Learning Through the Lens of History

In Seeing Echoes of the Past, the May 4 Visitors Center’s New Director Finds Opportunity for the Future.

A Year with a Flash 

Kent State Today will be following a group of Golden Flashes for the 2023-24 academic year chronicling their efforts and successes during the fall and spring semesters. The group includes students, faculty and administrators who are at different places on their Kent State journeys. 

Alison Caplan grew up in Akron, so prior to her becoming the new director of Kent State’s May 4 Visitor Center, some of her earliest experiences in Kent involved hanging out downtown and going to see live music. Then, about a year ago, she enrolled in the library science program in Kent State’s School of Information. Most of her programs were online, so she didn’t regularly visit campus. Now, Caplan is getting to know the Kent Campus as it is now, but also seeing it as it was then.

“It’s really wonderful to be on campus and to get to know the campus,” Caplan said. “Although a lot of my interpretations and experiences are through the lens of 1970. So, when I’m looking at buildings or spaces, I think ‘this used to be the Student Union” or “this is Stopher-Johnson.’ So, I’m learning new spaces, but also learning them through the lens of history.”

A Running Start

The start date for the director’s position was July 18, so this is Caplan’s first time experiencing the start of the fall semester as an employee. “I love it here,” she said. “It has been exciting to engage in programs and connect with people. I feel like it’s always exciting to start a new school year and start fresh. I feel that kind of energy and that feels really good.

Caplan immediately began working on the center’s exhibitions, specifically restaging an exhibit remembering the four fallen students. It’s called “Snapshots in Time,” and it is scheduled to feature a different fallen student every four weeks for the run of the exhibit, August 28 thorough December 22. First Jeffrey Miller, then Sandra Scheuer, Allison Krause and William Schroeder.  

Most people know the story of May 4, Caplan said, but they don’t know anything about the personalities of the students who died. “We know Jeffrey Miller through that tragic photo that won the Pulitzer Prize, but we don’t know him as a person.”

The intent of this exhibition is to reflect the personalities of these students as not just people who were part of this tragic event. Caplan showed a photo of Jeffrey Miller, taken just three weeks before May 4, 1970. He was hitchhiking home after attending a concert in Cleveland and was picked up by two young women. One of them took a picture of Miller as he sat in the back seat of their car, with a book in his hand. “He just seems like a cool guy,” she said. “And I like that feel of students being able to connect to other students in the past and their stories.”

The center offers ways for students to engage and connect by writing a poem or creating a button. Caplan also wants to create programming that highlights the personalities and interests of the four fallen students. She said upcoming programs include a dialogue with Chris Butler, founding member of new wave band The Waitresses. Miller and Butler were friends and shared a love of music and collecting records. Schroeder wrote poetry, so two workshops are planned with the Wick Poetry Center. A collaboration with the History Department is planned for a talk about women in politics and protests inspired by Krause and Scheuer.

Capturing Voices

Part of connection the memories of the past to the people of the present is gathering those memories from the witnesses to history. Caplan recognizes the importance of maintaining and growing the Oral History Project. She has already met some of the witnesses on campus, like Emeritus Professor of Sociology Jerry Lewis, but she is also looking for stories from people she feels are not completely represented. “I would love to get to know people who were part of the Black United Students group in the 1970s who staged the walkout,” she said. “I really want to connect with students and remaining faculty who were around and find out post May 4, what happened? Did you write a paper? Did Glenn Frank meet you in Pittsburgh so you could take an exam? What did that look like?”

The Mission of a Museum

Caplan previously served as the director of education for the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. At the visitors center, she said, her mission is similar to that of her previous position, but with the greater resources and people of a large university. “I’ve always worked at small museums, so to work at a large university, it’s been a little bit wild,” she said.

She also said that working in the visitors center reminds her of when she began her museum career at Oberlin College as an undergraduate student docent in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, working alongside her fellow students. Working with students at the visitors center, she said “Makes me really nostalgic for that time and experience, and it’s really, really fun to work with students.”

In comparing her present position to past positions, Caplan sees the different museums sharing similar goals. “It’s about using the space, activating the space and getting community in the space.”

“We want to keep the stories of May 4 alive. So (this means), not only recording the stories of the students who are around, but keeping students who are here engaged with that story, so it stays alive after those May survivors have gone.”

POSTED: Wednesday, September 20, 2023 01:20 PM
Updated: Wednesday, September 20, 2023 01:31 PM
Phil B. Soencksen