Museum Studies Students Inspired by NEA's "Big Read"

The MuseLab in Kent State’s School of Library and Information Science opened its newest exhibit in April 2015, “(Non)Fiction: Literary Legends Unbound,” which focuses on the lives and personalities of three 20th-century literary legends — Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway and Ayn Rand.

SLIS master’s degree students in a museum studies seminar developed the exhibit over the course of the spring semester. They drew inspiration from the novel Old School by Tobias Wolff, the featured book in the 2015 National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” project.

The Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, which leads the Big Read effort in northeast Ohio, received an NEA grant to support innovative reading programs in association with the Wolff novel. The museum included SLIS in the grant to help with the MuseLab exhibit.

In this exhibit, the students separate stereotypes of the authors from fact, in order to show the human side of these literary legends and how their legacies continue to shape our culture, philosophy and lives.

SLIS Assistant Professor Kiersten F. Latham, Ph.D., who developed the school’s museum studies specialization and serves as director of the MuseLab, said sections of the exhibit have been designed to represent each author’s office. 

“It’s very interactive. Visitors can touch and interact with everything,” said Latham.

Andrea Wittmer, from Mansfield, Ohio, a student in the course, said she and her classmates tried to imagine what it would be like to come in to the space with little knowledge of or interest in these writers, yet leave inspired in some way, without forcing any views or opinions. With that in mind, the exhibit aims to welcome and interest people of all backgrounds and knowledge levels related to these authors.

Another student, Michelle Italia-Walker, from Brimfield Township, Ohio, said she thinks the mood of the exhibit is evocative. “I am interested to see if people will allow their preconceived ideas to be washed away, or if they will be cemented through information and objects presented in the exhibit,” she said.

Student Michelle Persons from Akron, Ohio, said she is excited to see the visitors interact with the exhibit. “As one of exhibit designers, it’s gratifying to see visitors ‘get’ the message you are trying to communicate through the exhibit, but also what things resonate most with them that maybe we didn’t expect,” said Persons.

The seminar students all had different roles in the production of the exhibit and spent numerous hours outside of class working toward their deadline. Their goal is to engage visitors physically, emotionally, intellectually and socially.

“If a visitor leaves with more questions than answers and a drive to explore further, I would personally consider that a success,” said Wittmer.

The MuseLab is a component of the museum studies specialization in the Master of Library and Information Science program in SLIS. It is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with special hours during the summer months. The “Literary Legends” exhibit will remain open until Jan. 31, 2016.