“Object Lessons” explores past & future of U-M’s museums, collections & libraries
Less than a month after Michigan became a state on January 26, 1837, a bill called Act 20 was drafted. Passed on February 23, Act 20 made provisions for an impressive statewide geological survey that would include, among other things, “appropriate maps and diagrams,” as well as catalogs, taxonomies, and descriptions of Michigan’s “rocks, soils and minerals, and its botanical and geological productions, together with specimens of the same.” As the first state geologist, Douglass Houghton led the expedition.
In addition to his governmental role, Houghton was also U-M’s first professor of geology and mineralogy—and the first professor of chemistry and pharmacy, as well, since professors often did double, triple, and quadruple duty back then. His samples made their way back to the University. With Houghton’s samples, along with a sizable collection of minerals purchased for $4,500 from the collection of an Austrian baron named Louis Lederer, the University’s early natural history collection was notable, including “between four and five thousand Specimens [of minerals]; and suites of Specimens illustrative of the Geology, Zoology and Botany of Michigan.” All of this to serve an institution composed at that time of only 53 students and five faculty members, Houghton included.
In the following decades, this early collection was joined by other specimens and objects from the fields of natural history, ethnology, geology, medicine, and fine art in what was then called the “Museum of the University of Michigan.” By 1873, most of the museum’s collections were still housed in the recently remodeled Mason Hall, and they had grown to include “3,733 entries and 105,499 specimens,” according to University President James Burrill Angell. “And, as is believed, the museum of only one of our institutions of learning surpasses ours in the number. The museum ranged from elements of Houghton’s geological survey to art pieces such as the sculpture Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii. (Nydia, the most popular art exhibit in the year 1873, is still on view today in the Beaux Arts Annex of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.)
Today, the University’s collections are split among at least 12 museums, five libraries and special collections, and four significant art collections, in addition to the specimens housed at Nichols Arboretum and Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
Two LSA professors—Kerstin Barndt, an associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures and in museum studies, and Carla Sinopoli (M.A. 1979, Ph.D. ’86), a curator of Asian archaeology and a professor of anthropology and the director of the Museum Studies Program—are using U-M’s bicentennial as an opportunity to look back and get a capacious view of U-M’s museums, collections, and libraries. Because how long could it take to research all of them?
“We were probably a little naïve in the beginning,” Sinopoli says with a laugh.
The History of Objects
It was during a yearlong fellowship at the Institute for the Humanities that Barndt got the idea of creating as complete a history as possible of the University’s museums, libraries, and collections. Sinopoli happened to be thinking about the same thing.
“I probably would not have thought of taking this entire project on without the freedom that the Institute for the Humanities fellows have when they aren’t teaching full time,” Barndt says.
“I was thinking that something had to be done for the bicentennial,” Sinopoli says, “but I never realized how big it would get.”
The research process was laborious and included exploring physical spaces, searching through archive catalogs, interviewing administrators, and combing through reams of photos, documents, and letters. The pair received support for the project from the Institute for the Humanities, the Bicentennial Committee, MCubed, the University of Michigan Office of Research, and the College of LSA.
The first fruit of the collaboration will be a book—Object Lessons and the Formation of Knowledge: The University of Michigan Museums, Libraries and Collections 1817–2017—that includes essays by more than 30 authors and is due out in the fall. Touching on everything from the Detroit Observatory to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the book includes photos by artist Richard Barnes, who was given free rein to document and photograph the collections. There will be an exhibit on display at the Ruthven Museums Building and curated by Barndt, also titled Object Lessons, in the fall term.
Barndt and Sinopoli both hope that the book and the exhibit will communicate the magnitude of material included in the University’s collections: the jars of fish, cabinets of birds, tons of statues, pallets of paintings, and boxes of bones that instructors, researchers, and students have used for two centuries to teach and test knowledge.
“I have thought a lot about the life cycle of collections and how they come to be the basis of disciplines,” says Barndt. “For example, the medical museums of pathology and anatomy were incredibly important in the 19th century and then lost their importance with shifts in medicine and medical education. We know that these Medical School collections were still advertised with these museums until the 1950s, and then all of a sudden they stopped, and we haven’t been able to really pinpoint what happened.”
A few objects and specimens have survived, says Barndt, but the museums of pathology and anatomy have both disappeared, part of the transforming history of museums on campus and around the world over the course of the 20th century. The University also had a substantial collection of plaster casts of famous sculptures from all over the world, a collection brought to campus in the 1860s by Henry Simmons Frieze. That collection sadly fell into neglect and was later lost completely following a shift in the field of fine art that valued original work over reproductions.
But in addition to cycles of in-vogue and out-of-fashion museum materials, there are also cycles of waning and then waxing usefulness. The almost two-centuries-old collections of the Museum of Zoology and the U-M Herbarium, for example, hold increasing importance as issues such as climate change, biodiversity, and global extinctions experience new and renewed focus by researchers.
The exhibit occurs at a moment of reflection and transformation for the University, as 13 million specimens from the museums of zoology, paleontology, and anthropology are in the process of being moved to the new, state-of-the-art Research Museums Center (RMC) on Varsity Drive, five miles from Central Campus. (The facility has housed LSA’s herbarium since 2001.)
Material from the four RMC museums will be used in classrooms and on display in the Museum of Natural History in LSA’s new Biological Science Building. The building is set to open in 2018, and the Museum of Natural History (complete with its famous pumas) is scheduled to open in 2019.
“I hope people reading our book and attending the exhibit get a sense of how remarkable the histories of these collections are,” says Barndt. “They are tied to the history of the state and of the University, of course, but they are also a window that invites the public in, connecting them to faculty, students, and the global research community. Each collection is a remarkable achievement on its own, but taken together, it’s astounding what has been accomplished.”