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Object lessons

Episode 17: Carla Sinopoli & Kerstin Barndt — “Object Lessons”

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of “Listen in, Michigan” we’re going on a field trip to the museum actually, to the 20 distinct museums libraries and collections here at U of M. My guests are Kerstin Barndt, associate professor of German and Museum Studies here at U of M, and Carla Sinopoli, professor of Anthropology, curator of Asian Archaeology and Ethnology in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (say that ten times fast) and Director of the Museum Studies Program here at U of M. Together the scholars edited the book Object Lessons and the Formation of Knowledge is a deep dive into the University’s vast collections of biological and geological specimens, artifacts, artistic works, rare documents and more. The book also introduces many of the explorers, collectors, and curators who have traveled on our behalf and shaped our understanding of the world these past 200 years. The collections also shaped the evolution of education at U of M through use of an interaction with physical and organic objects. So let’s get this field trip started. The first speaker you’re going to hear is Carla Sinopoli. Here’s Carla —

Carla Sinopoli: Some of the earliest collections that came to the university actually came the same year the university moved to Ann Arbor in 1837 and as one of our coauthors, Terry McDonald the director of the Bentley Library, pointed out the university actually had collections before it had students. So when the state was created in 1837 the university moved from its original home in Detroit to Ann Arbor and state launched the Michigan Geological Survey. And the purpose of that survey was to map economic resources for this brand new state and also understand roots of movement certainly in involvement with the changing landscape in relation to native peoples and the loss of lands by native peoples as settlers expanded across the state. Michigan did not and still does not have a formal State Museum and the legislature designated that the collections of the geological survey would come to the University of Michigan.

Kerstin Barndt: So Douglass Houghton was in charge of the first geological survey. He was sort of was in charge of the first displays that were opened in the first university museum on campus. I mean sitting at the Bentley archive and opening the box with the notebooks of Douglass Houghton or of Alexander Winchell. These time travels go back into the past but they also always lead towards the future because you do not know what kind of technology will be available in the future that then extracts different kinds of information from this material remnant of the past that we cannot even imagine today.

Holdship: How do you feel about the importance of the object? I’m guessing that has something to do with the title of your book. So talk a bit about object lessons.

Barndt: For me, it is about access to history. For me, I worked a lot in the Bentley University Archives through the papers of the collectors and the curators who are also represented in the book. So there are all kinds of objects. There are these beautiful archaeological objects that are housed in the Kelsey Museum and the Museum of Anthropological Archeology. There are specimens or biological specimens that have fueled research agendas in zoology and botany. And then there are paper objects and books that are also material objects that sort of bear the traces of history and that grant us access to particular chapters in the university history.

Holdship: The quote that’s over the door of the museums building now from this Louis Agassiz, I don’t know pronounce his name but he was the founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, “Go to nature. Take the facts into your own hands look and see for yourself.” I wanted to get your reactions to that.

Sinopoli: I think in many ways science, but we both encourage going to nature and looking and exploring for yourself but also recognizing that we bring a lot today. Much more structured knowledge and expectations to our explorations of the natural world. Understandings of the biology of evolution for example which was really just emerging as Louis Agassiz was creating the Museum of Comparative Zoology and he was a little resistant to a Darwinian model of evolution.

Barndt: Yeah so that is that is interesting, you know, that that quote is at the I’ve always found this very interesting that they chose this quote from Agassiz. I mean Agassiz one of the main figures in U.S. American in the history of U.S. American biology that as Carla said you know he was also he was very reluctant to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. And so did some of the early naturalists working in the museum. The first group of men who founded the museums like, Alexander Winchell and Joseph Beal Steer, we’re working on sort of reconciling the theory of evolution with their religious beliefs and published about their struggle and about their understanding of evolution. And then after sort of that first generation of Museum founders retired or died and the new-generation came to sort of lead the collections and the museums, there was a real paradigmatic shift towards accepting science as secular, towards more modern scientific inquiry, towards new protocols that accompanied the expeditions towards new research paradigms and more systematic way of doing biological and cultural inquiries. And Alexander Ruthven is sort of the the young man who enters the museum in 1903 and then becomes the director of the museum that opened in 1928. He really was one of the first modern museum men in the history of our university museums.

Holdship: How about some impressive women?

Barndt: We really look closely into this. I think this is a field where more research can be done and will be done. But one of the women who very early on started to work under Alexander Ruthven in the first museum first university museum that was built in 1881 is Helen Thompson. And Helen Thompson later married Frederick Gage who went onto expeditions with Alexander Ruthven and Alexander Ruthven trained Helen Thompson as a herpetologist. And she then took care of the collection of our pathology after Alexander Ruthven became the director of the museum and then later the president of the university and they co-authored the first comprehensive book, a study of Michigan herpetology. And so there are many more women curators. There is the first museum educator or the person in charge of museum displays and the Ruthven Museum building was Crystal Thompson. So she was also named Thompson and she accompanied the opening of the museum building and wrote, sort of decided, how collections should be made public.

