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Students Touch the Past in Unique Internship with Grand Rapids Public Museum

Posted May 12, 2014 in Classes & Presentations

Inside the old Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) at 54 Jefferson, approximately a quarter million artifacts and specimens preserve a record of all that has defined Grand Rapids since its founding in 1838.

Amassing the staggering collection was the easy part; almost all of the items in the archives were donated directly to the museum. The hard part was figuring out how to share these cultural and historical riches with the community-at-large. That’s where KCAD comes in.

books artworkAn old wooden school desk; one of the many pieces of furniture in the GRPM archives (courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum)

Students Kayla McCarver and Olivia Lyszyk recently spent a semester helping the GRPM develop an interactive online database that will give the public a more complete look at the scope and depth of the archives. Students from Grand Valley State University built the database’s framework, while McCarver and Lyszyk were responsible for photographically cataloguing the artifacts.

olivia lzsykOlivia Lyszyk at work in the archive photo studio (courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum)

“It’s all about making this resource much more accessible and user-friendly, and having a visual component is very important for that,” said Lyszyk. “It was an incredible experience to be able to interact with all of this amazing stuff.”

Each day in the archives brought new discoveries for the pair. During one session, Lyszyk unearthed a trove of empty bottles and other brewery paraphernalia from Grand Rapids’ pre-‘Beer City USA’ days. McCarver’s favorite find was an intricately hand-carved Victorian-era chair that features a fully functional music box underneath the seat. Other treasures include a locally manufactured missile guidance system from the Gulf War, an iron lung, and a solid brass commemorative key to the city that was presented in 1965.

books artworkMcCarver's favorite find: an ornate Victorian-era chair with a music box underneath the seat (courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum)

“All of the objects in our archives have their own story,” said GRPM Collections Curator Andrea Melvin. “We wanted the public to be able to figure out what’s so unique and special about these artifacts, so the question became how can we use photography to better help tell those stories?”

books artworkPhotographing from multiple angles enables GRPM to present users with a comprehensive view of each artifact (courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum)

GRPM allowed the pair to devise their own method of working and gave them the freedom to capture each artifact as they saw fit.

“It was inspiring to see the passion that everyone [at GRPM] has for their specific skill set,” said McCarver. “I feel like there was a trust there where they believed that we knew what we’re doing, too.”

“Olivia and Kayla had a clear talent for photography, but they were also passionate about our mission,” said Mevin. “It takes a certain type of personality to tackle a project like this, and they showed a lot of enthusiasm getting their hands dirty working with these artifacts.”

The students captured each piece from multiple angles to allow anyone using the database to explore artifacts from 360 degrees. They also experimented with different lighting effects to breathe life into the objects’ histories.

books artworkMcCarver hanging out in the archives room (courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum)

The work was a departure from Lyszyk’s and McCarver’s own creative pursuits, but over the course of the internship they recognized the professional value of having to consider the needs of others when taking photographs. For both students, the most rewarding part of the internship came from knowing that they were helping to bring these incredible pieces of the city’s history out of the shadows and into the wider community.

“I think it’s neat that [Grand Rapids] is able to have this extensive digital archive,” said Lyszyk. “You can read about things in textbooks and know that they exist, but actually being able to see it in front of you is so much more impactful. The fact that these artifacts were owned by real people makes the experience more personal and tangible.”

books artworkThe pair were to capture every detail on the artifacts, including wear and tear (courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum)

The pair wasn’t able to photograph every artifact in the GRPM archives, but they’ve proved to museum officials that students are up to the task. The project will continue with a new duo of local undergraduate interns each semester.

“It’s good to know that the city cherishes its past and its historic property,” said McCarver. “I’m proud to be a part of that.”

Throughout its development, the GRPM digital archive remains accessible online and totally free to view. Check it out here.

For more information on internship opportunities at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, please visit grmuseum.org/grpm_internships or email: [email protected]. Applications for fall 2014 archival photography internships are due July 15.


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