Though they have been collecting dust for several years in the buildings scheduled to undergo renovation, Vassar’s educational artifacts will once again see sunlight. Instead of throwing them out, Vassar College faculty and staff, together with students, have decided to celebrate these forgotten relics by saving, researching and restoring them into the teaching collection on campus.
The Vassar College Artifact Project was conceived in 2011 by the College Historian Betty Daniels ’41 and Professor of Biology Kate Susman on their bus ride to New York City to attend a gala marking the College’s 150th anniversary.
According to Laboratory Technician Richard Jones, who is heavily involved with the project, it was conceived to protect and preserve educational artifacts, especially from Sanders and Olmstead. This was due to the renovations scheduled for this summer.
Since then, the project has been joined by dozens of other faculty, former faculty, staff members and students.
The project started in February of this year when two students, Michael Hughes ’14 and Emily Omrod ’16, were recruited as interns to create a website that will document the narratives that go along with the artifacts.
Omrod called it an amazing opportunity to learn more about and be involved with Vassar’s educational history.
“I get to read documents from the founding of Vassar. I love learning about these objects that are an important part of Vassar’s history. It’s fascinating to compare Vassar in the 1890s to now. So much has changed and yet, the passion of the students is still the same,” she said, emphasizing the continuity of the College’s history.
Jones, along with Administrative Assistant of the College Lois Horst have been involved in preserving and displaying many of the College’s historical items, including the Natural History Museum in Ely Hall.
Jones wrote in an emailed statement, “[It was] natural that we get involved in the Vassar College Artifacts Project.”
Jones has been heavily involved in cataloging, assessing, cleaning and packing up collections from the attic of Sanders and Olmstead, which have accumulated more than 100 years of equipment that needs to be moved for renovations.
Through this project, numerous educational artifacts from different departments have been restored and preserved, including: an original Morse telegraph saved from Sanders Physics, glass replicas of jellyfish and other organisms crafted in the early 20th century by world-renown glass makers Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka, saved from the renovation of Swift Hall.
One of the important artifacts re-discovered in the attic of Sanders Physics building is the blink comparator, an astronomical instrument. According to Professor of Astronomy Fred Chromey, it is one of the only two still in existence in the United States.
The VCAP website mentions that it is unusual for a small liberal arts college to have such an expensive device: “The larger research universities—Stanford, Harvard, Chicago—all had them at one time, but for a place the size of Vassar, that was remarkable.”
Also included in the collection is an antique brass telescope that had been used by the celebrated astronomer Maria Mitchell, who taught at Vassar from 1865 to 1888.
According to Senior Lecturer of Science, Technology and Society James Challey, a member of the VCAP committee, “All our astronomy equipment is top of the line because that’s one of the things that made the College famous in its early years.”
Another item of interest is the Zeiss Microscope, which was donated to the college in 1889. It was the first high-powered microscope that the College had received.
In the fall of that year, the Natural History department changed its curriculum and name, becoming the Biology Department. As such, these educational artifacts carry with them important stories about the College and its foundation that otherwise might be lost if not for the project.
The participants of the VCAP have mentioned that the creation of its website has been an important step in creating a space for the stories that go along with these artifacts.
Jones said, “The history of many professor-student classroom interactions can be found in these objects, and it opens a fascinating look into the history of Vassar College
that would be lost if these items are allowed to disappear, or be thrown out.”
Challey said he was confident that the College would find ways to save science equipment that is worth saving. In fact, he believes it is crucial to Vassar’s relationship to the sciences.
“It’s important that we do this. It will show how Vassar fits into the bigger picture of the development of science, especially physics and astronomy,” he said.
Looking ahead, the committee members have already held preliminary talks with architects for the new science center about finding space to display at least some of the artifacts, bringing some of Vassar’s richest histories to the campus’ future.