Friday, October 23, 2020

The Task of Exhibits — A Student’s Perspective

by Janet Danek and Leah Ryal

Leah installing pieces from the Olga Denison Collection

Click on this image or any image to open a slide show
of all the full-size photographs in this post

Janet Danek:

Many of the artworks exhibited throughout the Park Library were gifts from generous donors. The late Olga Denison, a Mt. Pleasant resident, gifted to CMU her collection of contemporary Anishinaabe art, which she had passionately assembled over a 40-year period. The Clarke Historical Library is fortunate to be steward to this diverse resource.

To share these works with library patrons, an exhibition space on the fourth floor of the library is dedicated to featuring a glimpse of this vast body of material. The display is rotated regularly to provide exposure to the hundreds of artifacts in the collection.

The process of rotating the exhibit is complex, as each object is cataloged, archivally packed and securely stored. Precise records must be created to track all objects going on and off exhibit. Interpretive labeling and photographic records must be created. On installation day, a team is assembled to provide access to the cases, and re-secure after each is cleaned, and new objects and interpretation are set on exhibition. The task is extensive.

The complexity, necessity of archival handling and the need for project management makes it a valuable hands-on opportunity for a student interested art, history, and/or exhibits. Fortunately, student worker Leah Ryal, who has worked on exhibits in the library since 2018, fits that criteria and was up to the challenge.

Leah working with the Olga Denison Collection

Leah Ryal:

With a full year of work behind me in preparing the Denison Collection art exhibition, I can now say that the development of an exhibit is no simple task. Throughout the process, I was able to try on many different hats from researcher, writer, designer, and more while also learning from the guidance and expertise of Janet Danek, Park Library Coordinator of Exhibits, and Marian Matyn, Clarke Historical Library archivist and associate professor.

One of the first steps of this process was research, which started at the Clarke Historical Library. I delved into the Denison Collection and learned about the art objects I could work with. During this process, I came across a wide variety of objects such as black ash flowers, alabaster stone sculptures, and sweetgrass baskets. As an art history student, I am particularly interested in sculpture and three-dimensional objects. One of my favorite sculptures on display is an orange alabaster turtle by Gary Quigno. Handling this object surprised me because the sculpture is quite heavy. While the sculpture is visually beautiful and elegant, I also appreciate the solidity and grounding weight that the sculpture has. Being able to handle the art, I could feel the weight and texture of each object, giving me a better understanding of the objects themselves.

I also conducted research about the Anishinaabe and other Native American tribes in Michigan so I could write the interpretation. For this exhibition, we introduced interpretative text that described the thematic content of each case. The goal for these texts was to provide a broader context to understand these objects. While the objects tell a visual story simply through their color, texture, and shape, the interpretation was used to further tell the story of the art that you couldn’t glean from looking at the object. Perhaps the most challenging part of this task was learning how to write for a new audience. During my studies at CMU, the majority of my writing is for professors or other students. In the case of the Denison Collection, it became an exercise in learning how I write, in order to communicate a message to a wider audience.

The final step of the exhibition process was the de-installation and installation of the objects. This was my favorite part of the process because it is the culmination of all our work. The de-installation and installation occurred on a single day and were the most physically laborious part of the development process. However, I particularly enjoyed it because I enjoy working with my hands and designing the look of each case. One of the more unexpected aspects of this process was the need for extreme organization. With so many works leaving and entering the cases, I had to keep close track of the items. To streamline this process, I kept detailed records with a spreadsheet I created. The spreadsheet helped me note when objects left the cases, how they were packed, and when they were returned. The document also had a description of each item and its accession number which helped me correctly place the labels in the cases. On this final day, with the help of many library employees, we completed the installation of the new Olga Denison Collection of Anishinaabe Art exhibition.

The completion of this exhibit has felt satisfying but also rewarding. While this is my job, I also treat it as a continuous learning experience. Through projects like these, I can learn about the unique processes and skills necessary for exhibits. Hands-on experiences give me more confidence in my skills and opportunities to strengthen my weaknesses. After graduation, I am interested in working in the art or museum field so experiences like this are truly invaluable to me. Post-graduation, I hope to continue working to make art accessible and engaging for the public. Developing the Denison Collection art exhibition has not only given me an in-depth experience with exhibits, but it has also made me excited for the possibilities to come.

A bit more about Leah Ryal:

I’m in a senior, graduating in May 2021. I will graduate with a BA in Art History and Psychology. I am a part of the Honors Program. I started working for the library in Fall 2018. My academic interests focus on the intersections of art, psychology, and well-being. Outside of school, my interests include cooking, traveling, making art, and environmental activism.

