In a two-year grad program, you only get one summer break. At the end of last spring semester, I knew I wanted to use the break to continue growing in my knowledge and experience. Especially for someone who feels that they are playing a perpetual game of catch-up, even with his much younger peers, I wanted to make real progress this summer and gain valuable work experiences. With the recommencement of classes just around the corner, I can say that I’m satisfied that I accomplished that. Here’s some highlights.
After my experience with the Anne Braden Institute (see previous post), I began working more in earnest at the Kentucky Science Center. As you may know, I fulfilled my public history internship requirement at the KSC last fall, and was the first UofL public history student to do so. That’s not surprising, considering that history education is nowhere in its current mission. What you may not know is that at one time it was. Some explication is necessary here, and I’ll try to keep it concise.
The Kentucky Science Center’s roots stretch back to the Louisville Polytechnic Society of the 1870s. Over time, the society’s collection of rocks, minerals, manuscripts, and zoological and botanical specimens came into the hands of the local public library, who displayed it in a loose, cabinet of curiosities style museum. Very long story short, the collection was eventually transferred to the city and in 1978 moved into the current location of the Science Center on West Main Street. The reuse of a historic building stirred up great interest, and an early exhibit in the lobby was about the history of the Carter Dry Goods building and historic West Main Street. At that time, however, the museum was dubbed The Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science. The original concept behind the museum (which in actuality never got very far off the ground) was to begin on the top floor with a seven-foot long model of the steamboat Robert E Lee in front of large picture windows overlooking the Ohio River. As the visitor progressed downwards through the museum, they would be taken further and further back into Louisville’s past. Local and cultural history would gradually give way to anthropological and natural history, and exhibits about the Falls of the Ohio and the region’s geological origins.
To do this, the museum undertook an active collections development program. Representatives of Byck’s department store collected donations of historic clothing, hats, shoes, and accessories from the attics of the local community to create a substantial textile and “costume” collection which stretches back to the 1840s. Louisville’s Heritage Corporation, which had been formed by the Chamber of Commerce in order to organize bicentennial celebrations in Louisville donated a large and excellent model circus collection commissioned by an eccentric local man in the 1930s and ’40s. Numerous other personal items from the early twentieth century were collected from locals, which, combined with impressive anthropological artifacts from earlier donors, created a fantastic cache of cultural history. In light of these additions, the word “Natural” was dropped from the museum’s title in the 1980s and it became the Louisville Museum of History and Science.
Despite an action plan which gave equal weight to history and science in the museum’s programming, the writing was on the wall. With the rise of Science Centers and IMAX in the late ’80s (and believe me, I’m keeping this as brief as I can), Louisville’s downtown museum shifted closer and closer to that mold. By the mid-1990s, the transformation was almost complete. A sweeping plan to reconfigure the museum into a hands-on science museum for children was carried out in the early 2000s. Original artifacts were largely absent from this plan, though the best of the taxidermy was displayed in a thematic region called “The World Around Us”. Institutional icons such as a mummy, two polar bears, a whale skull, and gemini capsule are permanently displayed in the “Discovery Gallery”. Aside from the occasional loan, the balance of the collection is held in storage.
This is where I come in. I was hired to “reset” some of the displays of technology in the section titled “The World We Create”. The existing artifact displays were stale. They had been on display for several years and were merely curiosities with no subtext. New guidelines called the Next Generation Science Standards required more interpretation to create parallels between science, engineering, and investigative learning.
My first task was simple: a mannequin displayed with a 1905 gramophone that I had put on display during my internship needed a new dress. The black one (see photo) was from the previous display and was of an earlier time. For this I had the help of Jo Ross, a fashion expert who was responsible for the creation of the costume collection, and her fashion volunteers.
This artifact is part of the interpretive story of the next display I created– my first large scale exhibit including costumed mannequins, artifacts, and interpretive text, which I’m proud to say I did entirely on my own. Details on that one coming soon….