Herman B Wells Speeches to Incoming Freshmen, during World War II and Today

When I think back to starting my freshman year of college (in enemy territory at Purdue University), I remember one main feeling: overwhelmed! Even though it has been more than a decade since then, I get butterflies in my stomach when I recall orientation activities, my first meals in the dorms, and meeting classmates for the first time. Though Purdue had a ton of welcome activities for incoming freshmen, the Indiana University traditions of Freshman Convocation and the Freshman Induction Ceremony are utterly charming. This year, the Freshman Induction took place August 21 at Skjodt Assembly Hall. We’ve covered the history of the Freshman Induction Ceremony in the past, so in this post I would like to focus on some wise words spoken at Freshman Convocations over the years. Specifically, this post will highlight Herman B Wells’ resolute and poignant addresses over the World War II years. His advice should be relevant for all freshman coming to Bloomington now, in an uncertain and overwhelming time.

Black and white photograph of Freshman convocation - a large crowd of seated students surrounds a central stage.
Freshman Convocation, September 15, 1938. IU Archives image no. P0031218

It is well known that our beloved Herman B Wells was a fantastic orator, so it is no surprise that his remarks are still impactful many decades later. During his 1937 speech to incoming freshmen, Wells reminded students of precarious conditions in America and the world:

“It is true that the world is beset with problems of such gravity that they sometimes challenge hope for the future. On the front pages of the newspapers almost every day reference is made to some of these problems—war, assault upon the democracies of the world by the rise of dictatorships, charges that the capitalistic system and the democratic philosophy of government are incompatible—in a word, questions that attack the very foundation of the institutions under which we are living.”

Pretty heavy words for the opening of a Freshman Convocation speech. He continued on to describe the depletion of natural resources and perilous state of natural conservation. He ended this section by saying:

“Wars, rumors of war, political unrest, dissipation of the vitality of our physical and human resources—certainly these create a dismal outlook for the future.”

Though these statements are grave, we can see obvious connections with our contemporary situation. Wells then placed the impetus for changing this outlook on the incoming freshmen:

“You need not be discouraged by the number and seriousness of these problems. They can all be solved, and they will be solved by our people if we are guided by an intelligent and informed leadership…And society, through government and through the sacrifices of individual families, has supported higher education generously in this country largely because we as a people believe that college-trained men and women offer us our best source of social, political, and economic leadership.”

One of Wells’ most extraordinary skills was to turn insurmountable challenges into inspiring moments of change. Against the backdrop of the rise of fascism (the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica occurred in April of that year), Wells acknowledged the frightening realities of IU freshmen while simultaneously encouraging them to lead the charge for change. I hope the incoming freshman class today can harness this same courage.

Black and white photograph of the Freshman Induction ceremony. Robed faculty and staff including President Wells stand on the front steps of the Student Building.
Freshman Induction (Herman B Wells can be seen just to the right of the microphone), September 19, 1940. IU Archives image no. P0033994

In September 1940, one year before the United States officially entered World War II, Wells emphasized the university’s role in defending democracy.  He outlined three types of defenses for democracy: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. After summarizing mobilization activities on campus such as Civilian Pilot Training at the Bloomington airstrip and IU’s R.O.T.C. unit, he spoke to intellectual and spiritual defenses:

“You cannot be intellectually lazy and be an effective citizen in democracy. There is no dictator to tell you what is socially desirable and undesirable. Questions of social policy must be thought through for yourself, and you must think with sufficient clarity and originality, if you aspire to be a leader, so that you can win your colleagues to your point of view.”

Although young people today often hear calls to independent thinking, Wells’ thoughtful consideration of how free thought fosters a democratic environment should be especially relevant today. As to spiritual defenses of democracy, Wells spoke these compassionate words:

“Democracy is a way of life in which we are responsible for each other, in which our human relations must be governed, in a very real and practical sense, by self-restraint and mutual respect for the rights of others.”

In an age of rapid-fire and divisive communications I think incoming IU students would do well to embody mutual respect and feel responsibility for one another. We can update Wells’ words to apply to fostering a democratic society online, too.

