Traditional undergraduate research in history (and German and European Studies) generally takes the form of library research resulting in a paper. Undergraduates learn how to do research and produce their own scholarship by mimicking the types of research conducted by most of their professors. But professional historians and other German and European Studies scholars are also engaged in less traditional forms of research, what many call “engaged scholarship,” research that takes them out of the archives and libraries and into their communities, to work with practitioners to produce scholarship that takes forms other than the written paper. Since most of our students will not become professional academics, it is important that we expose them to myriad forms of research and scholarship, as a means to prepare them for a variety of careers. This series will describe a collaborative, community-based, undergraduate research project that got students out of the classroom and into a local Los Angeles museum, where they worked to develop a virtual exhibit, in the process learning about both East German history and the field of public history.
Part 1: The Wende Museum Workshop
In the summer of 2010, I was approached by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf of the Wende Museum and Leo Schmieding from the University of Leipzig about my university, Loyola Marymount University, participating in a special workshop about “Museum & Material Cultures: Exhibit the GDR” at the Wende Museum. The workshop emerged out of a museum studies seminar that Schmieding had led at the University of Leipzig and was intended to give German and American students an opportunity to develop an online exhibit using the holdings of the Wende Museum.
The resulting September 2010 workshop brought together five German students from the University of Leipzig and five students from Loyola Marymount University. It focused on the history of the German Democratic Republic from 1949 to 1990, in particular the everyday life of East Germans in the cities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Halle-Neustadt, through the study of actual artifacts from East Germany. The students explored questions such as: What was the nature of socialist urban planning and the vision of the modern socialist city imagined by the East German state? How did that image correlate to the reality of life in East German cities? How did individuals and local communities (e.g., neighborhoods) interact with the state? How did people live on a daily basis – what did their living spaces look like, what goods did they consume, how did they transverse the city, what was the relationship between work and leisure, etc.? But the students did more than just study the history of East Germany; they became practicing public historians. They took part in the main debates in the field of public history – about the relationship between history and memory, notions of authority, the role and function of public history (to remember and to educate), and the role of museums in the context of public history, including questions of display, representation, and audience.
Over the course of the month, the students worked together at LMU and at the Wende Museum, selecting and researching artifacts, reading and discussing topics in GDR history, writing the texts for the online exhibit, and designing the exhibit layout. As part of the workshop, students also spoke with museum professionals at the Wende Museum, the Getty Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The five LMU students were concurrently enrolled in an Independent Studies class with me, so that they could earn academic credit for the workshop. In addition to their active participation in the workshop itself, they were required to keep a weekly log of their activities, in which they described and reflected on the questions they discussed and the artifacts they researched; to write a three-part reflective essay, in which they addressed the question of how the study of everyday urban life contributes to our understanding of the GDR, analyzed the challenges of doing public history, and reflected on how the workshop enhanced their understanding of history; and to present the project at LMU’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.
Next: The Exhibit Prototype