Hands-On Museum Experiences Prepare Southeast Students for Historic Preservation Careers

On a recent evening in a classroom of Southeast Missouri State University’s Carnahan Hall, several students gathered around a large banner draped over a mass of tables. The banner, over eight feet long and almost seven feet wide, is a remnant of the World War I era on Southeast’s campus.

The silk fabric is covered in blue stars, representing each Southeast student who served in the war. Eighteen of the stars were painted gold, symbolizing the 17 men and one woman who died in service. This 100-year-old artifact was recently found, tightly folded and stuffed in a small box, by students and staff members of Southeast’s Special Collections and Archives in Kent Library.

While some students gingerly folded the banner, some placed acid-free tissue paper in the folds and others monitored the painted stars for signs of stress or flaking. They worked to prepare it for long-term storage in a larger, archive-quality box.

The students put their knowledge of artifact handling and storage to work while providing appropriate care and storage of the artifact. This is just one of the many projects that students of Southeast’s historic preservation program routinely experience as part of two classes addressing museum and artifact management.

The classes are a collaborative effort with the Cape River Heritage Museum (CRHM) to allow students the opportunity to put theory into practice by using the CRHM’s resources, while the museum benefits from the additional manpower and knowledge.

Learning how to design and install a museum exhibit is a major part of one day being a part of or managing their own museum staff.

“They had to research the artifacts, create a storyline and produce the best design to present it,” said Dr. Eric Clements, professor of history at Southeast.

As part of the class requirements, students work as a team to develop a theme, select and research artifacts from the museum’s collection and display them in a cohesive manner that would be interesting and informative to the public. The CRHM requested World War I as the general theme and defined the allotted space. The students further refined that theme by adding local and personal interest, focusing on the U.S. Army 140th Infantry Regiment and the daily lives of the soldiers.

“Getting to see how important it is to rely on professional contacts and other experts was really eye opening. I had the chance to work with the National World War I Museum and Memorial, who were kind enough to let us use a photograph from their collection,” said Mackenzie Machuga, a senior double major in historic preservation and history from Belleville, Illinois. “The opportunity to practice those kinds of professional interactions was extremely beneficial and a skill I will use for the rest of my career.”

Through the development process, the students learned about best practices for artifact presentation, addressing factors such as artifact interpretation, space, lighting and color scheme. They also gained experience in writing artifact labels and accompanying exhibit literature.

“Exhibits are more than displaying artifacts. It needs to show how the objects interacted with people,” said Karl Lugar, of Gary, Indiana, a first-year graduate student perusing his Master of Arts with a major in public history, historic preservation option. “It brings the community closer together, showing how artifacts and knowledge connect both the next-door neighbor and a crosstown resident.”

The students also assisted with light maintenance at the museum, such as painting.

“The program tries to emphasize experiential learning,” Clements said. “The educational benefits of this experience can be used in a lot of venues – museums, historical sites, educational institutes and parks, among others.”

Management of museum collections, including documentation, appropriate handling and stable storage of artifacts from arrival through the life of the holdings is another important skill students acquire. This class also addressed ethics and legal issues related to artifacts and museums.

Dr. Lily Santoro, associate professor of history at Southeast, developed the curriculum based on her experiences as a museum professional. Employees with knowledge in collections management are in demand, but programs with courses that address collections management are rare.

“I had to learn as I was doing it,” Santoro said. “I wished that someone had taught me how to handle artifacts.”

Each student chose an artifact from the CRHM’s collection and wrote a condition assessment, researched the item, created accession and catalogue entries, and determined appropriate cleaning and storage plans for their items.

“Working in museums and special collections is all about planning. You need a plan for storage, a plan for moving an artifact, a plan for cleaning,” explained Kelsey Barnett a junior historic preservation major from Crownsville, Maryland. “It is tedious but very much worth it in the long run.”

The class also started an inventorying project and developed handbooks for the museum volunteers that cover article inventorying, handling and housekeeping. A previous class recommended a long-term storage plan to CRHM’s board. The volunteers completed projects to bring their space up to safe standards, and this semester’s class is implementing that plan.

“These projects provide the museum with cohesive information about the artifacts and protect them for the future. With the cataloging project, for example, the museum received copies of our logs and will be able to use them as references,” said Katy Armstrong, a senior historic preservation major from Overland Park, Kansas.

Many of the students take both classes, giving them a well-rounded experience in a typical day in museum operation. Through taking both classes, Armstrong has learned how much the focus of museum work hinges on the artifacts.

“Exhibit design is often dictated by the artifacts that are available to the museum. There were several topics considered (for the World War I exhibit), but they would have been harder to execute due to the lack of relevant artifacts,” Armstrong said. “People tend to take for granted how much work actually goes into caring for these items, and it has been really interesting for me to learn more about those processes.”

Like many museums, the CRHM is operated by a volunteer staff, which may struggle to provide adequate time or possess the expertise required for addressing projects. The student involvement provides that manpower to complete projects faster.

“Our job as a class is to help them get up to date with all their accessions and make sure every artifact has paper work on it,” explained MaKayla Dotts of Greensboro, North Carolina, a first-year graduate student pursuing her Master of Arts with a major in history.

For undergraduates, Southeast’s historic preservation program is one of the few programs of its kind that provides the opportunity to experience the variety of avenues in public history, Clements explained. For graduate students, advantages such as the museum collaborations offer hands-on projects in an otherwise theory-based program.

“I think courses such as this are supremely beneficial. It is all well and good to learn from a textbook, but to actually be able to handle an artifact and go behind the scenes in a functioning museum just can’t be topped,” Barnett said. “This teaches you what you want in a perfect world, but it also shows what to expect from a real-world institution.”

The Cape River Heritage Museum is located at 538 Independence Street, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. For more information about the museum, call (573) 334-0405.