Black and white photograph of President Herman B Wells standing underneath the Service Flag. Uniformed male students stand in the foreground listening.
President Wells Speaking at Dedication of the Indiana University Service Flag, August 22, 1943. IU Archives image no. P0039468

As the United States officially entered the War, we see a shift in Wells’ tone for incoming freshmen. 1942 was a particularly devastating year—by September of that year mass extermination of Jews had begun at Auschwitz, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Belzec; thousands of lives were lost as Axis powers sunk Allied ships during Second Happy Time; and Executive Order 9066 authorized the United States military to incarcerate Japanese Americans in detention camps. Wells’ 1942 freshman address echoed an atmosphere of severity:

“We hear much just now about the necessity of maintaining morale on the home front. These are days of unusual stress and strain for all of us. Home front morale will depend in no small measure upon our courtesy to each other. Acceptable manners, both public and private, insure proper consideration for the convenience and rights of others. Therefore this subject of good manners, always timely, is of especial significance at the present.”

Even in a dark hour, we see that Wells highlighted freshmen’s responsibility to treat others with respect and dignity. And as we can see from his 1946 address to the incoming class, that attitude continued after World War II as well. That year he remarked:

“The nervous system of the human body is a complex mechanism consisting of millions of cells. Yet a single nerve cell can register pain or pleasure which is felt throughout the entire body. Each person in the campus body, from the youngest student to the oldest professor, has an essential role. Each is, as it were, a cell in the nervous system of the University community.”

Black and white photograph of President Herman Wells greeting students with suitcases in hand at the entrance to Bryan Hall.
Herman B Wells welcoming World War II veterans who lived in the board room / conference room of the Administration Building during the postwar housing shortage, October 1946. IU Archives image no. P0023889

Cooperation and mutual respect were truly central to how Wells envisioned a democratic society. As the IU Class of 2023 settles in, I hope we all can exemplify Wells’ ideals to each other on and off campus. Most all of us were overwhelmed and frightened freshmen at one point. If Wells could set an example of strength against the backdrop of World War II, we should be able to pass these virtues on to the Class of 2023.

To see more transcripts of Herman B Wells’ speeches, check out the finding aid for Collection C137 or contact an archivist.

Sincerely Yours: Edna Hatfield Edmondson Describes a Tokyo Earthquake in 1922

As southern California re-stabilizes from two serious earthquakes on July 4 and 5, it may be sensible for us in southern Indiana to revisit some earthquake safety precautions. After all, Bloomington is situated near two significant fault lines: the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone. And although Hoosiers might not be too familiar with earthquakes (though some of us might remember the 5.2 magnitude quake in 2008—I know I sure do!), a letter from Edna Hatfield Edmondson shows how a group of Indiana University (IU) athletes handled a large quake back in 1922.

Black and white photograph of 14 members of the IU baseball team and their coach in front of their hotel
The 1922 baseball team at the Tsukiji Seiyoken Hotel. April 14 or 15, 1922. IU Archives image no.
P0042249

Hatfield Edmondson served as a faculty member for the IU Extension Division from 1919-1942. She and her husband, Clarence Edmund Edmondson (a physiology and social hygiene professor and later Dean of Men at IU), chaperoned the IU baseball team during a landmark trip abroad to Tokyo, Japan from March-April, 1922. The University Archives is fortunate to have a collection of letters and postcards that Hatfield Edmondson wrote during this trip. Her letters include attentive recaps of games the baseball team played, descriptions of events to welcome the group in Tokyo, travelogues, and photographs. A particularly lively letter addressed to the IU Director of Publicity (Frank R. Elliot) on April 30, 1922 describes the team’s experience during a large earthquake (see the letter in its entirety at the bottom of this post). She begins:

“The Indiana baseball team is getting the worth of its money on this trip. All sorts of stunts have been staged for me—such as stormy seas, hotel fires, (and the Imperial Hotel was to have housed us but was too full—this we learned the day after our arrival).

Now an earthquake.

