In a corner of the Nissley Permanent Collection Gallery in The Phillips Museum of Art there lies a small exhibition with a big message.
The newly opened exhibit, Emancipation 150: National Event and Local Lives, commemorates the 150 anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and examines the role of Lancaster and its residents in fighting for the end of slavery. The exhibit runs until Dec. 1, and was curated by Heather Brown ’13 and Megan Brown ’13, both Hackman Scholars, collaborating with Louise Stevenson, professor of history and American studies.
The exhibit highlights that Lincoln was not the sole figure who fought for and achieved emancipation; instead, there were many people and events, including some involving Lancaster residents, that played a role in abolition.
“I was surprised Lancaster did play such a big role, especially for it being such a small place that is not well known,” Megan said. “Even our small city was involved in something monumental.”
Collaboration on the project began last January when Stevenson chose Megan and Heather to work with her. Stevenson knew both students had an interest in emancipation, Civil War history, and summer research, so she thought they would be a good fit for her project.
Megan, a government and history major, and Heather, an American studies and history major, have strong academic backgrounds in history, but have little experience with art. This exhibit was the first that Heather and Megan curated, which made actually putting the exhibit together one of the biggest challenges they faced.
“Coming in to it, we had no idea how to create an exhibit,” Heather said. “We had no idea how to go about getting cases to display the pieces in, for example.”
Megan and Heather were involved in every aspect of the exhibit’s creation. They worked full time over the summer researching the pieces they wanted to display, contacting other museums to borrow pieces from their collections, and traveling to nearby colleges and museums to learn more about the process of curating an exhibit.
In particular, visiting art museums in Harrisburg gave them inspiration for their exhibit. However, this did not mean the curating process was easy.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was to recreate what they’ve done professionally,” Megan said. “When you go to museums, you always see the final product, not all the work that has gone into it.”
The decisions regarding the pieces on display and the specific direction of the show were made collectively by the three of them. To get a piece included in the exhibit, Heather and Megan had to argue for its historical significance. If Stevenson agreed on an object’s importance, it could be displayed.
“Professor Stevenson gave us a lot of freedom in how we wanted to tell the story, who we wanted to talk to, and what pieces we wanted to show in the exhibit,” Heather said.
During their research, they collected approximately 100 objects, but because of the space constraints of their exhibit space, not all the objects could be physically displayed. To combat this problem, Megan and Heather worked with Brittany Baksa, a collections assistant at The Phillips Museum, to create a comprehensive online exhibition, featuring all the relevant objects.
“Imagine all the objects that no one’s looked at for years, feeling quite lonesome, and now they can be displayed on the website, which will be around permanently,” Stevenson said.
For Stevenson, it was rewarding to see the final exhibition finished and on display for others to learn from and enjoy.
“It was very exciting at the gallery opening to see other people appreciate what was done,” Stevenson said. “And it was the Hackman Scholars that did it, not me.”
Through their research, Megan and Heather began to appreciate how every object has a separate history, and collectively, the pieces of art tell a story. One piece in the exhibit, the Abolitionist Quilt, is a favorite of Heather’s and came to represent this area’s abolitionist movement. The quilt was originally sewn in the 1820s by a family in Sadsbury Township, PA and used for warmth, but over the decades a message stitched on the quilt became a slogan among abolitionists. In the quilt’s center, there is an image of a kneeling slave and text that says “Deliver me from the oppression of man.”
“The quilt was basically my baby the entire summer,” Heather said. “It symbolizes the abolitionist movement in Lancaster. It symbolizes everything we tried to put together for this exhibit.”
Megan and Heather both considered this a once-in-a-lifetime experience and said the bond they formed with each other and Stevenson, as well as what they learned from curating the exhibit, gave them a new perspective on history and art.
“[Heather, Professor Stevenson and I] were a little family over the summer, and we learned so much from Professor Stevenson,” said Megan. “She taught us how to research, find new pieces, and put them together to tell a story. She showed us what it is to be a historian.”
Questions? Email Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.