Reflecting on change

The pandemic has impacted our lives in ways we’re just beginning to understand. Less than three years ago, we worked five days a week onsite, shared food communally, and met in conference rooms. The move to remote research, online classes, and staggered onsite work weeks has dramatically changed our known perception of workspace and workplace.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the excitement of students encountering primary materials in archival spaces. The first onsite class of the pandemic era was held in fall of 2020 with students designing an exhibit from a collection whose organization was celebrating its 80th anniversary. For students, fear of touching materials was equal to the joy of discovery. Gloves and social distancing solved the first issue, then exploration and innovation reigned.

By spring 2021, students were eager to interact with physical materials. An archival exercise for one class focused on objects, and students wholeheartedly investigated the purpose, the manufacturer, the material construction, and other item-specific information while handling them. For some, this marked the first time they handled items outside their own home since March 2020.

William Henry Jackson photocroms

Other classes joined in this primary material delight. Students blissfully explored early photography items – daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, cabinet cards, and photochroms. They loved learning how a stereoscope worked and were awed that something so simple continued to entertain. Other students moved through pages of artist books and zines for clues about popular culture decades ago. This list goes on. The re-engagement with physical materials satisfied a human need for touch.

Stereoscope advertisement detail

The takeaways from primary material interaction are astounding. First, the innate human ability to engage with and learn about new concepts through old items remains strong even in times of uncertainty. Second, during a time when one did not feel comfortable shaking hands with another person, the act of touching an item served as balm for the soul. Lastly, materials connect us to times past, and interaction with them tie us together across decades.

As we enter this next academic year filled with promise, students will continue to interact with primary materials. They will discover the joys of archival engagement. They will explore old concepts and refashion them in new ways. They will delve into this work honed by experience and change adapted and adopted over the past three years, driven by the innate traits of curiosity and discovery.               

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