The earthquake did itself proud—the worst since 1894. For fear we might be disappointed it jolted us up and down, north and south, and east and west. We were quite “shaken up” by the incident.”

The 1894 quake to which she refers was indeed terrible. The 6.6 magnitude quake occurred on June 20, 1894 and affected downtown Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama. In addition to widescale physical destruction in these cities, it claimed 31 lives and injured 157 people. Japan has a long history of earthquakes because it is situated on four different lithospheric plates; as such, Japan’s written record of earthquakes goes back around 1,500 years. Fortunately for Edna and the team, this earthquake wasn’t nearly as bad. Her descriptions of how team members fared, however, illustrate how dangerous earthquakes can be in a city full of buildings:

“Lynch, Gilbert, Sloate, Gause, and Wichterman were upstairs in an ivory shop. The proprietor yelled “earthquake” and vanished. The boys rushed to the stairway and stuck there. Gilbert said they rattled around like dice in a box and opened up a new entrance to that shop trying to get out.

Coach, Mrs. Levis, Kidd and Minton were making a call on a Buddha in a temple at the time but lost confidence and deserted the shrine.

Walker was alone in his room on the third floor, waiting for the final blow before jumping along with the tiles from the roof.

Denny and Macer were playing billiards and were only a few jumps behind the Japanese who were playing with them, in getting into the open.”

Edna continues to describe how she and her husband dealt with the shaking, all the while showing her sense of humor about the event:

“Mr. Edmondson and I looked across the table in our room at each other, laughed, then opened up our eyes, rose as one man and found ourselves at the window ready to slide down a telephone pole.”

We know now that proper earthquake safety procedure is to drop onto your hands and knees, cover your head and neck, and hold on to something sturdy. Edna’s jape about sliding down the telephone pole would in fact have been a very dangerous thing to do! The next two players she accounts for experienced firsthand the scary physical consequences of the quake (still with Edna’s trademark sense of humor):

“Clay has always believed his number elevens were a firm

Portrait of Leonard Ruckelshaus in his baseball uniform
The heroic Leonard Ruckelshaus, 1922. IU Archives image no. P0042596

foundation until he saw the sidewalk meeting him in all directions, where he lost confidence.

Kight was shaken out of a sound sleep and came to in the middle of the street—he doesn’t know whether he reached the street by fair means or foul.”

Edna ends her account on a more positive note, describing team member Leonard “Ruck” Ruckleshaus’ bravery:

“Ruckleshaus proved himself the only hero in the crowd by rescuing a beautiful young lady. Trust Ruck!”

We can see the impact the baseball team had on the local community! None of the team members were injured, and in fact they went on to play their next game in the series on May 2. Although the IU team lost more games than they won (the final series record was one victory, one tie, and five losses) they had many thrilling experiences. Aside from the earthquake, they experienced Mount Fuji, the largest tea house in Japan, and the Tokyo Imperial Palace. You can view many images of the team’s Japanese tour in our database.

Scene of a moat surrounding the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
Image from the photo album kept by James Byron Walker who was captain of the 1922 baseball team. A note found on this page reads, in full: “This is a moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace & grounds.” IU Archives image no. P0085306

In the end, it was fortunate timing for Edna and the IU team to experience a Japanese earthquake in 1922. In September 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake struck the nation and left a devastating path of destruction, killing 140,000 people in resulting fires, floods, and physical destruction. The event is a chilling testament to the tragic potential of earthquakes.

On a more positive note, you can learn more about the IU baseball team’s trip to Japan in multiple places. Be sure to check out previous blog posts here and here, the Edna Hatfield Edmondson correspondence collection (C705), and the Leonard C. Ruckelshaus papers (C519). Both the Edmondson and Ruckelshaus collections are digitized for your perusal. If you have further questions, be sure to contact an archivist.

