4/23/10

History Students Help Preserve Industrial Past

Cassandra Cleveland '11 uses a cotton swab and mineral spirits to clean a 19th-century ammonia compressor once used in a brewery. When the Museum opens in 2011, the compressor will be part of a recreation of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition's Machinery Hall.

Three Moravian history majors discovered a love for museum work this semester, as they helped preserve artifacts from our nation's industrial past. Since January, Cassie Cleveland '11, Maura Acox '11, and Chris Leiby '10 have done field study work at the new National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH), which is scheduled to open in the second half of 2011. (Click on the NMIH Facebook link for more photos.)

Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and located in the former Bethlehem Steel plant, the NMIH is dedicated to presenting the story and accomplishments of American industry.

Earlier this year, Moravian Honors history alumnus Mike Piersa '06 contacted Heikki Lempa, chair of the History Department, to inquire about student candidates for a collaboration with NMIH. (Piersa, who was the first Moravian student to do a field study at NMIH, continues to work at the museum as he pursues his Ph.D. at Lehigh University.)

"We are striving to make our field study program in history not only personalized, but also a rigorous academic experience," said Professor Lempa. Two papers are required for the 300-level course, one a journal of the student's practical work, the other a "Statement of Historical Significance" about the item the student is helping to conserve.

Maura Acox '11 and Christopher Leiby '10 practice conservation techniques taught by Brian Howard.

"The program has worked well," said Stephen Donches, NMIH president and CEO. "The students are helping us achieve our conservation goals with Smithsonian artifacts as they learn about collections and collections management." After a training session with Brian Howard, one of the country's top conservators, the students helped create an artifact inventory, packaged laboratory glassware, and stabilized a steam-powered pumping engine, working under the supervision of consulting curator Meg Sharpe Walton. Piersa also has led students throughout the former Bethlehem Steel plant, explaining steel-making within the context of local industrial history.

Cassie Cleveland, who is president of the Moravian history club, says the field study has given her new appreciation for museum work and for industrial history. "Museums require a lot of time, work, and funds. It can be a struggle to stay afloat, especially now," she says. "This experience opened my mind—I've learned that industrial history affects everyone; it's relevant to your life today." She enjoyed the semester so much that she plans to pursue other undergraduate field study opportunities with museums.

"We try to think of the City of Bethlehem as a history lab," added Professor Lempa. "It offers a valuable network of opportunities for students. We work closely with the Moravian Archives and Dr. Paul Peucker, the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, and now the National Museum of Industrial History."

Readers interested in doing volunteer work for NMIH may contact Steve Donches, president, at sdonches-nmih@fast.net.