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Museum acts as laboratory for students, provides hands-on experience

Mount Pleasant graduate student Marc Van Horn speaks to visiting students on Oct. 12 in the Bohannon Schoolhouse.

From exhibits about Mars to programs about shipwrecks and scuba gear, when people visit the Museum of Cultural and Natural History at Central Michigan University, they'll primarily see student work.  

Just ask Lake Orion senior Mitchell Bryan, who helped design an educational program that's used at the Rowe Hall museum. 

In his public programming class for the museum studies minor, Bryan and his classmates had 45 minutes to develop an educational program. 

"Get Wrecked!" — the program the class came up with about shipwrecks — demonstrates how ships sink and are preserved and now includes scuba gear.  

“I don’t think there’s a single thing we do in the museum that isn’t resume-worthy,” Bryan said.

The museum acts as a laboratory for students learning about museums, said Jay Martin, director of the museum studies program and the museum. CMU offers a 24-credit minor in museum studies, a major in public history and a master's degree in Cultural Resource Management, which has three primary concentrations.

The primary purpose of the on-campus museum is to educate students in the museum studies programs and other related programs. Martin added this makes the museum different from nearly every museum in the country. 

“Most museums serve the public,” Martin said. “We do too, but that is a byproduct of what we actually do. What we actually do is produce people who can go right out and work in a museum. The byproduct is super cool exhibits, educational programs, social media, restoration of artifacts — all different kinds of things.”

For this reason, Martin said, when undergraduates leave with minors in museum studies, they don’t compete with undergraduates from other programs — they compete with graduate students from other programs.

“We’ve had other curators and directors of museums around the state who are involved with those other museum studies programs in the state tell us they would hire our students and have hired our students over their own because ours are so good,” Martin said.

The job placement rate for museum studies minors is 70 percent within the first year, Martin estimated, which he says is high for a competitive industry where many of the jobs go to people with a graduate degree.

The museum studies minor can be paired with a variety of majors. Students in the program learn about education, collections, how museums function in society and how museums impact communities. 

Noticing that students who went to CMU for their undergraduate degrees would go to other universities for graduate school, Martin said the department created the Cultural Resource Management master's program. 

So far, the Cultural Resource Management program with a concentration in museum studies has seen a 100 percent placement rate within six months of graduation.

Each year, there are about 18-22 students in the Cultural Resource Management graduate program and about 50 undergraduate students with the museum studies minor, Martin said.

Gaining hands-on experience

Bryan thinks the hands-on opportunities and comprehensive classes make the museum studies program stand out. For him, the most meaningful aspect of the minor was the required internship.

He interned at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and worked on educational programming. He learned how to design and execute his own educational programs.

"Without the internship, it would still be a very good program," Bryan said. "(The internship) is really the icing on the cake."

He has worked at the museum on campus for about a year and a half, and thinks working there gives students a leg up. When students graduate, he  said, they will already have years of museum experience.

One of the most practical lessons Bryan learned, he said, was in a museum collections course. In the course, students learned to document everything about an object then give each object a catalog ID number to make it easier to keep track of or locate in collections storage.

Gladwin senior Ashley Blackburn said other museums studies programs might encourage hands-on experience, but CMU’s program requires it.

"The fact that the museum studies actually lives up to what it says it's going to is very influential," Blackburn said. 

She said the experience she’s gained as a museum studies minor is already paying off as she applies for graduate school. 

Blackburn wants to be an archivist and had the opportunity to complete a collections internship at the museum at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands when she studied abroad there.

Aside from gaining hands-on experience through her internship and volunteering in the museum, Blackburn said the classes in the minor also focus on practical experience.

In a class, she and a group of other students designed an exhibit about Mars that's still in the museum today. Other students in the class designed an exhibit about CMU in the 70s that's also in the museum. As part of the project, the students also planned an exhibit opening.

Focusing on student success

Students have been involved with the museum from the beginning, Martin said. When the museum officially opened in 1970, students helped create the original displays and build cabinets. Students began learning how to work in a museum when the on-campus museum opened, Martin said, but the museum studies program formally existed starting in the 1990s.

“You hear a lot now from CMU’s administration about student success,” Martin said. “That’s been a very strong focus of this program for almost 50 years and you can see the results from the number of our students who are out there (working in the field).”

Shelby Township graduate student Antoine Helou studies Cultural Resource Management. He thinks the program's focus on student success will be useful to him in his career.

Helou graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in history and a minor in museum studies. When looking at graduate schools, an adviser at MSU mentioned CMU’s program to him, thinking it aligned with his interests. Helou said he doesn’t know of other universities that offer a degree like CMU's Cultural Resource Management degree.

“The program here really focuses on getting us ready for professional careers after school,” Helou said. “That’s something I didn’t really get in my undergraduate (education).

“I’m just happy to be here and I find it so cool that I’m doing all these things — whether it’s interviewing someone, learning about public history and how to run a museum or just maybe cleaning off some nails, wood pieces or glass pieces from an archeology site.” 

The museum studies program has partnerships with various museums that allow students to gain more experience. In addition to volunteering in the Museum of Cultural and Natural History at CMU, Helou, like other CMU students, has helped out at the Antique Toy and Firehouse Museum in Bay City.

The museum in Bay City is looking at reshaping, so they needed people to look at inventory. Helou and other students have looked at the museum’s collections and are thinking about changes and the future of the museum.

At CMU’s museum, a 1920s Transport Truck was just added to the collection. Students, including Helou, helped clean the truck and prepare it for its unveiling.They also learned how to start it. 

"For (museum faculty) to give us experience and actually have trust in us students to help with getting (the Transport Truck) ready for unveiling is really something," Helou said. 

Maintaining the museum

Senior Cassie Olson’s favorite class she has taken is oral history. The interviews students do in that class will become part of a collection at the museum. In addition to working as a student assistant at CMU's museum, she completed internships with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Mackinac State Historic Parks. 

Olson thinks it’s sad more CMU students don’t visit the museum. Museums might not be on a lot of college students’ radar, she said, but once people visit, they usually find something that interests them.

Right now, exhibits in the museum range from bears that roar when people walk by to a virtual reality sandbox. 

One interesting artifact the museum has but hasn't displayed yet, Martin said, is a 9/11 artifact: a sign for the World Trade Center subway station stop.

The museum received this artifact by accident. Several years after the terrorist attacks, Martin responded to a callout for museums interested in obtaining artifacts. CMU received the wrong artifact: a filing cabinet.

While the filing cabinet was at CMU by mistake, Hurricane Sandy hit New York and destroyed the other remaining cabinets from 9/11. 

Because one cabinet was unintentionally kept safe at CMU, Martin was offered the opportunity to choose any 9/11 artifact he wanted. He picked the subway sign because he wanted something that could tell a story in a simple and appropriate way, especially for younger people who wouldn’t remember 9/11.

Martin said the artifact will likely be displayed on a significant anniversary of 9/11, such as the 20th anniversary. 

When choosing what artifacts to accept, Martin said, museum staff look for items that are unique or representative, also searching for items that would allow faculty and students to do research.

"One of the great things about this program is it allows us to reach the general public and serve them," Martin said. "At the same time, we're doing our job for our students."