Scan of page 1 of Edna Hatfield's April 30, 1922 letter to Frank R. Elliot - written in cursive handwriting. Scan of page 2 of Edna Hatfield's April 30, 1922 letter to Frank R. Elliot - written in cursive handwriting. Scan of page 3 of Edna Hatfield's April 30, 1922 letter to Frank R. Elliot - written in cursive handwriting. Scan of page 4 of Edna Hatfield's April 30, 1922 letter to Frank R. Elliot - written in cursive handwriting. Scan of the envelope of Edna Hatfield's April 30, 1922 letter to Frank R. Elliot - includes Japanese stamps.

A Biplane, A Walnut Tree, and an Uncomfortable Laugh at Dunn Meadow

Here at the Indiana University Archives, we usually blog about our more inspirational and heartstring-pulling stories. Today, though, I want to share with you a thrilling tale of daring and disaster. Our director Dina Kellams recently perused IU’s new subscription to NewspaperARCHIVE, a tremendous resource to more than 1,000 historical newspapers in Indiana. She shared a 1911 clipping from The Tribune (from Seymour, Indiana) detailing an airplane crash in Dunn Meadow here at IU.

Plane crash on Dunn Meadow, Arbutus yearbook p.113. IU Archives image no. P0022444

On October 11 that year, the adventurous aviator Horace Kearney attempted an exhibition flight at Dunn Meadow. In front of a crowd of hundreds, Kearney took off and almost immediately crashed into a walnut tree.  I must admit that the paper’s description of the crash put me into a fit of laughter. As someone who grew up in an era of The Simpsons and Johnny Knoxville, I have always been tickled by slapstick comedy and stunts-gone-wrong. Fortunately Kearney survived the crash (I would not have laughed if he hadn’t!), but his story shows the real dangers of aviation as entertainment. It also gives us an opportunity to see what Dunn Meadow looked like in 1911.

When Kearney came to Bloomington for his October 1911 flight, he had been flying for only two years. The St. Louis native started aviation only six years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic Kitty Hawk flight in 1903. Kearney was a flier for the Curtiss Exhibition Co., a company that hired fliers and sent them on tours across the U.S. to exhibit aviation for an excited public. Fliers such as Kearney led a life of glory and possible disaster. Fellow aviator Baxter H. Adams claimed he learned to fly after he heard Curtiss was paying Kearney $600.00 per flight (more than $15,000 today). The rewards, however, came with significant risks. Baxter claimed Kearney broke fourteen bones just training to fly. An Indiana Daily Student preview for Kearney’s Dunn Meadow flight reveals:

“While flying in St. Louis in August, Mr. Kreary [sic] had the misfortune to run out of gasoline directly above a house. As he could not make an immediate descent he lost control of his machine and was hurled to the ground. He received injuries placing him in the hospital for several weeks.”

Like other daredevils such as skateboarders or BMX riders, aviators simply had to expect crashes. Obviously, though, the risk of serious injury or death was more severe for aviators. When I expressed my horror about this, University Archives photographs curator Brad Cook explained to me how biplanes were built to withstand inevitable crashes. They were lightweight enough to allow pilots to “glide” to the ground. Even so, gravity was not kind to Kearney on October 11, 1911. He came to Bloomington for Booster Day, a city celebration featuring entertainment and merchant sales. Kearney was to make two flights: one around IU’s campus and another around downtown Bloomington. The crash happened early in the first flight. The IDS described his unsuccessful takeoff at Dunn Meadow:

“Kearney came sweeping down the field at about forty miles an hour clip in an endeavor to get under headway, when he saw a wire fence a short distance ahead which forced him to go into the air too soon. With his attention riveted upon righting his machine, Kearney shot into the air and straight toward a walnut tree…The machine brushed against the tree and fell. Kearney was hurled to the ground, lighting upon his neck and shoulders.”

The paper continued to describe the public spectacle of the crash. The people of Bloomington rushed the crash site:

“When the machine came crashing to the ground the great crowd that had assembled to witness the flight remained motionless for a moment, and then stampeded toward the fallen man like a herd of wild cattle. Men, women, and children fought to get a sight of Kearney and the damaged machine.”