Click on this image or any image to open a slide show
of all the full-size photographs in this post

Monday, October 19, 2020

Homecoming Traditions Turned Upside Down

by Bryan Whitledge and Casey Gamble

Marching Chips, Homecoming 2002

The 2020 Homecoming at Central is not your usual event. With a public health emergency changing many aspects of our lives, Homecoming is changing, too. This year, Homecoming doesn’t involve a football game or a parade or a pep rally. Instead, the Office of Student Activities and Involvement has created the “Fired Up Challenge” with events like virtual trivia, a virtual concert, and a campus photo challenge. Some traditions will continue though, like the Homecoming Ambassadors. Others are being tweaked to fit our physically distant existence, like the virtual Medallion Hunt and the Special Olympics Homecoming Virtual 5K walk/run that participants can complete on their own.

But, 2020 isn’t the first time that the Homecoming traditions changed. With nearly 100 years of Homecomings at Central, there have been many changes to the tradition over the years.

For example, this isn’t the first Homecoming when football wasn’t the centerpiece event. In 1943, 1944, and 1945, World War II put many campus happenings on hold, among them a Homecoming football game. In 1946, however, Homecoming came back bigger and better than ever at Central with the addition of a new tradition—the Homecoming Queen.

Twenty-five years later, in 1971, it wasn’t a global war that shook up Homecoming traditions—it was the spirit of the times. The Student Alumni Association decided to get rid of the parades, dances, residence hall decorations, and even the Homecoming court. It was reported that students didn’t particularly care about the court and that there were simply not enough parade participants to make that tradition worthwhile. The Student Alumni Association wanted to try something new that all students and alumni could enjoy, so they organized a carnival, a bazaar, and a "style show" instead. The only Homecoming events they held onto from previous years were the pep rally and the football game.

CMU President Boyd and Students at the Homecoming Carnival, 1971
This experiment proved both controversial and short-lived. An editorial in CM Life following Homecoming weekend reported that returning alumni were unimpressed with “coming home” to a Ferris wheel ride, and many people felt there was a lack of school spirit. The editorial writer suggested that the next time big changes were to be made for an event such as Homecoming, those changes should be voted on by the student body to see just how many people cared what weekend festivities might be enjoyed.

Homecoming Carnival, 1971
In a rebuttal published two days later, the co-chairs of the Homecoming Steering Committee offered several answers and explanations for their decisions. For example, the co-chairs felt that the Homecoming Queen did not really represent the CMU student body, but rather she represented the group that sponsored her. They said that Miss CMU, a student chosen from among all CMU students in a pageant the previous spring, would be a better representative of the CMU student body than the Queen and her court. And the students in 1971 might have been a onto something in terms of changes to the Queen and her court—in 1997, CMU did away with Homecoming royalty altogether in favor of Homecoming Ambassadors.

As for the parade, the co-chairs declared the bazaar a more than satisfactory replacement. They said that “at least 50 groups requested to build a booth for the bazaar,” which they said meant there was more interest in the bazaar than there was for previous parades. The Homecoming Steering Committee also noted that they did not intend for students to refrain from decorating their residence halls, only that students should decorate lightly and donate to charity the rest of the money that they normally would have spent on decorations. This was another example of the 1971 experiment being more in line with the twenty-first century. The idea of students giving back and supporting a good cause is why the contemporary Homecoming 5K benefiting Special Olympics is such a popular event.

Over the years, Homecoming traditions have faced hurdles, but those hurdles never stopped the events. The cancellation of the football games during WWII didn’t mean and end of Homecoming—in fact, after the War, the tradition expanded. The experiment of the alternative Homecoming of 1971 might not have been popular with everyone at the time, but the spirit of updating Homecoming traditions has lived on—the dances that were popular in 1950s have faded away, while the Medallion Hunt, started in 2003, and the cardboard boat race, started in 1998, have become campus favorites.

Cardboard Boat Race, ca. 2014

In 2024, when Central celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first Homecoming, who knows what new traditions created during the remarkable 2020 Homecoming will live on to be new CMU traditions.

This blog has been adapted from one that appeared in a slightly different form on October 9, 2017.

Monday, September 28, 2020

CMU Professor’s Opera Now Showing Online


Nearly 20 years ago, From the Diary of Sally Hemings premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The solo opera was composed by William Bolcom of the University of Michigan with libretto (text) by now-retired Central Michigan University professor of English, Sandra Seaton. The opera is a fictional account of the thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings, the enslaved women owned by Thomas Jefferson and mother to six children fathered by Jefferson. As Seaton said at the time of the premiere, in the spring of 2001, “I wanted to give Hemings a voice and bring her to life. I wanted her to be more than a slave or a sexual role.” In 2001, Professor Seaton joined an audience that included descendants of Hemings and Jefferson at the Library of Congress for the premiere, which was covered in both the Centralight magazine and the CM Life student newspaper.

Mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar (left), Sandra Seaton (center), and William Bolcom (right) at the Library of Congress Premiere of From the Diary of Sally Hemings

Sandra Seaton (back, center) with descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

Sandra Seaton (front row, fourth from the right) with descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson 

Now, the opera is again in the spotlight. The piece was scheduled to be part of the line-up of the 2020 Glimmerglass Festival, an opera festival held in upstate New York. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, live performances of the selected operas were cancelled. But that didn’t mean that show wouldn’t go on—the General Director of the festival, Francesca Zambello, decided to create videos of all of the operas to be performed. Professor Seaton’s work was performed and recorded at Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. And now, that recording can be seen by anyone with a connection to the internet. Enjoy the 47-minute video on the Glimmerglass Festival YouTube page.

Scene from Glimmerglass Festival performance of From the Diary of Sally Hemings

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Welcome Back into the Building

by Frank Boles

On August 3 the Park Library Building will welcome users into the building for the first time since the building closed in accordance with the governor's executive orders. Re-opening however, does not mean access will be the same as it was before the pandemic struck. In accordance with both the governor's executive orders and CMU's own decisions, new rules will be in place. The two most important rules will be:
  • All visitors must wear face masks at all times.   
  • Social distancing of a minimum of six feet must be observed. To accomplish this rule:   
    • One researcher (or one, related group) will be allowed at each table in the reading room. 
    • Generally four people at a time will be allowed in the exhibit area at the same time to view the exhibit (exemptions will be made for a related group who wish to see the exhibit together, such as a multi-generational family). 
In order to enforce the social distance policy, beginning August 3 and throughout the fall academic semester, an appointment will be required to enter the Clarke Historical Library, either to view the exhibit or the use of the library resources in the reading room. 

To make an appointment either 
  • Email us at Please let us know if you wish to see the exhibit or conduct research, and the tentative date and time you plan to visit. If you wish to do research, we would also appreciate an estimate of how long you believe you'll be visiting.
    • We will contact you by email to confirm the date and appointment, or if necessary, request you adjust your schedule.  
  • Telephone 989.774.3352 and ask to make an appointment.
The library will be open 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (excluding academic and national holidays), and Saturday, September 19 and Saturday, October 17 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. 
  • Please contact us a minimum of 24 hours before your proposed visit, during normal working hours. 
  • Reservation dates and times will be made in the order in which they are received. Calling early is recommended. 
Although electronic resources have proved a lifeline for many library users, sometimes there is no substitute for coming in the door. We look forward to seeing you soon. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Flowers Of Summer

by Frank Boles

As an occasional gardener, I was delighted when the library recently received a complimentary copy of Passion for Peonies: Celebrating the Culture and Conservation of Nichols Arboretum’s Beloved Flower, edited by David Michener and Robert Grese (Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 2020).

As the authors point out, peonies were once America’s favorite flower, and because they are so easy to divide they remain a cherished, flowering heirloom in many families, where a part of “grandma’s peony” still blooms every summer in the garden.

Noting the flowers' long history in gardens, the book includes a section on “Peonies in Classic Garden Writing.” There I found a piece of writing by an old acquaintance of the Clarke Historical Library, Louisa Yeomans King. In the early years of the twentieth century, Mrs. King, who lived in Alma, Michigan, was one of the nation’s leading gardeners and an important author about gardens. Her home and garden in Alma, Orchard House, was something of a shrine. But when Mrs. King’s husband died in 1927, he left his wife without the means to maintain her extensive garden. Mrs. King sold Orchard House and its garden. After an extended tour of Europe, she settled in New York state where she continued her career as an author and planted a new, far less extensive, garden.

Mrs. King chose to destroy her personal papers, and for many years there were no good pictures of her Alma garden. But in Alma, the family of Mrs. King’s long-time gardener, Frank Ankney, had preserved a treasure: an album of photos taken of the garden that had been given to Frank. That album is now preserved in the Clarke Historical Library. Pictures from the album of Mrs. King’s peonies illustrate her reprinted article in Passion of Peonies.

Mr. Ankney’s album is a small piece of mid-Michigan summer beauty the Clarke Historical Library is happy to hold, preserve, and make available for use. As for the garden itself, without Mrs. King’s inspiration it slowly declined. Eventually this small piece of paradise did actually become a parking lot. But we remember it in its glory, through pictures, some taken more than a century ago.

If you would like to know move about Mrs. King and her Alma garden, visit the Clarke library's website