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A student curated exhibition: Forgotten Pasts, Imagined Futures

Until June 10, the Perlman Teaching Museum will be the home of the “Imagined Futures, Forgotten Pasts: A History of Carleton’s Campus” exhibition. Curated and designed by students in Baird Jarman’s “History of Campus Planning” course offered in the fall and those in museum director Sara Cluggish’s “Curatorial Seminar” in the winter, the exhibit explores Carleton’s architectural and campus history. Beginning with the college’s founding in 1866 and extending into present day, the exhibit highlights different eras of Carleton’s campus building and planning, featuring unbuilt plans, evidence of structures no longer standing and remodels. Students drove the research, design and programming for the exhibit, utilizing the Carleton College Archives. Finding materials such as architectural plans, photographs, correspondences, scrapbooks and other promotional materials, the students transferred what they learned in Baird’s class into the public-facing exhibit you can see today.

This exhibit was the brainchild of Jarman and Cluggish, made possible with help from Tom Lamb, the College Archivist. In spring 2020, Jarman offered a class that dealt with archival material, which served as the basis for his fall 2021 seminar, “A History of Campus Planning.” In this seminar, he presented the idea for students to research and curate an exhibition for the Perlman Teaching Museum. Of course, Jarman would need help from Sara Cluggish, the director of the Perlman, for this. Cluggish described what the goal was when she and Jarman began to think about how this would work: “We dreamed up a scenario in which students would have direct, hands-on access to architectural plans, photographs and other primary historical materials from the archives with the aim on configuring these items into an exhibition the whole campus can enjoy and learn from.” Jarman added, “We’re at a liberal arts college that prioritizes student learning, so the plan from the outset was to put students at the center of the project.” Students utilized the college archives, focusing on a few specific buildings or sections of Carleton’s history. Baird highlights the benefits of having this resource, saying “Tom Lamb, the College Archivist, was terrific at making it possible for students to conduct primary research in the archives.” 

After students spent their time researching different aspects of campus during fall 2021, a narrower theme for the exhibition needed to be established. Students took a vote at the end of the term — Jarman and Cluggish put forth their opinions as well. In the end, Jarman noted, “The one we picked probably had the most flexibility and also allowed us to feature some less familiar structures by emphasizing projects that were never built alongside buildings that no longer stand.” Since a wide variety of research about campus was carried out, it was important to have a theme that could unite many different buildings and characteristics of campus. In the end, the theme “Forgotten Pasts, Imagined Futures” took the cake. 

The final stage of the process took place in Sara Cluggish’s “Curatorial Seminar” this past winter. Kenyon Nystrom ’22, a student in Cluggish’s class, described this process: “We came together as a class once more to refine (and then even further refine) the materials that we had each collected, trying to weave together a coherent timeline and story.” After all the materials were decided upon, students helped with logistical stuff too, like the placement of the objects, the wall color and wall labels. Students also helped design the website for the exhibition and put on educational events about campus history, like tours. 

On May 12, the exhibition opened to the public. It features a wide variety of objects, including blueprints, photographs, plans, watercolor renderings and memorabilia. Nystrom commented on his favorite part of the exhibition: “My favorite part of the exhibition has to be the incredibly imaginative campus plans that never totally came to fruition. They really show different visions for the campus (which in turn are far different from the current layout), and, in them, reflect a whole lot about the hopes for the college in each period.” The history of Carleton’s campus is explored through many different lenses in the exhibition and is sure to impart some unknown historical knowledge to anyone who sees it. In the words of Nystrom, “This exhibition is seriously a must-see. I promise you will not look at campus the same way, and anyone else who helped curate this exhibit will tell you the exact same thing. Sayles as we know it very nearly never happened! There was a giant dorm where the chapel parking lot is now! We could have had a giant palace as a library! Just go see it.”

There are student gallery talks and historical campus walking tours taking place throughout the term. Reserve a space on the Perlman Teaching Museum’s website today!

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