This is important because it brings me to my first point in this post: why was my initial reaction laughter? This IDS passage shows how that reaction is predicated on a history of people being wildly entertained by crash disasters. And the Class of 1912 Arbutus even made a witty goof of the event:

“October 11: The Dunn meadow aviator took a fall. About 300 students, who had previously expressed their willingness to accompany the aviator, were now glad that they had been overlooked when the invitations were sent out.”

In other words, people have been finding thrills and comedy in disaster for quite a while. So what happened to Kearney? He recovered after convalescing at a Bloomington doctor C.E. Harris’s home, he returned to St. Louis for biplane repairs (the plane itself was a total loss, but the engine and some parts were unharmed in the crash) and continued as an entertaining aviator. Tragically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Kearney died about a year later (December 1912) in a hydroaeroplane accident near Los Angeles. Kearney and a journalist, Chester Lawrence, were found at sea shortly after they took off in a Curtiss Hydroaeroplane (affectionately named “Snookums” by Kearney) near Redondo Beach. Kearney’s death is evidence of both the extreme dangers of early aviation and the determined adventurousness of early aviators. To put his final flight in context, Amelia Earhart’s first flight across the Atlantic Ocean was not until 1928—a full sixteen years after Kearney’s final flight into the Pacific Ocean. Earhart’s final flight was not until 1937. Indiana University witnessed an extraordinarily early aviation event when Kearney flew his Curtiss biplane into that walnut tree in 1911.

I hate to leave this post on such a morbid note, so let’s take one last look at Kearney’s amusing Bloomington flight. We can also use this event to give us some historical detail about Indiana University. Specifically, Kearney’s flight shows us what Dunn Meadow was like in 1911. I thought it was odd that Dunn Meadow could provide enough runway space for an airplane. It turns out that before the 1920’s, Dunn Meadow was much larger—it extended all the way to 10th Street. Dunn Meadow also served as a golf course at this time. Take a look below:

Dunn Meadow Golf Course, ca. 1917. IU Archives image no. P0025683
Dunn Meadow Golf Course (HPER building to right), ca. 1917. IU Archives image no. P0022957
Dunn Meadow Golf course, ca. 1900. IU Archives image no. P0049306

From Curation to Installation: The Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self Exhibit

What do gorillas, Finno-Ugric languages, the United States Army, and electromagnetic fields have in common? These seemingly disparate topics (among many others) were brought together in the voluminous intellectual grasp of Thomas A. Sebeok, 1920-2001. The prolific polymath enjoyed a long and distinguished career at Indiana University (IU) from 1943-1991. Sebeok started as Instructor and Linguist for the Army Specialized Training Program at IU, which provided intensive language training in Hungarian and Finnish for U.S. soldiers. After World War II ended, Sebeok stayed at IU as faculty. His expertise extended to areas of anthropology, folklore, and linguistics. He oversaw the formation of academic departments (Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies in 1965, now known as the Department of Central Eurasian Studies) and research centers (the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies) at IU from the 1960s through 1991. He simultaneously taught, gave lecture tours around the world, edited Semiotica for the International Association of Semiotic Studies, and wrote more than 600 articles and books over the years. Framing such a vast and deep scholar’s work for a modest archival exhibit proved to be a significant endeavor.

The legend himself: Thomas Sebeok, October 1976. IU Archives Photograph Collection, P0021757.

For this post, I want to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the curatorial and installation processes for an archival exhibit. Before I came to IU, I worked at a regional art nonprofit. One of my main responsibilities was overseeing the organization’s three art galleries. I found that my experience with installing art exhibitions was helpful, but I also found that archival exhibits present unique challenges—and more exciting opportunities for storytelling. The wide varieties of archival materials and space for informative historical captions combine for a seemingly infinite array of possibilities. The first step I had to take, then, was casting a net that was wide enough to be visually appealing but tight enough to capture a cohesive single exhibit. This latter consideration was harder than I anticipated!

