowing them to determine the number and composition of teams based on their skills and preferences. She also has each team write and sign a contract that clarifies roles and expectations.

Ask them to define the “big idea”

This is a critical first step in the exhibit process: determining and defining the “big idea” of the project. Scripps typically guides her students to divvy up the research by teams: Each team member is assigned a particular research role and then shares their findings with fellow team members.

“In the museum world, the ‘big idea’ is what you might think of as the thesis statement,” says Scripps. “It’s what the whole exhibit revolves around. Every single label in the exhibit should reflect some variation of it, whether it’s a small, humble object label, all the way up to the introductory panel.”

The big idea, adds Scripps, is the result of research—aka the “curation process”—as students visit campus or local archives; examine artifacts that relate to the topic; and read books, articles, and other relevant materials. They use these findings to generate “research notes,” or compiled summaries of the curated materials.

“Focusing on a big idea is critical, because you have very limited time to convey your message to a museum goer,” she says. “We know they aren’t going to sit there and read [exhibit materials] for two hours.” The big idea helps students think about what information, although very interesting, doesn’t really fit. “That’s hard for students, who are so used to trying to acquire as much as possible to write that paper,” she says.

Introduce them to the “exhibition script”

With the big idea in mind and the research as a guide, the teams work on an exhibition script—a rough outline of the exhibit that includes text, labels, proposed objects and images, and any design and installation notes.

“I want all the students to have a role in doing work where they have to write and think historically,” Scripps explains.

Each team refines a portion of the script, which they hand over to the editorial team (or teams). The editorial team will then compile all the writing and begin creating a streamlined draft that reflects one consistent, accessible voice. This “exhibition script” will drive the creation of the exhibit itself.

“In the process of refining the script, they learn that words really matter, and whether we use this word or that word will change the entire tone of the exhibit,” says Scripps. “But they’re able to work through it, and I do find that those skills develop over the course of the semester. It’s part of why this class is so rewarding to watch.”

Monitor relationships during the build

With one or two teams assigned to designing and installing the actual exhibit, students from all teams must learn to work together to present something that follows a predetermined plan, fits in an allotted space, and reflects a unified visual and textual theme.

Scripps notes that teams often disagree—sometimes vehemently—at this stage in the process, because of limited space and strong opinions about the historical value of certain objects or pieces of written text. Some have remarked on this phase in their course reviews: “I feel that this class better prepared me for group work. In order to communicate more productively, I need practice working toward a common goal with multiple people who share different mindsets,” wrote one student. Another commented, “Often I worked with people who dealt with conflict differently than I do. It was worthwhile to understand how to approach those situations.”

“They begin to feel the gravity and the stakes, and sometimes conflict will erupt,” says Scripps. “What I think is that they have ownership of this, and they care. So I think it’s a positive, as long as we’re able to overcome it.”

End with a project retrospective

Once an exhibit is finally up and running—and sometimes earlier—Scripps has students do peer evaluations to keep her informed about team dynamics, assist her in deciding on final grades, and help maintain the students’ sense of responsibility to each other.

Scripps also asks each student to write a “reflective paper” about how their academic study of museum work fits in with the real-world experience they have had.

Celebrate their successes—publicly

Scripps finds that she looks forward to watching how inspired her students become through the process of actually creating a full-blown museum exhibit about an often-unknown aspect of local history.

“They really need the culminating event of seeing their work installed and having a reception where people come in and they can share what they did with the community,” says Scripps. “It’s really important for the students to see the tangible results of their hard work in a public way.”

As one student noted in the course review, “The most rewarding part was seeing the entire exhibit, including our outside research, come together in the final exhibit for the reception.”

The community partners who benefit from the students’ efforts are also happy to have the opportunity to thank the students for their considerable efforts.

“Most of them are impressed by what the students are able to do—as am I!—especially considering how quick the turnaround time is,” says Scripps. “They’re really grateful that someone is telling their story, and they love that it is students who are taking ownership of it.”

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