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Q&A with Mudd Library curators about exhibition on 20th-century female activism

<p>A photobook from the "Government Service" section of the exhibition.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Marissa Michaels / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

A photobook from the "Government Service" section of the exhibition.

Photo Credit: Marissa Michaels / The Daily Princetonian

Amanda Ferrara and April C. Armstrong curated the exhibition “On Display: The Public Lives of 20th-Century American Women” at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. The exhibition, which includes categories like “Activism,” “Government Service,” “Political Campaigns,” “Rights,” and a rotating case about University faculty wives and staff, will be displayed until February 2020. The Daily Princetonian sat down with Ferrara, Mudd’s Public Services Project Archivist, and Armstrong, Mudd’s Special Collections Assistant for Public Services, to discuss the curation of the exhibit. The transcript below is edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Princetonian: Can you just talk me through what the inspiration was for this exhibition?

April C. Armstrong: So this year is the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment which gives women the right to vote in the U.S., and so this was a good time to think about women in public policy. And the policy papers hadn't had an exhibition drawn specifically from them in a while … 

We had also been talking a lot as a staff about ways that we could bring out some of the things that weren't so obvious in our collections, but especially the public policy papers.

Amanda Ferrara: You may know this already, but Mudd holds the public policy papers and the University Archives, and so we try and have researchers come in to use those materials as much as they’d like … This exhibition is going to be a good way for us to try and reach out as much as we can, in another sense to let people know what we have and how they can use collections differently.

There’s also a lot of conversations going on professionally about how to do this within the archives profession and library science profession, about how we can use collections in a different manner to show the wide range of topics and subjects and experiences that people have in their everyday lives that are that are documented and archival materials.

DP: And can you tell me more about these instructional courses?

AF: We are open to everyone on campus if they want to have an instruction session. Professors usually reach out to us if they think that there’s an overlap with the subject materials that we have. We love when there’s an overlap, but it’s also really fulfilling when there isn’t and we can make a connection ... We have the students come in and we try and have a mock Reading Room session … So we love teaching history courses, but we've also done a lot of other ones too. So religion and linguistics, visual arts, politics, first-year seminars, things like that.

DP: Can you walk me through the process of selecting materials for this and displaying it?

AF: Sure. I think part of it is in our everyday lives and helping researchers find materials and us doing our own personal research here and answering reference questions, we find things that really spark our interest and we keep internal notes … And so in finding materials for those, you come across other stuff, and so we had a sense of what was here, but it also required a lot of research for us in searching different names, topics, subjects, dates, and then going and making a whole list of those and then going into the boxes to find those materials to see was it visually appealing, does it connect to our topic, does it add anything to our entire subject? If it did, then we made note of it and kept it. And then you just kind of parse through that bit by bit, layer by layer, until you come up with a core set of materials that really get your point across. So it really took a lot of work and labor and love for us to do it.

AA: I manage the blog here on social media. And so the way I get topics for the blogs is varied ... People might ask a question, like people can email us and ask us to look for things for them, and I went to look for things. And in one case, I looked for things in a box that I saw had a lot of photographs of women and I got really curious about the Ivy Lee papers. He was a manager of a PR firm that represented a variety of government clients, but one of them was [the] Long Island Railroad, and so I got really drawn into that, and I wrote a blog about the women who worked for the Long Island Railroad in 1942.

So its exposure and paying attention to some extent, but there is also that and like, once you’ve decided we want to try finding material related to this, you intentionally go through based on what you think could be there and you hope is there and then make decisions based on what you see. I think a lot of people might not think about it too much. But there’s a lot of stuff that is really interesting that wouldn’t go in an exhibit because it doesn't have much visual interest. Just a lot of typed sheets of paper wouldn't be something people would want to come and look at so there's a lot of sifting.

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DP: And how long did this process take?

AF: We chatted about what could go into the cases next in January. And we made a plan in March and we started working on it in April, May. And it took longer than we thought.

DP: What would you say your goals are for this exhibition?

AA: There are a couple of things. So one is that public policy is a lot of different things. It’s not just somebody who’s running for public office and gets elected, works for the government or is appointed, like Secretary of State ... But there’s a lot of things that influence public policy and a lot of different ways to engage with it. And women have been involved with that for a very long time, even before the major women's rights movement when people are really starting to see women involved in those sorts of things, but well before that. There are a lot of ways to shape public policy.

And also that there is a lot of material for this topic within the collections that we have. And then perhaps more generally, we hope to inspire people to think about our collections in some different and new ways. Maybe they could find something on a different topic, if they just explored and went at it from another angle, and we're happy to help people do that.