When Carrie and Mary approached me about this exhibit opportunity, I knew I wanted to focus on Sebeok. I’ve been processing his substantial (~100 boxes) collection since October 2017. He has become a major role model for me, especially his disregard for traditional disciplinary boundaries in academia. I wanted to highlight the web of intellectual roles he inhabited, from semiotician and linguist to zoologist and journal editor. I did not want the exhibit to look like a hodge-podge sampling of random bits from the Sebeok collection. This is where curatorial framing came into play. I asked myself: What is it about all these areas of Sebeok’s study that captivate me? Why is it important? I think it is because it illuminates the truly cross-disciplinary nature of “science.” I have always been fascinated and impressed by scientists, but that world has always felt closed-off from me. I never did very well in math and hard sciences, and firmly rooted myself in art and history. Sebeok has shown me that these things are not disparate, as they are all human activities and human attempts to understand the world. From this the exhibit title was born: Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self. To translate this to the exhibit space, I decided to dedicate each case I was using to a different role: Sebeok as a master of languages, Sebeok as an academic leader, Sebeok as a renowned semiotician, and Sebeok as a skeptic. Within these cases I selected different materials: visual resources to catch the eye (I love all the program brochures and letterhead in the collection), correspondence to tell stories, and signposts to guide the viewer (in the form of biographical materials like press releases and news clippings).

Planning all of this was a more physically involved process than I anticipated. Over the course of a few weeks I was constantly ordering, opening up, investigating, and returning boxes from the collection. For each item I wanted to exhibit, I photocopied the original, placed the photocopy in the original folder, and logged the item in a list indicating its original box and folder placement. This is all necessary to ensure I can return the items properly once the exhibit is over. Throughout this process, I had to cross-reference the dimensions of each case to plan the exhibit layout. Captions ended up being the biggest spatial challenge for me. I authored long captions because so much of the exhibit material is conceptually dense and needs contextual information to tell Sebeok’s story. I could have written pages more of caption text, but cut myself off so as not to overwhelm the viewer.

A roll of polyethylene book strapping, a piece of foam core, a utility knife, and a ruler on a table.
The basic tools of exhibit mounting: foam core, a utility knife, a ruler, and a roll of polyethylene book strapping.

Physically installing the exhibit was definitely the most challenging part of the exhibit process. I anticipated this from my time working in art galleries, but the difficulties were unique. I didn’t have to worry about mats or frames, but mounting unique archival paper materials was intimidating. To mount an 8 x 10 in. piece of correspondence, I would first cut a piece of foam core board exactly to those dimensions. Foam core can be irritating: it is difficult to cut through with a utility knife and it sheds constantly. Making sure none of the foam backing extends beyond the dimensions of the material takes a lot of careful trimming. After I cut the backing, I would mount the material using polyethylene book straps. This part required careful choreography to keep the original document flat against the backing while pulling book straps across each corner and taping them down on the backside of the foam core. There is no one perfect method for this: it takes a lot of patience, finger dexterity, and adjustments, much like matting and framing artwork. Clean hands and short nails are also a must-have!

An archival exhibit’s beast of burden: polyethylene book strapping.

Some of the exhibited items took some creative problem solving to display. In order to mount a large bound volume from the Smithsonian National Zoo to a particular page spread, Mary Mellon custom made a book cradle out of mat board and strategically applied tape—a technique she learned during a workshop when she was a graduate student. We then rested the publication in the cradle and strapped down the pages.

A bound publication is held open on an inclined mount.
The Smithsonian National Zoo publication on a book cradle made by archivist Mary Mellon.

To display both sides of a fold out conference brochure, I scanned one side of the brochure and printed it at the same dimensions as the original. I then folded the reproduction to resemble the original brochure and displayed it face-up so viewers could read it.

A reproduction of a brochure for a 1986 "Science and Pseudoscience" conference.
A reproduction of a brochure for a 1986 “Science and Pseudoscience” conference used to show both sides of the program.

The most awkward item to mount was also a highlight of the exhibit: a fundraising newsletter from Francine Patterson for the Gorilla Foundation featuring Koko the Gorilla’s actual signature. The newsletter was printed on one sheet of folded paper. I wanted to display two facing pages, one with Koko’s signature and the other with the bulk of the letter text and images of Koko with her kitten. To do this I had to mount the pages on two separate pieces of foam core. I could not use book straps to hold down the inner corners of the pages, since they were on the same sheet of paper with a fold in the center. This made the item tricky to move around once in the case. I ended up resting it on clear plastic displays for added stability.

