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Students Experience Thrill of Discovery in Museum Archives

April 26, 2018

Despite its musty smell and tightly-packed drawers, the closet-sized space that holds the Bill Frank photography collection at the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) filled St. John Fisher College senior Caitlin Hanrahan with a sense of excitement.

Melissa Mowrer and Caitlyn Hanrahan conduct research at the RMSC.

“From the onset, I was intrigued by the process of discovery,” she said.

Hanrahan found herself elbow deep in photos through Dr. Mark Rice’s American Studies Senior Seminar. An archivist himself, Rice met with museum staff to develop a semester-long project for the seminar that would give his students experience and knowledge about collections management, including cataloging and archiving, generating research papers about the collection in the process.

At the Museum, five students are helping to catalog photos from the Bill Frank Collection, which houses more than 10,000 images. Frank was a photographer for the Museum, and the collection includes many of his photos, as well as work from other museum photographers, from the 1930s through the 1990s.

“It’s a good collection for the students to work with because it offers a large range of materials, and they can handle the photos and learn about digitization, as well,” said Elizabeth Pietrzykowski, registrar’s assistant in the Collections Department at the Museum.

As they catalog the photos, the students will jot down notes about the content of the image and provide identifying key words that will be entered into a database. They also learned how the Museum organizes collections and rehouse them in acid-free envelopes to help preserve the images.

Two other students in the seminar are transcribing WHEC news reels from the 1960s that the Museum recently inventoried. The 16mm film reels include a range of dates. One student is researching an interview with Malcom X, while the other is focused on a 22-minute segment titled, “Living Dead: Drug Problems in Rochester.”

Hanrahan discovered a set of photographs labeled, “Arctic Peoples,” which immediately sparked her curiosity. The photos are of nomadic people from various locations around Northwest Canada, but lack a known source. Her goal is to uncover more information about the people in the photographs, who took them, and for what purpose.

Fellow senior Melissa Mowrer set off on a similar discovery with a set of photographs of the World’s Fair that was held in Buffalo, New York, in 1901.

“I had never heard of the World’s Fair until I discovered those photographs, and it was a surprise to find out such a big event was held so close to Rochester,” she said. “It was interesting to see the architecture and diversity that was displayed within the photographs.”

Mowrer said the process has included analyzing every detail of the photograph, following leads where they take her, and adjusting her focus if they come up short.

In addition to the adventure of exploring the stories behind the photographs, Mowrer has learned how partnerships can enhance classroom learning. An inclusive childhood education and American Studies major, she hopes to incorporate that into her own teaching.

“It’s made me think about future field trips that I can take my students on; I’ll definitely try to establish partnerships similar to this one in my future career to expose my students to a variety of ways to learn about subjects,” she said.

For Rice, the project’s benefits lay in the students’ excitement around the process of discovery.

“In looking at the photographs, and secondary sources they might use to build a framework for analysis, they are learning about how these things were being talked about at a given time period,” he said.