It’s a museum and a classroom, and it’s home to a surprising collection of ancient artifacts. Step inside the vaults at this Beloit museum and see why students love this longstanding institution.
Catie Anderson jokes that she practically grew up at Chicago’s Field Museum, visiting regularly and volunteering as a teenager. It was a natural fit, then, when the Chicago native became a researcher at Beloit College’s Logan Museum of Anthropology, 700 College St., Beloit, just after graduating in 2010 from the small Wisconsin school.
Anderson spent that next spring cataloging every eagle feather within Logan’s collection – every garment, every decoration. For a student who enjoys ornithology, nature and anthropology, it was a dream come true.
“I walked away with a very strong understanding of how museums work, and how they run,” she says. “It’s deceivingly simple to say, but the public doesn’t often understand how museums operate.”
The bird project wasn’t Anderson’s only experience at the museum. As an interdisciplinary major and a museum studies minor, she enjoyed regular hands-on assignments that put her up close and personal with the museum’s nearly 300,000 pieces.
As a teaching museum, the Logan provides a unique combination of professional display and student projects, as it tells the story of humanity. Its treasures are open to the public six days a week, and its stories continue to surprise. More importantly, it’s a living laboratory for future curators.
“The museum helps the ideas and concepts come alive,” says Nicolette Meister, curator of collections. “It makes research more tangible. It’s more memorable. I think there’s more retention of ideas when you have the chance to either put these ideas into practice or see the material culture of a people you’ve only read about.”
It’s a unique assortment of items from around the world. The main display case – nicknamed “the cube” for its shape – exhibits a floor-to-ceiling arrangement of pottery and basketry from native peoples around the Americas, Asia and Africa. Between the two-story cube and the various display cases here, there are almost 6,000 pieces – just a fraction of the full collection. Tucked inside the archives are a variety of Stone-Age tools, Algerian discoveries, Papua New Guinean artifacts, and American Indian pieces from the Dakotas, the Mississippi Valley and the American southwest.
What’s Your Story?
Each item has a story to tell, and Dr. Bill Green knows the background of many. As an anthropology professor and the museum’s director, he’s interested in teaching his students how to interpret and share those stories.
The museum works closely with Green’s department, and it’s a key laboratory for the museum studies minor. They come from anthropology, art and history backgrounds, and spend countless hours inside the guts of this institution. Their classes include historical research, collection management and exhibit design. They perform internships at other museums, and before they graduate, students create their own exhibits.
Standing near a glass case, Green points to a display of greenish-blue pottery, items from the college’s Wright Museum of Art. One of his students assembled this exhibit.
“There’s a lot of research on how these things were made, what their significance is, locally and abroad,” says Green. “Then, you combine your background research with some basic design sense. What direction do you want people to walk through this? What kinds of labels do you want, and how do you arrange things? It’s a lot more complex than it may look.”
Making an exhibit requires thought, research and curiosity – many of the same tools that drive journalism. But in a museum, it’s important to tell stories through objects.
“One way we create an exhibit is by taking a really interesting or important story that you want to tell,” says Green. “In that case, you look for the objects and resources that can help you to tell the story. Or, you can start from the object itself, like this pottery. ‘I’m fascinated by these celadon pots,’ or ‘I want to learn about these quill baskets, so how can I create a compelling exhibit?’”
Both in the classroom and at the museum, Green helps his students to see their world through new eyes. Anthropology is the study of human cultures, and it’s sometimes a mind warp for students to escape the context of modern life.
“We try to understand cultures on their own terms,” says Green. “The most interesting way to look at it is, we try to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. How do we understand cultures on their own terms? We try not to impose our own frameworks on them, and when we try to understand our own culture, we have to step back and think, ‘How would somebody else view this?’”
Dan Bartlett asks that question often, as curator of exhibits and education, and as a museum studies faculty member. With every exhibit, he tries to “tease a story” out of an assortment of objects. Take, for example, his latest exhibit in the upstairs gallery, on native Alaskan hunting.
“People in Beloit don’t have to hunt seals, and they’re not likely to fish for flounder in the same way that people on the northwest coast do,” says Bartlett, a former curator of exhibits at Midway Village, in Rockford. “When you coax these stories out, and get people thinking about these artifacts as tools, you get them thinking, ‘These are things I like to do – I like to fish, and I like to hunt.’ Now, there’s a frame of reference that makes these objects more accessible.”
Exhibits don’t just tell a story; sometimes, they spark a conversation. Upstairs, several glass cases are filled with painted plaster busts of dark-skinned men. The casts were made a century ago by Frederick Starr, an anthropologist who sought to connect one’s race with behavioral characteristics.
“He was wrong about almost everything, but we still have collections based on his research,” says Green. “We’re trying to figure out what we can do with it now, because the whole rationale for his work proved to be false. What obligations do we have to the people he studied 100 years ago? We’re using these objects to raise really significant ethical and moral issues.”
Ignite the Learning Process
Without the museum’s namesake, nothing here would be possible. A wealthy Chicago grain merchant, Frank Logan had recently joined Beloit College’s board of trustees when he donated to the school a unique collection of Native American objects. The collection came from Horatio Nelson Rust, an Indian agent for the government who acquired numerous American Indian goods. Of the 3,000 objects that Logan purchased from Rust, many had been on display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Learn more about the world’s fair in our feature story).
“That was one of the big exhibits at the world’s fair, and one of the prize-winning collections,” says Green. Today, that collection is distributed throughout the museum.
