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).

“The Nature of Labor on a Changing Campus” exhibit – Scholar’s Commons, Wells Library, Fall 2015

IMG_1831My name is Claire Repsholdt. I am an undergraduate majoring in English and History at IU. This summer, I had the honor of working with the IU Archives to select pieces for the exhibit “The Nature of Labor on a Changing Campus” that I curated as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Themester for the Scholars Commons in Wells Library.


Before I began this project, I had never had the chance to work in an archive. So, along the way, learning procedures for research were just as important as collecting materials for the exhibit. During the first meeting, I was excited to find out about the extensive materials in the IU Archives, which seems to include every memory of IU from students and staff, on campus and off. Furthermore Indiana is especially unique for having such an extensive digitized collection, which is largely available to the public for viewing. I highly suggest exploring it if you get a chance!


At first, when I thought about labor, I pictured industry, unions, and blue collar workers with names sewn into their jackets. However, as I learned about the other events sponsored by Themester, I quickly realized that you can find a story of labor everywhere you look. And since I was looking in the Indiana University Archives, there were millions of exciting options to choose from. I needed to narrow my focus. As I looked through materials, I couldn’t help but get excited when I found out new pieces of campus history, especially since it seems that this campus is currently undertaking an enormous period of change. With several new building projects in progress around campus, I hoped that I could use the archives to show some of the campus familiar landmarks in a new light.


'I-League Outfielders, (from right: Mr. Lynch, Mr. Wichterman, Mr. Ruckelshaus), Waseda University Baseball Park, 1922
‘I-League Outfielders, (from right: Mr. Lynch, Mr. Wichterman, Mr. Ruckelshaus), Waseda University Baseball Park, 1922

Selecting what materials to exhibit was, to use a classic labor analogy, like mining for gold. I delved deep into the comprehensive online Archives Photograph Collection and waited for a spark, an image that surprised me, moments when the IU community looked especially unusual or unique. Then I would sit down with what I’d found and ask the archivists for their suggestions. They guided me to rich pockets of materials like the beloved Leonard “Ruck” Ruckelshaus collection, which documents the baseball team’s trip to Japan in the 1920s (be sure to check out the I-Men’s sweater), or to the documents and ephemera of the now-defunct Home Economics department, which includes the personal correspondence and collections of Professor Elizabeth Sage. I was enchanted. I began to shape the exhibit’s narrative around these pieces, learning the careful preservation and presentation requirements that came along with them.

One of my personal favorite discoveries was a collection of photographs taken of staff from about 1949-1970. Only a fraction of the images made it into the exhibit–there were several pounds of folders full of prints–but by studying the collection as a whole I felt that I developed a much more intimate understanding of the story of labor on campus. The pictures were barely captioned, taken by some excited photographer who had access to a great portable camera, possibly for the first time.

IU employee with boxes of Wheaties cereal, December 10, 1964
IU employee with boxes of Wheaties cereal, December 10, 1964

As I reviewed them, I imagined a young guy running around campus, shirt collar flapping in the wind, coercing workers into becoming the subjects of his picture and manically developing the prints for some important project that may or may not have ever been achieved, stacking them into the piles that moved from cabinet to cabinet and now fill the manila folders at the IU Archives. Those pictures became the heart of the exhibit for me. The photographer(s) were engaged in the same process I was, attempting to document labor on campus for posterity. In some way, my exhibit was just finishing what they had begun.



Though photograph research was an enormous part of the project, it was important to me to present a wide range of materials for the exhibit. I wanted to demonstrate not only what the IU Archives had available, but also to do justice to the experience of labor. I sought methods of displaying materials that would reflect the amount and variety of labor that occurs on campus and the way that labor is always in progress, moving through time.IMG_1843

The exhibit space ended up being a crucial part of the concept of labor in progress, since it is a hallway: most of the visitors are just passing through. The exhibit had to react to constant motion. So, I chose to compose the exhibit within a simulated version of the Sample Gates, one of the most prominent centers of motion on campus. The background of each wall panel is a blown-up drawing of the Sample Gate pillars, and the slides on monitors in between the panels are images of pedestrians walking the cobblestone streets through the gates. Each of the monitors features films and moving text, encouraging viewers to imagine they are passing through the gates into campus as they imagine labor. As for the individual materials and captions in the exhibit, I tried to think of viewer interaction at all times, so that they could enjoy the same experience I did in the archives when I rediscovered campus through labor.

