As any public history student can attest, an essential tool for research is a well-maintained and detailed catalog of historical artifacts. One Blugold public history major with a minor in American Indian Studies discovered that such a need on campus involved her two programs, and she set out to fill a need for both history and AIS students.
In the fall of 2016, Shelby Miller declared a minor in American India Studies, a great pairing with her major in public history. While she was having this discussion with Debra Barker, the AIS program director, the topic of Shelby's interest in museum work came up, and the two had an idea.
"Dr. Barker proposed an internship working with a portion of the Indian artifacts held by the university. There was one student last semester who used the artifacts from both Goodner and Owen Collection to make an exhibit on the first floor of Hibbard, and those artifacts and others really needed to be added to an online catalog. Heather Ann Moody, professor of AIS, explained that the best use of the artifacts would be to put them online for students to use in research and to showcase," Miller said.
Working with the artifacts not already on display in Hibbard requires partnership with Greg Kocken, the head of Special Collections in McIntryre Library. In formulating the process for Miller's internship work, Kocken pointed out the relative lack of specific history known about many of the pieces, which would ultimately become Miller's research quest. While the primary purpose of these types of collections has historically been to serve as a repository for researchers, Kocken says that the role of special collections is changing, aimed at better reflecting the educational mission of the university.
"To effectively meet this emerging role, it is important to know more about the artifacts within our custody. This is where Shelby’s internship comes into play. She is carefully examining all of the artifacts, much like a museum curator, and then conducting extensive research to help us all better understand each piece. Obviously, this is a great experience for Shelby because it allows her to experience the professional work expected of museum curators," Kocken stated.
The artifacts Miller is working with have come from a few regions of the U.S., and the difficulty in tracking and accurately cataloging their histories is compounded by the prevalence of trading and tourism relating to the native populations. She has gotten through about half of the collection since beginning her research in September.
"The bulk of the artifacts originated from the Menominee, Wisconsin Winnebago, Ho Chunk, or Pueblo Indians. Other than the Pueblo pieces, most are from Wisconsin," Miller said. "My favorite artifact is the Pueblo drum, made from a hollowed tree and stretched buckskin over the top and bottom, strung together by raw-hide string. I like this piece because there are still patches of hair on the drum skin and it made me interested in how these were initially made, especially tanning and drying the skin."
By the time Miller graduates in December, she hopes to have completed the project, but she also welcomes other interns to join in the work if there is more interest, especially in the event that she is unable to get through the entire collection. The experience has been challenging and rewarding.
"Overall I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how artifacts are collected and stored for future public use. I’ve also learned how much information the pieces themselves hold about both the region they are from and the people that made them, collected them, and shared them," Miller says.
"I believe in total I have gained deeper respect for the objects and have seen first hand why it is necessary to take care of them. All of this will help me when I work in future museums."