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Winter Session class gets inside look at museums, historic sites

Students visit a Hagley Museum conservation lab, where objects conservator Ebenezer Kotei (far right, in blue lab coat) describes how the artifacts are preserved and protected.

Actor Ben Stiller and his Night at the Museum movies have nothing on a group of University of Delaware students, who spent Winter Session getting a look at the behind-the-scenes workings of museums and historic sites.

The class, a first of its kind in introducing UD undergraduates to the subject, was created and taught by Katherine C. Grier, professor of history and director of the University’s Museum Studies Program, which is open to graduate students in any discipline. 

Every week, the experimental class, “Behind the Scenes in Museums,” met once as a discussion group and once to take a daylong field trip to a nearby site. At the museums, students were shown such operations as collection storage, exhibition development and interpretation, and they had the opportunity to meet and talk informally with staff members over lunch.

“The point of the course is to get undergrads excited about museums — not necessarily as future professionals but as visitors and supporters,” Grier said. “I want to turn every Delaware undergraduate into a ‘culture vulture.’”

During the four weeks of class, students visited the Museum of the American Revolution, to see the development of a site that is still a work in progress and not yet open to the public; Old New Castle, Delaware, to learn about historic preservation and house museums; the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base, an example of the U.S. military museum system; and Hagley Museum and Library, to explore the operations of a complex historical organization.

The tour at Hagley showed students the variety of activities that go into processing and maintaining library collections and creating museum exhibitions at the Greenville, Delaware, site that was the original black powder works of the DuPont Co., founded there in 1802. The museum and library today showcase many companies and industries in addition to DuPont, allowing visitors to explore the history of American business, technology and innovation.

“I believe that the purpose of museums is to make the world a better place,” Joan Hoge-North, director of museum services, told the students as she explained some of what goes into creating an exhibition. “And we do that through the tools we have — exhibits, artifacts, information.”

John McCoy, curator of mechanical exhibitions at Hagley, shows students a display space that is in transition between a recently closed exhibition and one that will open soon.

The class learned that a major exhibition can require 18 months of preparation and cost well over $1 million, although Hagley also puts on much smaller displays, selecting from the more than 60,000 artifacts in its collection. 

“The entire institution is involved in some aspect of an exhibition,” Hoge-North said, adding that the work goes far beyond collection management and conservation. Among other preparations, staff members market and raise funds for exhibitions, design the layout, build specialized display cases and protective railings, write labels that inform and engage visitors, and host supporting events.

The UD students heard firsthand accounts of the work done by curators and conservators, and they visited a display area that was in transition, as one recently closed exhibit was being dismantled and plans were underway for the next.  

“I’d never seen any course offered that was like this, and it seemed like a really neat opportunity that fits my interests and my major,” said senior history major Casey Langrehr, who works at a Maryland state park that includes a small historical museum. “I like history, of course, but I’m also interested in the business side of running a museum.”

For freshman nursing student Maddie Navin, of Great Falls, Virginia, the class was a way to gain more insights into museums while also learning more about Delaware. 

“I grew up around history, but I didn’t know much about Delaware history, so this has been great,” she said. “One of my favorite places to go is Colonial Williamsburg, and now I definitely feel like I’ll be looking at it — at the details that go into running it — in different ways than I used to.”

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A Winter Session class gave undergraduate students a look at the behind-the-scenes workings of museums and historic sites.

A Winter Session class, the first of its kind at the University of Delaware for undergraduates, gave students a behind-the-scenes look at the operations of museums and historic sites.

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  • Department of History
  • 46 W. Delaware Avenue
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • University of Delaware
  • Phone: 302-831-2371