IMG_1842For the west wall of the exhibit, I acquired vintage office items from IU Surplus and picture frames from local thrift stores to create unique frames for the pieces from the Archives. I arranged the pictures and personal possessions of the featured laborers comfortably, the way they might be arranged on a family bookshelf, so they crowded together to take labor out of time, showing that even a historical presentation of pictures and accessories seemed at once familiar and historical, exhibit and display, past and present.

For the east wall, I represented the passage of time through labor by selecting various chronological renderings of both a location on campus, the Sample Gates, and campus as a whole in guided maps. I paired these chronological tours with facts and questions about labor. I hoped to call viewers’ attention to connect labor with time, showing how labor motivates change and pushes the campus to take action.

Both walls of the exhibit culminated in campus films featuring workers going about daily labor rather than sitting frozen in an exhibit. As a viewer notices a film, both the viewer and the exhibit are both on the move, passing through the space together in one group. Maybe for that one moment, there is no difference between being an archive and being alive. Everything is together, moving forward to change labor on campus.


It is my hope that the materials are provocative enough to interrupt the motions of students for a moment and ask them to recognize the labor that is a part of their daily campus routine. I hope that as they continue on their way to the computers or printers, they’ll look a little askance at the computer cubicles, pondering questions about where they are going, what work that they are doing, what technology they are using, and who is making it all possible.

New Themester Exhibit – Food on the Home Front: Wartime Production, Preservation and Deprivation on the IU Campus

The First and Second world wars caused a rise in patriotism as citizens across the country sought to contribute to the war effort. Away from the trenches and on the home front, in true Hoosier fashion Indiana University faculty, students and the Bloomington community rose admirably to the challenge to meet the very pressing issue of wartime food consumption.

Part 1: The Great War

IU President William Lowe Bryan message on the war effort.
IU President William Lowe Bryan message on the war effort.

With the entrance of the United States into the war in April 1917, the importance of agricultural aid and the nation’s food security increased exponentially. In August 1917, the Food and Fuel Control Act passed Congress and President Wilson created the Food Administration with Herbert Hoover named as head of the division. “Food Will Win the War” quickly became the slogan aimed at the American public to produce more and consume less in the name of victory by rethinking old patterns of consumption, a tactic that was so successful that it was used again during WWII. IU President William Lowe Bryan urged everyone to do their part:

Your first thought everyday should be in what most effectively serve your country in the greatest crisis in its history. If we are worthy to enjoy the liberty won for us by Washington and Lincoln, we must now fight for it anew. 

While young and able American men fought on the battlefields, women, children, the elderly and those left behind fought to ensure the security of the nation’s food supply and that of the allies.

 The University Farm and the Corn Crib

Indiana Daily Student, April 19, 1917
Indiana Daily Student, April 19, 1917
Indiana Daily Student, November 15, 1917
Indiana Daily Student, November 15, 1917

Following a call from Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich to increase food production, the city of Bloomington formed the Vacant Lot Garden Committee and the University allocated nearly 55 acres both to the north and in the heart of campus for tilling. In April 1917, the Indiana Daily Student reported that “almost every foot of available ground will be planted…The demand for teams to plow up vacant lots has set the price of this item soaring.”

Roughly northeast of the recently completed Men’s Gymnasium (the present day School of Public Health building), the University approved the removal of several trees and a plot of about seven acres was plowed and made available for garden plots. Similarly, according to several accounts, a corn crib was erected to store the produce on the hill directly north of the old Assembly Hall (razed in 1938).

 Student and Faculty Involvement 

In addition to their coursework, student groups across campus such as the Women’s Athletic Association stepped up to plant gardens. In 1917, a special course on agriculture was taught by Frederick John Breeze, a Fellow in the Department of Geology.

David Rothrock (Mathematics)
David Rothrock (Mathematics)

Outside of the classroom, faculty members such as William Frederick Book (Educational Psychology) and David Andrew Rothrock (Mathematics) used their personal property for the cause. Book planted potatoes in his “newly plowed bluegrass lawn” and Rothrock “raised a ton of honey” in his backyard. Even Theodore Louden, proprietor of the Alpha Hall dormitory, put out a garden, likely for the student cafeteria.

The “Back to the Farm” Movement

Indiana Daily Student, May 2, 1917
Indiana Daily Student, May 2, 1917

With every farmer being asked to plant and produce more than ever, school authorities across the country took steps to aid in the planting of the spring crop. President Bryan implored the student body to the cause stating that:

The food campaign is just now the most essential part of our great war. We wish, therefore, to provide for the enlistment for the food campaign in a manner as nearly as possible like that required of those who enlist in the army.

