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Lost and Found

Museum studies program offers students a high-impact learning experience in one of ONU’s most historic spaces.

It’s fitting that the space for Ohio Northern University’s new museum studies research center has just as much, if not more, history than the artifacts that the students are honing their skills cataloging. The space in question, which a few weeks ago was simply used for storage, is the stage area of the old auditorium in Lehr Memorial, which presented performances in the arts for 76 years.

Now, more than 20 years since the last performance, students are once again taking to the stage to hone a craft, though not of the musical or theatrical variety. Instead, students enrolled in the museum studies and public history program are using the space to study and catalog artifacts from the University’s past and to refine a specific skill set being taught very few places elsewhere.

The artifacts the students are cataloging range from IQ tests to
electronic devices of unknown purpose.

“We are trying to get students to have a real-world experience in working with collections and working with exhibitions,” says Ray Schuck, professor of history.

Students in Schuck’s Introduction to Museums and Archives class are currently working with around 50 artifacts from ONU’s Department of Psychology and Sociology. They’ve been asked to research the items, clean them if necessary and catalog them for entry into a collections database — all to current museum standards. In return, the department will receive a complete inventory of the items in their collection. With this inventory, the department is much closer to developing a potential exhibit to showcase the history of the disciplines at ONU.

Future students will work on other collections from departments on campus. In the past, Schuck has worked with departments to curate their exhibits within their own buildings. The idea for the research center in Lehr is to train students so that they can help more departments and gain experience at the same time.

“Even though we just offer a minor in museum studies, the goal is for our students to graduate from here and be prepared to go directly to work in the field, whether at a small historical society or even a larger museum,” says Schuck.

A few of the students in the class aren’t waiting until graduation to apply the skills they’ve learned. Kelsey Brown, a junior public history and museum studies minor from Loveland, Ohio, is currently working at the Hancock Historical Museum in nearby Findlay, Ohio. Sarah Bender, a professional writing major with a public history and museum studies minor, completed an internship at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in her hometown of Fremont, Ohio. Both understand how in-demand the skills they are learning are in field.

“I had the opportunity to put collections together and write about them for their website and for the exhibits themselves. I really enjoyed incorporating my major and my minor into my internship,” says Bender.

An archival photo of the Lehr Memorial Auditorium stage.

Brown is excited to begin learning the PastPerfect database software taught in the course. PastPerfect holds 80 to 85 percent market share in the field, including the Hancock Historical Museum where Brown works. “My boss is very excited for me to start using it, so I’m very happy that I am going to be learning it here.”

Apart from learning the applicable skills they will need to succeed, the students in the Introduction of Museums and Archives class also display a natural curiosity that lends itself well to a project like this. Many of the artifacts they are cataloging are completely foreign in both form and function, but the students are genuinely interested in finding out what they are. One student in particular has developed a new hobby as a result of her involvement with the program.

“I went to my first antique store a couple of months ago, and now I’ve been to several since,” says senior history major Sadie Wiley. “I just really like it.”

In general, interest in museum studies appears to be increasing. Television programs dealing with the subject, like “Antiques Roadshow,” “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” are popular and have even monetized this kind of knowledge in as far as they show the value of antiques and rarities people find in their homes. Colleges and universities also are becoming bigger believers in museum studies.

“More schools are starting public history programs, and others are adding the museum studies component,” says Schuck. “We’ve been doing it for 13 years, and as far as an undergraduate program goes, we are unique. We are basically the only one in the Midwest that offers this.”

There are untold treasures lurking in the closets and basement storage rooms of Ohio Northern University to be sure. Now with this new commitment to high-impact learning in the museum studies and public history program, hopefully they will be rediscovered and shared with a campus and a community that cares just as much about where it’s been, as where it’s going.

Learn more about the minor degree program in public history and museum studies.