A printed newsletter with pictures of Koko the Gorilla and the gorilla's actual signature in ink.
Mounted correspondence from Francine Patterson for the Gorilla Foundation. Koko the Gorilla’s signature is visible on the bottom near the middle (“Fine Animal Gorilla”).

I hope these examples show some of the overlooked skills needed in an archive. Working on an archival exhibit requires skills in paper conservation, object handling (similar to art handling in a gallery setting), matting, aesthetic sensibilities, writing, and curation. It also takes time, collaboration, and a hearty dose of creative problem solving. Above all, I like to think that Thomas Sebeok would appreciate the eclectic matrix of skills that went into this exhibit.

Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self is on display now through March 29, 2019 at the Indiana University Archives (Wells Library E460, East Tower).

Sincerely Yours: How Artists Research with Alma Eikerman

Alma Eikerman, IU Archives image no. P0059062

I recently had the opportunity to reprocess correspondence in the increasingly popular Alma Eikerman papers (C621) for better researcher access. The series contains slices of the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts’ life, including letters home from her extensive travels, thoughtful communications with former students, discussions with fellow IU faculty, and more. Eikerman’s correspondence shows her independent spirit, wit, and artistic and pedagogical philosophies.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing some summer blues—it is always difficult for me to not feel vegetative in the hot months between school years. In my dreary state, I came across a 1984 letter from Eikerman to Metalsmith editor Sara Bodine that mentioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art—something that piqued my interest. As I continued to read, I could almost hear Alma laughing at my intellectual lethargy. Her passion is evident:

“My life has been made most rewarding by following my interests. My research started when I was in college, it followed no plan, except that of my interests, and continues today. I have been a world traveler, and research of many different areas of metal objects has certainly added to the pleasure and my knowledge. I acquired a strong feeling that a professor of metal should also know as much as possible about the history of metal. Well, that means, knowing almost all of world history.”

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Her honest account of following her research interests struck a chord with me. As practicing artists may know, however, it can be overwhelming to know where to start research. Alma includes helpful—and non-intimidating—advice for Metalsmith readers:

“For a beginner it is fun to start with a historical object that fascinates you. Gather a number of library books about the area of your interest. Fortify yourself with good maps of the area and begin to make sketches of all the important pieces in a given field. Sketches help you see and seek out the details.”

This is why research in the visual arts interests me so much. Artists are able to use their technical skills of creation to understand research material in a unique way. Being able to actually draw one’s research subjects is a powerful way to connect with learning. She continues to emphasize the importance of looking as an active verb in research, writing:

“Learn where the pieces were made or found-and in which museum they are located…This kind of study research can start in the museum nearest to you—or it can simply start from book study. Libraries are full of wonderful books, with good reproductions.”

As someone whose most vivid childhood memories include parent-dictated art museum trips and the pages of the Time-Life Library of Art books, I second Alma’s affections. For artists, visual research (or looking) is just as important as text-based research.

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Even so, Alma’s powers of textual description make this letter so fun. Following her advice, which she wrote to serve as an introduction to a piece in Metalsmith, Alma describes three pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that she wants to include with her magazine piece. There are no accompanying slides for these, so in order to identify them a reader has to do a bit of searching. Amazingly, just entering her description of each piece + “Metropolitan Museum of Art” into a search engine immediately retrieved the three pieces. Now that is some powerful descriptive skill!
The three pieces are: a pair of gold armbands with two tritons from Hellenistic Greece, a 4th century silver head of a Sasanian king, and a gold and stone necklace from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. Looking at these pieces, it is easy to understand Alma’s perspective on art history. Although she was a mid-twentieth century artist, she was able to pull from eons of history to inform her research and work. For anyone feeling stuck on an artistic or research project this summer, take Alma’s advice and trust your instincts—follow your interests. The way forward may not always be clear, but there is a path.

Feeling inspired? Get more motivation by contacting an archivist to check out this collection.