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Object lessons

25 million objects and counting . . .

Before U-M even admitted its first students, say the editors of the new book Object Lessons & the Formation of Knowledge (University of Michigan Press), University researchers were collecting and preserving objects: biological and geological specimens; ethnographic and archaeological artifacts; photographs and artistic works; encyclopedia, textbooks, rare books, and documents; and many other items.

"Object Lessons" activates the memory of the Ruthven museums building and richly illustrates U-M's lasting effort to build collections in support of its academic mission and for the public. (Image: Richard Barnes.)

“Object Lessons” activates the memory of the Ruthven museums building and richly illustrates U-M’s lasting effort to build collections in support of its academic mission and for the public. (Image: Richard Barnes.)

Michigan has no formal state museum, but when the state was established in 1837, government leaders launched the Michigan Geological Survey to map its economic resources, study routes of movement, and track the changing landscape. It made sense to designate its young University as the repository for these survey collections, and the first objects brought to campus in the late 1830s included a piece of copper from the Upper Peninsula, bird skins, an Anishinaabe canoe, and pressed plants.

Today’s collections encompass more than 25 million specimens and artifacts, cataloged in Object Lessons. In addition, two campus exhibitions, curated by the book’s editors, complement its content.

“Our museums are incredible repositories of the history of the earth, the history of humanity, and the creativity of humanity,” says Object Lessons co-editor Carla Sinopoli, professor of anthropology, curator of Asian archaeology and ethnology in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, and director of U-M’s Museum Studies Program. “When these collections were created in the 19th century, it was before digital photography, before air travel, and before there was easy access to the rest of the world. The way you educated students was to expose them to the materials of the emerging sciences, social sciences, and humanities. So to the foundations of learning, the collections are incredibly important.”

Sinopoli is co-curator of the exhibition Excavating Archaeology at U-M 1817-2017, which explores the history of archaeology and museums here by focusing on the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, founded in 1922, and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, founded in 1928. The exhibition relies on carefully chosen objects, archival documents and images, and other illustrative materials; it is co-curated by Kelsey Museum director/curator Terry Wilfong, and runs through May 2018.

Sinopoli’s co-editor on the book is Kerstin Barndt, associate professor of German and museum studies. Barndt curated the exhibition  Object Lessons: Recollecting Museum Histories at Michigan, which activates the memory of the Ruthven Museums Building and richly illustrates U-M’s lasting effort to build collections. It is open through Dec. 30 and is the last exhibition before the existing U-M Museum of Natural History closes to the public. Barndt collaborated with New York-based artist Richard Barnes and Amanda Krugliak, art curator at the U-M Institute for the Humanities. (Barnes’ color photographs also appear in the book.)

The exhibitions draw on collections housed in the University’s research museums (Paleontology, Zoology, and Anthropological Archeology), as well as the University Herbarium, the Museum of Natural History, the Stephen S. Clark Map Library, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, the Bentley Historical Library, and the University of Michigan Library.

In this episode of the “Listen in, Michigan” podcast, Sinopoli and Barndt reflect on the importance of museum collections to higher education and our understanding of the world.

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