MHC Archives Hosts Object Mania Exhibition

You might say that Mount Holyoke College keeps its attic in the basement. In many a New England home this summer, boxes of forgotten family treasures will wilt beneath the rafters. But the records, photographs, and other ephemera related to the Mount Holyoke community are meticulously catalogued and preserved in Archives and Special Collections, in the lower level of Dwight Hall. Object Mania, an exhibition on view until September 14 in the Archives and Special Collections Lobby, has the feel of an attic adventure, or of storytelling through "stuff." It offers a rare and intimate connection with Mount Holyoke history through objects such as College founder Mary Lyon's spectacles and a medical bag belonging to Virginia Apgar '29 (developer of the Apgar score, which evaluates the health of newborns).

Object Mania, which was curated by archives librarian Patricia Albright, has as its subtitle "An Exhibition of Objects, Expected and Unexpected." Material artifacts related to Mary Lyon surely fall in the former category. Yet even those items hold surprises. As archives' student assistant Kathryn Patrick '09 points out, the fact that someone saved scraps of fabric from Lyon's dresses hints at how esteemed she was. So, too, does a brooch containing an elaborately twisted lock of Lyon's hair. Multiple alumnae from the nineteenth century claimed to have jewelry containing Lyon's tresses. "Whether it was true or not, it shows how important she was to them," said Patrick, who added that the desire to have a memento of the school's founder reminded her of the reverence accorded to saints' relics.

Many of the objects on display offer a glimpse of past student traditions, such as the class pins fashioned by New York's Tiffany studios and the circa-1916 skipping rope used by seniors who would frolic in their caps and gowns each May Day.

One case features artifacts excavated by students in 1997 from the site of the original Mount Holyoke Seminary, which burned down in 1896. None of the seminary's 300 student residents perished in the blaze, but they did lose numerous personal effects. Several fragmented student tea sets spent a century in the earth before finding a home in the archives.

One woman displaced by the 1896 fire wrote an essay mourning the loss of her "pig," or the low, wooden stool used to keep one's feet off the cold floors. Her essay and a sample pig appear in the exhibition.

While alumnae, faculty, staff members, and trustees still regularly give the Archives their papers and other records, Jennifer King, head of Archives and Special Collections, and her staff have an eye on big changes afoot in the field of preservation. "In the days of yore, documentation of student life was on paper," King said. "Our students now are more likely to email, instant message, or use other means of electronic communication to talk with each other, their professors, and their families." The Archives is busily developing methods to care for electronic ephemera.

As more and more of Mount Holyoke's history goes digital, the rare objects that remain in the College's collection take on additional meaning. Each not only commemorates an event, but also reveals a way of life that has now passed into memory. Patrick regards the Object Mania objects as an invitation to explore the related archives, to read personal correspondence, and to learn more about the person or tradition connected with them. "There's so much here to capture the imagination," Patrick said. "What is an archive but a place where we collect stories?"

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Archives and Special Collections