Museum studies students get real-world experience

Class mounts full-fledged exhibit on tight deadline, shoestring budget

They weren't at all sure it would work.

After all, planning for most museum exhibits begins at least a year in advance, sometimes two or three. And though budgets are tight, $400 is a serious shoestring.


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Melissa Arthur, a Kansas University graduate student in the museum studies program, inspects a new exhibit about Elizabeth Watkins at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass. Students in the program's exhibits class researched and mounted the exhibition as their final project. A photograph of Watkins, who died in 1939, is visible over Arthur's right shoulder.

But 10 students in Kansas University's museum studies program in the space of four months have put together a bona fide exhibit at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.

"I figured anything short of a disaster would be good," said program coordinator John Simmons, only half joking. "But it turned out very well."

"Elizabeth M. Watkins: The Life and Legacy of Lady Bountiful," chronicles the life of one of KU's greatest benefactors. The exhibit is mounted on seven standing panels on the museum's third floor and includes a narrative detailing Watkins' relationship with her family, her husband and, later, the university and Lawrence communities. Photographs and a few artifacts provide visual elements.

The completed exhibit is a first for KU's museum studies program.

"In years past, they've done mock exhibits. They do it all, but it's on paper," said Jill Keehner, course instructor and curator for the Kansas State Historical Society. "This was the first year that students did a real exhibit in their exhibits class."

The exhibit is relatively modest. Students were limited in what they could include by budget and time.

"One of the students walked in (at the exhibit's opening reception) and said, 'Is that it?'" Keehner said. "When you work on something for so long. ... sometimes it doesn't look as substantial as the amount of time and effort you put into it."

'Heart as big as an ox'

But there is plenty to be learned from what IS included in the exhibit. Watkins was born Jan. 21, 1861, in New Paris, Ohio, and moved with her family to Lawrence in 1872. She attended KU from 1874 to 1875, but was forced to quit school and work to help support her family. At 15, she moved to New York and took a job in the branch office of a bank owned by J.B. Watkins.

The bank owner and Lizze, as she was often called, took a liking to one another, despite his being 16 years older. She traveled with him on several long business trips, leading some to believe their relationship was romantic long before their Nov. 10, 1909, wedding.

Back in Lawrence, where J.B. Watkins owned Watkins Bank (which later housed City Hall and now is home to the Watkins Museum), the couple gave financial aid to KU students and employed students to work at their home, The Outlook (now the KU chancellor's residence).

Elizabeth Watkins founded both Watkins and Miller scholarship halls, as well as Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Watkins Memorial Hospital (now Twente Hall, home to the School of Social Welfare). Local legend has it that the first baby born at LMH on Sept. 27, 1929, was named Elizabeth in Watkins' honor.

"Elizabeth has a heart as big as an ox," her husband once said of her.

What: "Elizabeth M. Watkins: The Life and Legacy of Lady Bountiful"Where: Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1:30 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

A KU legacy

That's the characteristic that most struck the students who mounted the exhibit.

"What was really cool about reading about Elizabeth Watkins was that she was a very important contributor to the KU community," said Hugo Alamillo, a Lawrence graduate student in the exhibits class. "KU students have benefited greatly from her."

Putting the exhibit together was a lot of fun, he said, and it also gave students an appreciation of all the considerations that go into curatorial work: budget, lighting, traffic flow, accessibility for people with disabilities, limited materials.

A glass case to the side of the exhibit panels holds a small handful of artifacts related to Watkins' life: an intricately beaded purse she once carried, a tapestry donated by her cook, a photograph of Watkins, a scrapbook that she kept and a copy of J.B. Watkins' Illinois law license. In the end, Watkins' greatest quality -- her generosity -- made it difficult to pull together an extensive exhibit.

"There weren't very many artifacts around," Amarillo said. "We found a will that she had, and being the very kind woman that she was, she gave virtually all her stuff away to people. You couldn't really track that stuff down."


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