By Kate Dietrick
In August 2017 an exhibit titled A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942 opened in Elmer L. Andersen Library, the home of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota. The exhibit was a culmination of years of original research pulling from archival materials to tell the story of racism and surveillance of students on campus during the interwar years.
My involvement, as Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, dates back to 2013 when I befriended Professor (now Emeritus) Riv-Ellen Prell, who was then-director of the Center for Jewish Studies. In conversation she asked what, if anything, we had in the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives that related specifically to antisemitism at the University of Minnesota. I told her we didn’t have much – I had anecdotal stories from conversations with Jewish community members, but no concrete evidence of antisemitic policy by university administration. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to research the topic in the archives and should she find ample resources, we could mount an exhibit in Andersen Library. This type of exhibit would be somewhat new for us – most of our exhibits showcase engaging and eye-catching items from the collection, not original research by our patrons.
The topic grew as Professor Prell brought on Sarah Atwood, a PhD candidate in American Studies, and through two years of research they uncovered documentation in the archives of targeted university administration policies and actions against black, Jewish, and progressive students on campus. On my end as archivist, I helped facilitate research and coordinated with our exhibit designer Darren Terpstra to get the exhibit edited, designed, mounted, and publicized. From August to December of 2017, twenty-four panels were hung across two floors of the library.
Attention for the A Campus Divided was beyond anything we had experienced before, as thousands of people flocked to Andersen Library to view the exhibit. Not only did news coverage appear in nearly every local paper, but the opening event and talk was held to a sold out attendance. One portion of the exhibit invited people to share their thoughts and reflections with Post-it note comments. By the time the exhibit ended, 565 Post-it note comments were left by community members who wanted to share their feelings, both positive and negative.
As voices surged to respond to what had been uncovered, University President Eric Kaler issued an official statement that addressed the exhibit and called for the creation of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History. The committee led to the formation of a Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History, which recently published a 126-page report on their findings. In it, the task force recommended that the Board of Regents change the name of four buildings on campus in light of their findings. On April 26th, the Regents voted 10-1 against renaming despite vocal protests from both faculty and students.
The journey from small exhibit in the library to heated Board of Regents debates was, frankly, somewhat naively unforeseen on our end. If you are planning to take on such work in your college or university archives, here are some of my takeaway suggestions:
Set up an advisory group
From the offset, curator Riv-Ellen Prell knew to set up an advisory group for the exhibit. The advisory group, pulled from campus and community, were kept apprised of the ongoing research and offered suggestions and leadership as it became clear that the impact of the exhibit was far more expansive than expected. Use this type of group not only for support but also guidance on new avenues of research or clarity. Research is stronger with peer advisors.
Document document document
Like any strong project, keep meticulous records of your research. If the exhibit is controversial, people will question its findings. Keep track of the collection, box, and folder of not only every single item that is showcased in the exhibit, but also of the primary source documents that can be used to back up every single assertion in the exhibit. Do all of this work before the exhibit opens and collate that information in a concise document with clean, standardized citation layout. People will come for the receipts; be ready.
Critique of the findings of an exhibit such as this can and should happen. As with any sort of research, rebuttals or varied readings of your findings should be welcomed – this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a soliloquy. Plan community conversation events to let voices be heard.
A Campus Divided was mounted as an exhibit in Andersen Library as part of our regular exhibits lineup that showcases materials from Archives and Special Collections. Because of this, it was not always strongly branded as part of the University Libraries, nor did I as the archivist who mounted the exhibit add myself to the list of co-curators. As attention for the exhibit grew outside of the libraries and the university, these things fell to the wayside. None of the publicity included my name or role in the exhibit; I could have named myself co-curator but I did not. The work of our exhibit designer Darren Terpstra is also rarely mentioned. Make sure, from the start, that credits are clear, and that an exhibit is branded as part of the library if you hope to get credit for the work that you do.
That being said, let it go. After years of working on the exhibit, we had no idea how it would be received. There was no initial intention of pushing to change the names of buildings around campus, and yet this became the rallying cry from those who viewed the exhibit. Students became very energized–writing articles in the campus newspaper, staging protests, and demanding change. These students created life for the findings of the exhibit long after the exhibit itself was taken off the walls. You have no idea where the energy of such an exhibit will lead; it is wonderful when you let it go.
Know that timing might change the context
A Campus Divided happened to open only a few weeks after the events in Charlottesville, a time when many people were openly talking about institutionalized racism in the United States. Know that if your exhibit highlights racist history at your institution, current events or recently enacted policies might shine a further spotlight or give new context to the exhibit. There is nothing you can do to mitigate this, but be prepared for potential shifting attention.
The reverberations of the A Campus Divided exhibit are still being felt on campus. As I look back, what I tend to focus on was that the exhibit showcased the power of the archives. This exhibit illustrated perfectly how history, in particular primary source research conducted in the archives, can have a relevant and powerful impact on our present day. Conversations about the history of our institutions are undoubtedly tough and constantly ongoing, but these conversations are worth having if we hope to move forward as equitable and inclusive institutions.
A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942 is still available online – visit acampusdivided.umn.edu to learn more.
Kate Dietrick is the Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, a position she has held since March 2013. Prior to that time she worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art and for the Kress Foundation. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute and BA from St. Olaf College.