By 1906, the collection had been moved into Memorial Hall, a campus building dedicated to the memory of local Civil War soldiers and the same building where the museum is housed today. Logan supported the museum financially, funding as many as 15 archaeological digs around the world. Thanks to his backing, the museum’s vaults are filled with a smorgasbord of material.
“Logan was supporting simultaneously, in the late ’20s, field work in western Europe, North Africa, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, and central Asia,” says Green. “It was all due to Logan’s presence on the board of trustees.”
Today, the museum is dedicated to the preservation and accessibility of everything in its collection. Everything here – even deep inside the storerooms – remains available for student projects, class demonstrations and other museums.
In the basement storage facilities, Green points out case after case of local and international material excavated during Beloit College field studies. He pulls out a box of tiny stone triangles.
“These were inserted into slotted dowels to use as harvesting implements, like sickles,” says Green. “They were also used as barbs for arrows. These are all from North Africa, from Algeria, excavated by our teams between 1928 and 1930.”
Curator Bartlett points out a diorama of a field study from the mid-1930s. Built from cement and pea gravel, it depicts the ancient foundations of a southwestern pueblo.
“One of the students’ fathers made this, actually,” says Bartlett. “He visited while they were on a dig, and he went down a couple of years later and meticulously photographed it and built this.”
The diorama is the starting point for an upcoming exhibit on that 1930s-era dig. Within the collection, Bartlett plans to display ancient pottery and other discoveries from the New Mexico site.
“Students were under the supervision of a professor and people who had done field work before, because it’s kind of like the hands-on museum: the best way to do something is to do it yourself,” says Green, as he highlights sections of the diorama. “These students would sometimes do practice digs on campus and then go and do the real thing.”
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the museum sponsored 15-week field studies around the world. Today, those trips are scaled back for busy college students. The museum occasionally invites the public to join local digs around Beloit and South Beloit, Ill.
Thanks to the school’s massive number of field studies, especially from the 1920s and ’30s, the collections are filled with an array of material. Almost nothing is thrown out.
“They didn’t know how it would be used, but they figured it could be useful, and they were very careful about the total and systematic collection of everything,” says Green. “A lot of people were throwing things away that didn’t look useful.”
Sometimes, it takes years to discover the value of otherwise random pieces in the collection. That’s why students, faculty and visiting scholars constantly research this material. In 2012, it took a visiting scholar from Canada to uncover the value of some ancient tools made from reindeer antlers.
“He went through the collection and discovered that we had the entire production sequence here, of projectile tips,” says Green. “This was a 1927 excavation of a 30,000-year-old site in France. We had published pictures of some tools already, but the sequence of manufacture wasn’t known at the time. He discovered it, and that makes it more valuable.”
Green also uses the collections to advance his own research. His primary study is North American and Midwestern archaeology, with a focus on ancient agriculture. He pulls out two bags of dirt taken from a Peoria, Ill., field study. With help from students, he’s slowly sifting out tiny seeds preserved in this soil.
“We also have plant remains here from another site, about 1000 A.D., from northwest Iowa,” says Green. “One of the cool things about this site is that a lot of these plants are now extinct. A lot of these are plants that we now think of as weeds – sumpweed, marsh elder – but 1,000 years ago, these were part of the agricultural system.”
Now, he and a student researcher are trying to domesticate modern varieties of these plants, for comparison with their ancient cousins. These research opportunities help to cement the educational experience.
“A lot of students just don’t know how research is done, whether it’s in the field or collection,” Bartlett says. “So having a chance to participate in faculty research and the work that visiting researchers are doing really enriches their experience.”
Student researcher Catie Anderson had a variety of museum experience when she started a semester-long research project at the Logan. She’d helped Bartlett with work/study projects. Her senior exhibit highlighted bird feathers of the Amazon. Knowing Anderson’s interests, curator Meister approached her with an idea.
“My job was to go through and identify, as best as I could, all examples of bald and golden eagle feathers,” says Anderson, now a curator of education at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis. “I created an inventory of what species feathers were from and the number of feathers the object had, so we could apply for U.S. Fish and Wildlife permits. Because I had familiarity with the museum, I was able to work mostly independently.”
Throughout the project, she played detective, searching the museum’s archives and digital databases for clues. While some items were well-documented, others required educated guesses.
“The Logan Museum made me fearless in learning things I was unfamiliar with, and not being afraid to try new things,” she says.
Nor is the museum afraid of new ideas. Photographs of 3,500 items have made their way onto the museum’s website, as part of the college’s digital collections. The purpose isn’t to replace a visit to the museum, says Bartlett, but rather to enhance it.
“I remember 10 years ago, when I was in graduate school, the big debate was: If you put all your collections online, then why would anyone come to see the museum?” he says. “Most museums have found that it actually increases interest in the collections, because in the end, people want to see the original thing.”
This digital collection has opened the museum to an international audience, and has become a valuable tool for college students and school field trips. It will have a new use this spring, when a student researcher plans to establish QR codes linking smartphone users with information about certain objects.
Green continues to seek new ways to engage students and visitors with the museum. He knows there are plenty of stories still hiding within this collection, waiting to be revealed.
“People ask, ‘Why do you keep all this stuff? Do you need such a large sample?’” says Green. “Well, we keep asking new questions. We keep finding new data and new information, new ways of finding out what we have collected. New experiments are done, new technology is available for dating these collections. That’s why we keep everything, because we keep going back to collections. That’s what makes us the type of teaching museum that most small colleges don’t have.”
The Logan Museum of Anthropology is free and open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.