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Museum Studies team works at Rockwood Museum
For students of material culture and history, nothing can top hands-on learning in a working museum. Unless it’s hands-and-knees learning.
“You can read about furniture and take quizzes and write reports, but until you actually crawl under a desk to see how it’s made, you aren’t getting the full experience,” said University of Delaware doctoral student Erica Lome while surveying the furnishings in a bedroom of Rockwood Museum near Wilmington, Delaware.
Allison Robinson, on leave from a doctoral program at the University of Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in material culture studies at UD, looked around at Lome and their fellow students examining the objects in the room and agreed.
“We’re all the type of people who will crawl under something to learn more about it,” she said.
Robinson and Lome are two of the graduate students in UD’s Museum Studies program who are working this month to help with the collections at Rockwood Museum near Wilmington. In addition to their Museum Studies work, most are master’s or doctoral students in such fields as history, material culture, English and fashion and apparel studies.
The two-week service project, dubbed the SWAT team, has been held each January since 2011 to provide students with hands-on experience while assisting local museums that rely on small staffs and volunteers to manage their collections and operations. The SWAT students generally provide a jump-start to the process of cataloging and organizing collections and create a plan to help the museum continue that work.
Students receive credit for the work toward their Museum Studies certificate and also get the opportunity to network with museum professionals to build strong relationships for future job placements.
At Rockwood, a Gothic Revival mansion built in the 1850s and formerly occupied by the Shipley and Bringhurst families, the extensive collection of items gives a picture of how the occupants lived around the turn of the 20th century.
Objects — many on display, some housed in a spacious storage area on the property — range from large pieces of furniture and appliances used for cooking and laundry to delicately framed photographs, fragile ceramics and glassware and many hundreds, if not thousands, of books.
In addition to examining, cleaning and cataloging items in the collection, the UD students also entered the information into a collection management database known as Past Perfect, which will allow the Rockwood staff to keep track of the items and their locations.
“We are so glad to have the help,” said Loretta Spigel, museum coordinator at Rockwood, which is operated by New Castle County. “Documenting our collection is such a big project, and the students are really taking that on.”
For Katherine Grier, professor of history and director of the Museum Studies program, having a SWAT team at Rockford benefits UD as much as it does the museum.
“They have a good level of professionalism, they need staffing help, and it’s a small museum where our students can get a wide range of experience,” Grief said, adding that in large museums, a student intern might work in only a very limited role. “That makes it a perfect student experience.”
Also, she said, the two-week SWAT project has allowed Rockwood and UD to develop a relationship that could translate to additional student internships or other opportunities.
The SWAT team students were equally enthusiastic about the project. Some plan to pursue careers in museum work, while others are expecting to remain in academia, but all say that the hands-on experience and exposure to material culture is beneficial.
“No matter what I decide to do, I think this will make me a stronger scholar,” said Robinson, a student in UD’s Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. She took a break from her doctoral program to gain that experience in UD’s prestigious program, she said.
Harriette Lane, now a UD doctoral student in the history department’s American Civilization program, has previous experience in museum work, including earning a master’s degree through a program at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
“I was interested in material culture studies, and a lot of curators recommended the University of Delaware to me,” she said. “You get a lot of exposure to different aspects of a career, such as collections and archives. … And we all have different backgrounds, so we’re learning from each other, too.”
About Community Engagement
The University of Delaware cultivates civic-minded, engaged citizens through partnerships that impact communities’ needs. Community-based experiences are woven into UD’s teaching, research and service activities where students, faculty and staff apply knowledge and creativity to the critical challenges facing communities — in Delaware and around the world. In 2015, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recognized this commitment, designating UD as a community engaged university, an honor awarded to less than 10% of U.S. colleges and universities.
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