Sinopoli: Yes and she also, in the 1930s and ’40s, the university actually began offering courses in a graduate program in museum studies and Crystal Thompson was a key faculty member in that. Never had an official faculty line, but that’s was very much a forgotten part of the University’s history that we were that progressive in teaching museum science as it was called then in the Natural History Museum.

Holdship: That takes me to producing your book. You worked with many different writers, many different experts. Talk about the process of putting this together over the past four years. What was your process?

Sinopoli: We knew we wanted to have a catalog that summarized the collections, which is the last third of the book, but we knew we also didn’t want this to just be purely a celebratory piece. We wanted to do some in-depth scholarly research, which is the first third of the book are these set of seven framing articles that look at the history of the university in general, of the major expeditions, of particular collections, of the main museum buildings. And then we decided that the kind of middle part would be to approach the story of the museums, as Kerstin was just doing, through the biographies of individual collectors. We certainly hope that alumni who visited these museums as students or worked in the collections will be excited to see this. Certainly other scholars of museum history we hope will be interested in what we accomplished and the people who work and visit our museums. My favorite collection, one of many, is probably a collection made by two men who we feature in the book Walter Koelz and Rup Chand. Walter Koelz was a zoologist from the University of Michigan, but he traveled to the Himalayas in 1930. And then again in 1932 where he met Rup Chand, a local nobleman from an elite but poor family. They became partners in both collecting and in life and 1932 the university sponsored an expedition by Koelz and Chand, to collect Tibetan objects from, cultural objects from, the Himalayas including Tibetan art. In the 1930s Tibetan art wasn’t considered the province of art museums. It was this more anthropological objects so the collection came to my museum. It includes about 500 objects of Tibetan paintings, sacred art, shawls, textiles, quirky things because he was a quirky guy. So we have lots of iron arrowheads he collected as part of a collection. He was also collecting birds and plants so that’s that’s a collection I’ve exhibited in a couple of exhibitions in written a few lengthy projects, book projects about so, I think that’s probably the one I love the most. I love many of the collections.

Barndt: For me, the most exciting moments were moments when I found something in the basement of the Ruthven museums building. Which is an amazing space, again not not open to the public but it is sort of museum space where you can really imagine the history of collecting and of museum building because it is…

Holdship: Yeah describe it.

Barndt: It’s vast, it’s dusty. It has these old..

Holdship: Narrow hallways?

Barndt: No not narrow, low ceiling. So, in one of these rooms there, I found a box, a cardboard box. It was one with with glass models of marine invertebrates that looked familiar to me and I looked closer and then asked the collection managers then they confirm that what what I found there were indeed parts of the famous Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrates and the Blaschkas were a son and father team working in Dresden in the 19th century. Individually creating each glass model for the museums of natural history around the world and for universities because marine invertebrate animals didn’t keep well in alcohol. They would lose their form, they would lose their color. So these glass models we’re really teaching models to teach students about this zoological class of animals and then those models because they were so intricate and beautiful they will also end is on display in many museums and still are.

Sinopoli: Our museums especially are just incredible repositories of the history of the Earth, the history of humanity, the creativity of humanity. When they were created a lot of these collections were created in the 19th century was before there was digital photography, before there was air travel, before there was easy access to the rest of the world and the way you educated citizens was by exposing them to the materials of the sciences, of the emerging sciences, of the emerging social sciences and humanities. So to the foundations of learning, collections were incredibly important. They remain important today as we face new challenges. I’m an archaeologist by training and as we always tell our undergraduates, when you excavate an archaeological site you destroy it. You’re taking objects out of the ground out of their context removing all that information the objects and the records are what we have preserved of the human past. And we return to those collections constantly. Radiocarbon dating, the way we date organic materials, didn’t exist to the 1950s. Sites excavated before the 1950s, if organic materials hadn’t been saved we wouldn’t be able to return to them and apply new dating techniques. We do this with a range of materials. So these collections teach us about the world. They develop scientific knowledge and they teach students.

Holdship: Well I guess we can all agree. These collections are an incredibly valuable resource and they just keep growing. In fact, one of the most recent finds is a collection of mammoth bones discovered just outside Chelsea, Michigan. Which just goes to show, sometimes you only need look to your own backyard. So keep your eyes peeled till next time. And look for “Listen in, Michigan” on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn. You also can find us at michigantoday.umich.edu under the topics tab as Podcast. Thanks for listening and as always Go Blue.

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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