Special Collections’ partnerships with the 360° program and Who Built Bryn Mawr?
Recovering Histories, Revising Narratives
By partnering with broader College programs, such as the 360° program and the “Who Built Bryn Mawr?” college history initiative, Special Collections can support the College’s liberal arts learning goals in deeper and more meaningful ways. Such programs facilitate more sustained (and sustainable) collaborations between Special Collections staff and faculty that not only create targeted opportunities to assess what is and is not known about some of our collections, but that also enfold students into the work by equipping them to pursue a research project using primary sources. –Carrie Robbins M.A. '08, Ph.D. '13, curator for art and artifacts
Mining the Mineral Collections
by Maya Hofstetter '25
When Florence Bascom started Bryn Mawr’s mineral collection in 1901, she wrote to geologists and collectors around the country, asking them to send mineral specimens. In the 125-odd years since, the collection has amassed over 100,000 specimens from over 90 countries.
One important collection was donated in 1958 by the family of George Vaux, Jr., a rock hound who devoted much of his life to collecting rare minerals on trips to Iceland, South America, and Southern Africa organized through Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the Vaux Collection and close my eyes. I spin around, pick a cabinet at random, and look inside. Needle-thin cerussite crystals from Broken Hill, Australia. Velvety, deep green malachite from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Gold from the Sierra Nevadas. Each specimen has a history, from its formation deep within the earth, to its mining, to its journey to a dark basement room in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
The mines that Vaux visited were controlled by colonial powers, and the wealth they produced was funneled back into the empires to be used for war, trade, and further expansion. The names and stories of the miners who pulled these minerals from the ground are absent, but we know that the mines thrived on coerced and forced labor. These histories are irrevocably tied to the Vaux Collection, thus begging the question: how do we acknowledge, discuss, and exhibit them?
The 360º Lens
These questions were the catalyst behind Minerals, Museums, and Western Colonialism, a fall 2022 360 program cluster in which 15 students and three faculty members produced biographies of colonial mineral localities, created a set of standards to catalog minerals, and embarked on a week-long trip to the U.K. to visit museums grappling with colonial histories.
Geology and Colonialism, taught by geology professor Selby Hearth, focused on the history of the field of geology and the role geologists have played in global colonization. Cataloging Collections, with Carrie Robbins (curator/ academic liaison for Art and Artifacts) and Marianne Weldon (collections manager for Art and Artifacts), covered the fundamentals of museum collections cataloging and repurposed the existing collections database to best represent the Vaux Collection. The recommendations we made, co-authored by each member of our course cluster, will be published pending peer review.
Grappling with Colonial Histories
Our cluster departed for London in early October. Within hours of landing, we were walking around the British Museum, jetlagged and stunned by the sheer amount of stolen artifacts and misleading placards. While in London we also visited the Wellcome Collection, which has taken substantial steps to acknowledge the colonial history of its collections, including repatriating human remains and cultural artifacts, soliciting public feedback, and commissioning artists and writers with personal connections to artifacts to create interventions to be exhibited alongside the original artifacts.
We also visited museums in Bristol and Cambridge, where we saw different approaches to colonial legacies within museums—from unlabeled human remains, outdated language, and refusals to acknowledge colonial connections, to thoughtful interventions in the form of commissioned artwork, expanded labels with indigenous place names, disclaimers, and the removal of disrespectful objects.
The good that has come from even the smallest interventions shows that this work is vital to the central goals of curation— preservation and interpretation of objects and education about them.
During the cluster, each student selected a historic mineral locality represented within the Vaux Collection. I chose to focus on Shinkolobwe, a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that supplied over 70 percent of the uranium used to create the atomic bomb.
Over 50 specimens collected from Shinkolobwe during a 1930 expedition funded by Vaux sat in our mineral collection for decades, until they were deemed too radioactive to keep. Some were donated to Homeland Security to be used in training, while others were taken to be buried alongside other radioactive waste. Traces of them remain in the form of empty boxes and stacks of identification cards.
When Bryn Mawr Artist-in-Residence Ellie Ga visited the mineral collection in December 2022, she took an interest in these “ghost records.” We discussed the importance of empty spaces—how they emphasize the mobility of minerals through space and time—and I took inspiration from our conversations to write an object biography focused on these missing specimens.
This project, and the site biography I wrote about Shinkolobwe’s history, allow us to imagine the people who may have mined these specimens, the ways in which they arrived to our collection, and the importance of the gaps they have left behind.
Maya Hofstetter is a junior majoring in geology. Last summer, she interned in Special Collections, where she continued the work of the 360 program by organizing databases, updating displays in Park Science, researching the collection’s history, and creating guidelines for future work.
A New Model for “Who Built Bryn Mawr?”
by Allison Mills, College archivist
For the past few years, Special Collections staff has partnered with students and faculty to spend the summer researching and developing an institutional history exhibition. The program, called “Who Built Bryn Mawr?,” supports research and curatorial opportunities for students interested in changing the way the College understands its history. Summer 2023 marked the fourth iteration of the project, launched in 2020, and the beginning of a new internship model.
The first phase of “Who Built Bryn Mawr?” focused on four individuals who helped shape the College’s first 50 years: Sally Brown, a maid in Merion; Umeko Tsuda, Bryn Mawr’s first East Asian student and the founder of Tsuda University; Hilda Worthington Smith, the founder of the Summer School for Women Workers, which accepted Black students years before Bryn Mawr College as a whole did; and Enid Cook ’31, a celebrated virologist and the first Black student to graduate from Bryn Mawr.
The second phase focused on students in the 1960s. These students, influenced by the national civil rights movement, shifted the College’s culture. Similarly, in November 2020, Black, Brown, and first-generation low-income students formed the Bryn Mawr Strike Collective and led the longest strike in the College’s history. The exhibition connected the concerns of students in the ’60s to students at Bryn Mawr today, looking at the legacy of activism on campus.
The third phase of the project changed the question to “Why Build Bryn Mawr?” and explored the earliest years of Bryn Mawr College, from its conception in 1872 to its opening in 1885, and through its first decade of operation. It considered the motives and philosophies of the white Quaker men and women who brought the College into being. The exhibition showcased the contestation and compromise behind Bryn Mawr’s founding, as competing visions shaped the physical and conceptual landscape of the College.
After three rounds of constructing a large-scale exhibition on the tight timeline of 10 weeks, we decided to embrace a more sustainable model going forward. Beginning this year, “Who Built Bryn Mawr?” will take a lesson from May Day and shift to a three-small-one-large schedule. Interns will curate part of an exhibition, mounted in the Eva Jane Romaine Coombe ’52 Suite on the second floor of Canaday Library, with the goal of a full exhibition being installed in the 1912 Gallery for a grand “Who Built Bryn Mawr?” exhibit every four years. These exhibits will be tied together by an overarching theme and also by a blog kept by the interns as they work over the summer.
“Who Built Bryn Mawr?”interns Yihan Liu ’24 and Grace Foresman ’25 kicked off the first summer of this new model in May, advised by a member of last summer’s cohort, Marion Hamilton ’23. This year marks the beginning of a concentration on Asian histories at Bryn Mawr College—an expansive, rich topic for students to explore, with many potential avenues for research—and this will provide the focus for the next phase of “Who Built Bryn Mawr?”
We hope, too, that this extended exhibition model will allow alumnae/i to participate in the project in a way that hasn’t been possible until now. The longer time frame opens up opportunities for oral histories, for crowdsourced feedback as the exhibit progresses phase by phase, and for those visiting campus to see the exhibition as it develops. We look forward to seeing you there!