ListSimilar to the guidelines for cases of military enlistment, the Indiana Daily Student outlined the program stating that those:

who enlist in this work will receive entire credit for every hour they are carrying. For example, if a student is carrying fifteen hours of work, he will receive twelve hours of credit for his regular subjects, and the remaining three in general University credit or elective work.

According to the May 29, 1917 Indiana Daily Student a total of 217 students withdrew to become “soldiers of the soil.”

Lorena and Dorritt Degner

Indiana Daily Student, May 9, 1917
Indiana Daily Student, May 9, 1917

While the farm movement campaign primarily targeted male students, sisters Lorena and Dorritt Degner (a senior and junior respectively) eventually gained permission to withdraw from classes and return to their family farm near Winamac, Indiana.

Dorrit Degner
Dorrit Degner

In June, Lorena reported their activities to President Bryan in a letter:

Enlistment has ended, but work of course, is still going on, with corn-cultivating, laying and harvesting yet to be done. My brother and I have 40 acres of corn to cultivate, which will keep us busy until harvesting.

My average day of work was about 9 ½ hours and would have been a little more if rain had not stopped work two or three times. I did a little plowing, but almost all of my farm work has been farrowing and cultivating. My shortest day, except when it rained, was 8 hours, my longest 12.

After June 4, two hours each morning were spent in herding cows to pasture….

I am afraid this is becoming tedious. I question whether I have really done much for my country; I do think I have done more than by staying at I.U. and I am certainly glad you gave me an opportunity.

Lorena Degner
Lorena Degner

Tragically, Lorena I. Degner was killed in 1923 while on leave from her position as a nurse in the U.S Veterans’ Hospital No. 85 at Walla Walla, Washington. A train struck the bus in which she was traveling. President William Lowe Bryan, upon hearing of her death, paid her the following tribute in the October Alumni Quarterly:

I have been deeply shocked by the news of the death of Miss Lorena Degner. I remember her as one of our best students. She graduated from the University in 1918 with high distinction.

I remember especially one incident. In 1917 the University permitted boys to go home in order to work on the farms in the interest of a large food supply in support of our army. One day Miss Lorena Degner and her sister, Miss Dorrit Degner (now Mrs. S.C. Sledge), came into my office and asked to be released for work at home. I said that the release was given only for those who were going to work in the fields. They said that they were going home for that purpose. Those two girls were accordingly released along with hundreds of boys for this splendid was service. They deserve to be recognized along with the soldiers who went to the front. 

Food and the War Courses

Food and the War course, 1918
Food and the War course, 1918

The United States Food Administration turned to the country’s centers of education such as IU to “secure that degree of assistance in handling our food problems that cannot be obtained elsewhere.” The Federal Food Administrator for Indiana implored President William Lowe Bryan:

The food situation is such that only the closely-knit co-operation of all our best citizens can suffice to avert conditions that a year ago would have seemed unbelievable. WILL YOU HELP?”

Flosie Garrison certificate, 1918
Flosie Garrison certificate, 1918

In response, during the spring 1918 semester the University offered several courses directly tied to the war effort such as Food and the War, Foundations of Food and Nutrition and Conservation of Foods. Students such as Flosie Garrison (A.B. in English) and Alda Woodward (A.B. in Latin) received certificates of completion from the US Food Administration following a course taught by Home Economics Professor Edith Williams. They went on to become teachers after the war.

Wheatless, Meatless and Sugarless

As the war progressed, wheatless, meatless, and sugarless days were adopted at dinner tables across the nation, the local homes, boarding and Greek houses and the University Cafeteria. Faculty members such as Mabel Wellman of the Home Economics department offered lectures to the student body and the community on food conservation methods such as canning and drying and gave recommendations for suitable substitutes for wheat such as barley, buckwheat, corn, oatmeal, rice and potato flours.

Indiana University Newsletter, May 1918
Indiana University Newsletter, May 1918

Sample menus and recipes were printed in the local papers and the Extension Division distributed the newsletter “Recipes for Winning the War in the Kitchen.” Additionally, in cooperation with the Extension Divisions of Iowa and Wisconsin they produced three films on gardening, canning and drying which were immediately put into circulation in July 1917 in four states. While the films no longer exist, at the time Walton S. Bittner of the Extension Division reported that:

Calls for the films have been coming in rapidly….The Films are good. They accomplish their main purpose of helping to keep the idea of conservation before the public. They also give definite instruction in methods.

