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Oftentimes when anthropology is mentioned the first thing the subject calls to mind is an exotic custom or a culture that is found far away from our own. So frequently that is exactly what anthropology students get to learn and they end up leaving aside, without any exploration, the wonderful cultures that have flourished in our own country. Thankfully there are classes at Pitzer College that defy this model, including Professor of Anthropology Sheryl Miller’s Museums and Material Cultures course.

By the Work of Their Hands

In the short time that we had as a class we set out to learn about the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans—their history, their struggles and how they came to settle in Pennsylvania. We divided our class into four different subgroups, in which each group studied one aspect of the Pennsylvania German culture. Thus it happened that one group learned about the tinsmith’s work, another group examined textiles and their uses, another studied woodworkers and how items like the Conestoga wagon used on the Oregon trail were created, and yet another group studied the wide-ranging work of the blacksmith from the utensils in the home, to the nails that held up that home.

After weeks of intensive study sessions, our groups decided how the artifacts that we studied so closely should be displayed in the Nichols Gallery. It was refreshing to move beyond the classroom to create an exhibition that would show others the beauty of this culture, which has continued to thrive in the U.S. despite many hardships. The creation of the exhibition was a unifying experience for the class and it also tied us to our professor. It was as if we became a small family and Professor Miller and her husband were there to guide us and help us when we got stuck on a detail concerning the display. They also assisted us with ensuring that the exhibition was enjoyable and cautioning us against overloading our audience with excessive explanations.

The other component of the class that I really found enjoyable was the opportunity to be the curator. At first it was somewhat nerve-wracking to assume this role, but Professor Miller reminded us that to be successful as curators all we had to do was try to express what we found to be interesting. And from that point we ended up giving the visitors a more personalized and interactive experience with the materials we displayed. Looking back at the time that we all shared, I’m glad that I decided to take the class because I got to contribute something to the community and at the same time I learned about the responsibility that curators undertake when they are in charge of an exhibition.

—Claudia Ramirez ’08

Museums and Material Cultures students

Pitzer College
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