News & Events

Partnership Produces Historic Exhibit

On the first floor of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center,the spirit of the University of Illinois comes alive.

Stroll by 14 towering display boxes to peruse anything from a freshman beanie to Japan House origami to an REO Speedwagon album cover. Touch a screen to read about iconic people, places, and traditions—including classics professor Richard Scanlan, the Main Quad, and concrete canoe races. Sit at coffee tables and bring up images of Bronze Tablets, Illio yearbook covers, Homecoming football programs, or front pages of The Daily Illini. Stand at a Trailhead Map that details the history of the very ground this campus stands on—going back 15,000 years. Listen to the voice-over memories of students from days gone by, then go on to record your very own.

This is the Richmond Family Welcome Gallery, a lively, interactive exhibit comprising photos, artifacts, videos, a recording booth, and touchscreens, all wrapped up in striking dynamic design. Taking the perspective of legions of students who have traversed the institution’s venerable halls, the venue opened in October 2018 and bursts with topics, testimonials, and the truly marvelous happenings of the University campus.

To tell that remarkably complex story, an equally remarkable collaboration took place between the University Library and the University of Illinois Alumni Alliance.

Conceived by the Alliance’s History and Traditions unit and realized by RhodesWorks, an experiential design firm, the Gallery morphed over a five-year period from a simple timeline to a privately funded, $4.5 million campus welcome center. Involved from the very start were Ellen Swain and Anna Trammell of the Library’s Student Life and Culture Archives, who helped guide the initial vision of how to craft the history of the 150-year-old campus.

Rather than a chronological display, the exhibit presents the past and present through Discovery Boxes, including four tagged with an “I” theme (Imagine, Innovate, Inspire, and Interact) and 10 others that examine such topics as “Who Are the Illini?,” “What Will I Study?,” “Illini Traditions,” “How Do Students Live Here?,” “Music in the Air,” and more.

The task was gargantuan. “My role,” recalled Swain, who heads SLC, “was to think about the history and . . .what we had in the Archives that . . . could be drawn on.” Later, key help came from William Maher and Chris Prom at the Archives, and the Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s Adam Doskey and Dennis Sears.

Once the ideas were narrowed down, the hard work of portraying them began. According to Ryan Ross, the assistant director of the History and Traditions programs who curates the exhibit, more than 100,000 images were reviewed, with approximately 250 from the Archives making the Gallery’s first round. The current display also contains a history of the Library (tucked within the “Imagine” box) as well as several artifacts gleaned from Archives, including the beanie, a military cadet sword, a megaphone, a 1930s homemade movie, a bottle of Archaea Ale, a Class of 1881 plaque, and facsimiles of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s Isaac Newton manuscript and a handwritten poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Somewhat wryly, head archivist Maher sums up the massive effort this way: “The approach would be, on any given topic, ‘Oh, stump the Archives! What can you find on this?’”

But the endeavor was not a hit-and-miss venture. Maher points out that Ross, a certified archivist, was able to pull hundreds of items from the Library as a result of decades of work on the part of Archives, “collecting material and then building information systems that enable us to find those topics.” And success ran both ways: After Ross found needed images for the display, Archives
could scan and digitize additional pieces, as well as add connections to its database. And as news of the Welcome Gallery spreads, Ross continues to collaborate with the Library regarding possible donations of items of interest.

So far, Ross says, approximately 35,000 people have visited the award-winning center, which draws prospective students and their families, current students, alumni, campus entities, and the community at large. This fall, the Gallery, which will be periodically updated, will become part of new faculty orientation.

“Many of the kinds of stories that we’re trying to tell about the University we wouldn’t be able to tell without using the Library’s collections,” said Ross, who earned a master’s degree in library and information science from the University and worked in the Library’s Illinois History and Lincoln Collections for five years before joining the Alumni Alliance.

And the Library appreciates the opportunity to display both its deep history and its wealth of treasures. Archives and creations like the Welcome Gallery “are part of establishing what the heritage is,” Maher said, “because. . . heritage is really the identity of the institution.

“And we like being part of that.”

“Many of the kinds of stories that we’re trying to tell about the University we wouldn’t be able to tell without using the Library’s collections.”

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