 The Hennel-Hendricks Family

Cecilia, Cora and Edith Hennel
Cecilia, Cora and Edith Hennel

Former IU faculty member Cecilia Hennel Hendricks regularly wrote her sisters Cora (an IU Professor of Mathematics) and Edith back in Bloomington from her bee farm in Powell, Wyoming. During the war years she recounted substituting wheat flour in recipes such as potato crackers and making apple-sauce barley cake from a recipe that the family sent her from the Indiana Daily Student. Cecilia also shared stories about honey from their farm being used by the Allies, local canning and drying demonstrations, and the specifics of canning vegetables, fruit, rice and meats such as chicken and even jack rabbit. In a letter dated October 12, 1917, she tells them:

To be sure there are some canned meats that are better than jack rabbit, but in this day and age – and especially region – jack rabbit is preferable to some things at three and four times the price. If you are interested get the government bulletin on canning meat, and be prepared. The government recommends killing off the cockerels and old hens in the fall, and canning them, so as to save feeding them over winter. You could do the rabbits same as chickens. Jack rabbit meat makes lovely meat loaf and brown stews and macaroni mixtures and mince meat, not to mention hassen pfeffer.


Coming next week – Part 2: World War II


Arts, Crafts, and Preservation

These past few weeks have been a flurry of activity in the archives as fellow co-worker Amy finishes her exhibit of Robert Borkenstein, inventor of the Breathalyzer. She’s done a great job putting together such a large exhibit in so short a time, and it will be ready this weekend for the SAA-SC Conference being held at IU. If you can, come up to the archives office and check it out! There is a variety of materials in the exhibit, from Breathalyzer prototypes to newspaper clippings to photographs. It is a visually interesting exhibit!

While I had little to do with curating the exhibit, I was able to help out a little bit by mounting some of the photos. This was a big deal for me; I’ve never had this opportunity before. As an undergraduate student archival assistant, I was probably not trusted enough to try my hand at mounts that would adequately support and display the photograph. Dina Kellams taught me how to cut through thick foam board with an Exacto knife and straight edge, then attach strips of clear plastic to the corners to hold the photograph or newspaper clipping. (All these materials are, naturally, archival quality.) I found it a little nerve-wracking to size up and create the foam board backing – after all, one of the first principles taught in archival preservation is to keep knives and pencils away from the materials – but I would say that the four photograph mounts I created turned out all right. We have boxes of old mounts that can be recycled into new exhibits, but finding a mount that exactly fits your material is tricky. I had to leave one oddly-cut newspaper clipping on the table for a more experienced worker to handle. It will take a little work to become an expert in archival mounting, but my first foray into that project was a fun experience.

Reference questions for the archives, though very usual, have not been fielded my way in the past two weeks, so I’ve had time to finish up the publications series in Nugent’s papers. There is still a little cleaning up to do, but for the most part they have all been organized into 17 boxes. It’s pleasant to open up the boxes and see the neat, clean rows of manila folders. That might be one of my favorite results of processing. Of course, the organization and accessibility of the papers is an important result as well. For the most part, the publications series is organized chronologically, within the subseries of monographs, articles, and reviews. Nugent has been a very prolific writer and it’s not unusual for him to have written, and kept, over six drafts of one article, which takes up space quickly. I haven’t counted how many different publications are in those 17 boxes, but I would guess well over 100. Looking around me at all the boxes in this room alone, it boggles my mind at how much information and knowledge (institutional, professional, and personal) in so many formats is kept and preserved in archives.

In Nugent’s older writings, nearly everything in the boxes were bound with rusty paperclips or staples. Needless to say, this is undesirable from a preservation standpoint as the rust will stain and wear away at the paper, in addition to creating “rust dust” that is not pretty nor healthy for the papers. One of the main reasons processing can take so long is that all these paper clips and staples must be removed before the papers can be filed away. As I’m sure many processors have done, I used to have competitions with my co-workers to see who could fill up a jar with discolored metal faster. Newer paperclips and staples that have not yet become discolored are less of a preservation concern, since the climate control in archives helps prevent rusting, but it remains a problem to watch for in archives.

All in all, it’s been a good two weeks for learning new preservation skills and reinforcing old preservation standards.