‘May 4 Moments’

Alison Caplan shares her impressions of unique Kent State experiences in her first year as director of the May 4 Visitor Center

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 in different places on their Kent State journeys.

A Year with a Flash

May 4, 2024, will be Alison Caplan’s first May 4 as director of Kent State’s May 4 Visitor Center. She became the center’s new director on July 18, 2023. Kent State Today has featured Caplan as part of its “Year with a Flash” series and she has provided previews and insights into the exhibitions at the center this year.

Caplan has said that in her new position, she found herself “learning through the lens of history.” In this interview, Caplan shared her impressions of some of the unique and interesting things she has seen in her time as director.

Rubbing of May 4 Memorial names at the Vietnam War Memorial
A rubbing on paper of the names on the May 4 Memorial at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. 


The ‘energy and experience of May 4 moments’

One of Caplan’s memorable May 4 experiences this year didn’t happen on campus. She had traveled to Washington, D.C., on sightseeing trip. Before she left campus, she had an idea to create a crayon rubbing of the names on the May 4 Memorial and, as the director of the May 4 Visitor Center, take it to the Vietnam War Memorial in the nation’s capital.

“So, I went there at I’m trying to figure out where May 4 is in the timeline,” Caplan said. “I found a volunteer and we were going through the book, and he said ‘You know what? One of our other volunteers is a Kent State graduate and I bet he’d love to talk with you about this.’”

KSU alumnus at the Vietnam War Memorial
A Kent State alumnus who works as a volunteer at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. 


“It’s one of those, I call it ‘May 4 moments,’ where there is this kind of magic around May 4 when you’re working on something or doing something related to it,” she said. “It’s kind of an interesting energy and experience. There’s always someone who’s a Kent alum or connected to it somehow that has a story to tell.”

“He came over and we had the great conversation,” Caplan said. “We talked about the commemoration and the center and his connection to Kent when he was on campus.”

People Want to Share Their Stories

On another occasion, Caplan and her colleagues were taking someone from the Ohio House of Representatives on a VIP tour of the center and memorial, when she noticed a man in the Taylor Hall parking lot reading the signage there. One of her coworkers asked, “Should we let him know there’s a museum inside?”

Alison Caplan with new May 4 signage.
Alison Caplan reviews new signage for the May 4 Visitors Center.


“Sometimes that happens,” Caplan said. “We’re working on signage right now to let people know that there’s a dedicated space devoted to telling this story.”

“We got him in, and as I was giving the tour, he broke down crying and told us his story of his experience,” she said. “I think a lot of times there are these moments where you have students, or you have visitors, you have someone who has experienced May 4 or they’ve been on campus who comes through and wants to tell and share their story with other visitors, which is always an amazing moment.”

Student protesters walking by the May 4 Visitor Center
Student protesters pass by the windows of the May 4 Visitors Center. 


‘May 4 Is Not One Moment on Campus’

When Caplan conducts student tours of the May 4 Visitors Center, she talks about the First Amendment, she talks about voting and talks to students about the importance of using their voices. Once, as she was leading a group of students on a tour, a group of students who were involved in a protest could be seen as they walked by the windows of the center.

“It was such an interesting moment,” she said. “Because a lot of time, I’ll introduce tours and say ‘May 4 is not just one moment on campus, when students were engaged politically to speak their minds and speak up. It’s something that’s part of our history, but it’s also part of what is special about Kent State that we can do in a way that’s respectful, meaningful, and safe.’”

Inviting People to the Space

As part of her work on the May 4 Education Committee, she works on creating programs and bringing in speakers and is always thinking of ways to use the classroom space inside the center. She also works closely with the Special Collections and Archives staff from the University Library and the Oral History Project. Those librarians and archivists engage people to share their May 4 and Kent State stories.

High school students and a teacher inside the May 4 Visitors Center classroom
Alison Caplan (left) speaks with a high school teacher and several of his students in the classroom space of the May 4 Visitors Center.


She’s also thinking of ways to use the space as a place to reflect when there’s not active programming occurring.

“We’re looking at ways we collect visitor response,” Caplan said. “A lot of what we have now in the center is digital, but we’ve been looking at whiteboards, Post-it notes and other ways that museums, even museums on campus like the Fashion Museum, get people to engage in a collective conversation.”

“I think we may do an experiment like that to think about how our students are keeping the spirit of May 4 alive.

Engaging Students With May 4

In the fall semester, Caplan wanted to get students who were new to Kent State engaged with the story of May 4 with activities. They were invited to make things, create, think and reflect in new ways. “One thing I learned was that college freshmen don’t always feel comfortable doing that,” she said. “This was a new space to them, and I think they feel kind of judged and uncomfortable around their peers and professors. So, they were not the biggest customers on that.”

High school students inside the May 4 Visitor Center
A group of students engage in creative activities in the classroom space at the May 4 Visitors Center. 


“We had a number of high school students come through and they went to town,” Caplan said. “They were coloring, they were creating they were making buttons. So, one of the things were going to work toward is building our field trip audience in the spring, in April and post-May 4 for middle and high school students in language and art classes to come in and engage with this topic.”

POSTED: Friday, April 26, 2024 02:47 PM
Updated: Tuesday, April 30, 2024 12:10 PM
Phil B. Soencksen
Alison Caplan, director, May 4 Visitor Center