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New exhibit by English students showcases history, culture behind everyday items used by ordinary people

From K-State Today

A student exhibit opening Jan. 21 at Kansas State University explores the cultural significance of everyday items used by ordinary people. The items were selected from regional archives, including the university's Historic Costume and Textile Museum.

"Things That Speak" will run through Feb. 6 in the Kemper Art Gallery at the K-State Student Union. The free exhibit is based on a project by students in American Everyday, a capstone English course taught by Steffi Dippold, assistant professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Dippold believes that written histories don't tell the whole story, often leaving out important people. Her course focuses on ordinary people, everyday objects, and the trials and tribulations of marginalized groups. Students investigate quotidian objects as narratives and question the assumption that only print culture can function as a historic record that stores important stories.

"By looking at everyday objects produced by ordinary people who did not have access to print culture and are usually erased from traditionally taught and celebrated literatures and documents, students explore nontextual literacies that give voice to those ordinary Americans," Dippold said.

"I deeply believe in the pedagogic value of working with both local objects and material culture," she said. "I wanted to offer my students a course that would train them in object-based interdisciplinary research using a range of methodological approaches."

Students learned about the complex Bible quilts of the ex-slave Harriet Powers, studied the poetics and affective bonds created by keepsake albums, researched Native American ledge art and read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's micro-history of Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife who wrote a daily diary from 1785-1812.

The many historical archives in Kansas sparked the assignment that created the upcoming exhibit. Students were required to select an everyday object found in an archive and then trace its local and cultural life, as each was once the subject of fascination, association and meaning, Dippold said. Objects for the exhibit were selected from the Historic Costume and Textile Museum, which is in the apparel, textiles, and interior design department in the university's College of Human Ecology, and the Riley County Historical Society, both in Manhattan; the Kansas Historic Archive, Topeka; and the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri. One student studied a family heirloom.

The assignment aligns with the English department's focus on digital humanities and the university's 2025 plan to become a Top 50 public research university. Through digital humanities, the English department can foster faculty and undergraduate research while engaging the public in that work.

"Professor Dippold's class project encourages her students to acquire experience in the archives, where they develop skills for locating, collating and interpreting information," said Karin Westman, English department head and associate professor. "As they assemble the physical and online exhibits, students also contribute new knowledge and create new narrative pathways into the past."

"Things That Speak" features the students' work and includes a parallel online exhibit that will be linked from the English department's website. The following students, all seniors in English unless otherwise noted, are participating in the exhibit; included is the item each student researched:

Rachel Cunningham, Hays, her family's 19th century Kansas Bible.

From Manhattan: Kari Bingham-Gutierrez, a mourning cummerbund; Kate Haddock, December 2014 bachelor's graduate, a plum colored Quaker dress; Davis Mattek, a hair wreath; and Rachel Regier, an 1860s paisley shawl.

Joshua Porteous, Overland Park, a Northern Cheyenne ledger; Elijah Kampsen, Tecumseh, a volume from an early women's journal, the Lady's Monthly Museum, published between 1798 and 1832; Kylie McKenzie, Topeka, a banyan, which is an exotic male housecoat.

From Wichita: Brittany Roberts, junior, an 1810 muslin empire dress; and Laura Sommers, junior, a Whig's defeat quilt.

From out of state: Kayla Mabon, Beatrice, Nebraska, the compensation request of a Missouri slaveholder for his slave who enlisted in the Union army; and Abby Kopp, Bismarck, North Dakota, reading glasses.