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Students Uncover Mysteries in the Museum

They are links to American and world culture of decades past. And for Franklin & Marshall students, each has a mysterious story to tell:

A coffee grinder from the 1930s.

Indian peace medals and presidential inaugural medals.

Glass bottles manufactured in the 1700s by German-American glassmaker Henry William Stiegel.

Until recently, these items and thousands of others were hidden deep in the vaults of Franklin & Marshall's Phillips Museum of Art as part of the College's permanent collection of artifacts. But their stories are bubbling to the surface, thanks to a research seminar in which F&M students are exploring and documenting long-lost treasures for the wider public.

Titled "Museum Mysteries," the seminar offers students a chance to dig into the museum's eclectic collection of furniture, ceramics, hats, dolls, paperweights, Roman coins and African ethnographic material -- and other buried gems among nearly 8,000 objects in the collection. The course is co-taught by Eliza Reilly, director of the Phillips Museum and adjunct faculty member in American studies, and Philip Zimmerman, Mellon fellow and visiting scholar in history. Reilly said the course has injected academic energy into the museum and enhanced opportunities for student research.

  • museum mysteries2
  • Franklin & Marshall students participate in a class discussion during a recent session of "Museum Mysteries," a research seminar in which F&M students explore and document objects in the College's permanent collection housed in the Phillips Museum of Art. (Photo by Tim Brixius)

"The seminar has re-energized our understanding of the museum's permanent collection," Reilly said of the course, which was offered for the first time in spring 2011. "Our students are taking a methodological approach to their research, using evidence in a forensic sense and developing critical-thinking skills. The students are the first to study these objects. It's an authentic, inquiry-based learning experience."

The seeds for the course were planted in 2011, when Alison Kibler, associate professor of American studies and chair of women's and gender studies at F&M, proposed to Reilly that the Phillips Museum offer a research seminar in material culture studies using items in the permanent collection. Around the same time, Zimmerman, a museum and decorative arts consultant, joined the museum as the 2012-13 Mellon Fellow -- a position created with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in a broad effort to enhance the museum's role in teaching, learning and research at the College.

"Philip was previously an external assessor of our collections, and he helped us realize that we weren't using our collection the way we could," Reilly said. "We created this course to help us better understand the collection. This is a 200-year-old challenge. There's a lot of 'stuff' collected here, including hundreds of unidentified objects."

Reilly and Zimmerman said most of the objects arrived at F&M over the past two centuries as gifts from alumni, friends of the College, or people simply looking for a home for their artifacts.

"We're gaining intellectual control of the collection because of the work of our students," Zimmerman said. "The students are going back through the history of ownership of these objects, asking questions and putting together a body of evidence. They're interpreting results as a historian or biologist would."

Estefani Cespedes '14, a history major at F&M, enjoys the multidisciplinary aspects of "Museum Mysteries."

"This is my favorite course because it requires me to reference history, science, economics, anthropology and many more fields to explain the significance of an artifact," Cespedes said. "I can never look at an object the same way again. I'm researching contemporary goblets in the museum, and it's fascinating to identify [a goblet's] maker or time period with little intrinsic evidence."

Marissa Sobel '13, who is working as a student employee in the Phillips Museum this academic year, took "Museum Mysteries" last spring. She explored the Presidential Series of Medals from the U.S. Mint, which includes Indian peace medals and inauguration medals of several American presidents. She said she was fascinated by the "exquisite craftsmanship" that was put into designing the medals.

"By taking 'Museum Mysteries,' I learned how to research in a nonconventional way," said Sobel, a history major and art history minor. "This class gave me the opportunity to explore the objects, come up with my own theories, and then find the research to support them. I learned how to think and learn by observation rather than just reading books."

The students' research is helping the museum's collections and digital media manager, Maureen Lane, build a digital database of the collection. A portion of the collection will be available for viewing online during the spring semester.