A group of ten Whittier College History majors spent months looking at ancient documents (so old that they’re from, like, the 1960s), and for an entire month they will provide the Whittier campus with the same opportunity.
As an alternative to the usual ten-page paper or PowerPoint presentation, Professor of History Laura McEnaney’s “Revolutions: America in the 1960s” class (in which this reporter was enrolled) curated two public history displays as the centerpiece of their final project.
Designed much like mini-museum exhibits, the projects were completed the week of Dec. 14, according to one of the students, and will be available for public reception throughout JanTerm. The projects can be viewed in Wardman Library within glass cases and under low lights on the first floor.
The idea for this project came from a desired collaboration between McEnaney and former Special Collections Librarian Becky Ruud. “When she was here, she did a great deal of work to make the campus aware of the tremendous archival resources we have in our library. We decided that my class on the sixties would be a chance for a terrific collaboration,” McEnaney said.
Although the museum exhibit was a fresh element to the final, McEnaney makes clear that the final was more multi-faceted than just the display. “There was actually a great deal of writing in this assignment — much of it in short form and designed for public consumption, which can be some of the most difficult writing to do,” McEnaney said. “But along with the museum exhibit, students had to do some traditional kinds of academic writing.”
This “traditional writing” allowed the students to expand on their displays in an essay format as well as reflect on their group work experiences in assessing traditional sixties convention. McEnaney expands on this by saying that not only did she want her students to practice archival research, typical of the historical method, but she also wanted them to showcase to the public a major goal of the class.
“Even in this century, young people are fascinated by the sixties, but there are so many misunderstandings and misconceptions about that decade,” McEnaney said. “I wanted my students to not only challenge those misconceptions themselves, but also to explain what they learned in the archives to their Whittier peers.”
Additionally, the project immersed those in the class in sixties youth movement practices. “I insisted on group work because youth movements in the sixties were always experimenting with different social and organizational forms as they questioned and challenged their society,” McEnaney said. “My students often complain about group projects, and I get that … But all sixties experiments and political projects were essentially group work, and I wanted students to experience the perils and possibilities of group struggle. As students read about how sixties movements struggled with consensus and factionalism, they also were required to tangle with those issues in their own groups about what to include and exclude in their museum exhibits.”
The displays focus on two different aspects of social movements in the 1960s, which are identified in their titles: “Fashion and Sixties Movements” and “Conservative 1960s.” Each exhibit gathered items and documents from onlinesources and Whittier College’s own Special Collections Archives. Some students also displayed items that they owned or purchased specifically for the project. Accompanying each object is a placard that describes what the object is and what meaning it held in the context of the class’s theme.
The fashion display detailed the political power that clothes held for four different social movements: civil rights and Black power, second-wave feminism, the Chicano movement, and the gay-liberation movement. The group divided their display into four sections staged on two glass shelves.
The sections captured the diversity of the sixties by juxtaposing blue denim jeans and large curly afros next to dark, earth-toned sarapes and traditional Mexican clothing in the top corners. Moving below, a waste bin filled with women’s underwear and beauty products symbolizes the famous Freedom Trashcan of the 1968 Miss America protest. A rainbow flag hangs from the glass shelf next to this, along with pictures of transgender women and men in drag to capture the essence of gay liberation.
The five students who focused on fashion chose a topic that they believed any viewer could connect with. They also wanted to broaden the audience’s view of fashion in the sixties beyond what they may have already known. “We knew that our peers could relate to the topic of clothing and we knew that sixties fashion was something that they would be interested in,” junior History major Aireana McDade said. “At the same time, we knew that most people didn’t know about the power behind clothing. So, we would ultimately be adding more to their narrative of the sixties.”
A student from the same group saw her project as an opportunity to teach those who might just happen upon the displays. “I hope they like it, that they find it entertaining and they learn something,” senior history major Priscilla Espinosa said. “I want people to have that, ‘Huh! I never thought about that before’ moment.”
McDade agreed and said that a project like this was the only way they could have accomplished this. “I think our ultimate goal was to take our peers’ idea of the sixties and to complicate it,” McDade said. “Basically, we’re saying, ‘you think you know this, but there is actually more to story.’ … To me, sixties social movements were about raising people’s consciousness and what better way to raise our peers’ consciousness than by sharing what we’ve been learning in class since September. Writing a paper or having a sit-down exam would not accomplish this and, on top of that, it is not very sixties.”
While the students working on the fashion project wanted to deepen community understanding about one aspect of sixties history, the other team wanted to shed light on a subject rarely associated with the decade — conservatism. “We had a discussion about highlighting a relatively unknown aspect of the 1960s,” junior Jillian Infusino said. “And since many people associate the 1960s with the leftist student movements, we thought focusing on the right-wing student movement would be interesting.”
This project features backgrounds of red, white and blue around every placard. On the floor of the display stand fluffy plastic elephants, a classic symbol of the Republican Party. Tacked onto the walls are posters of national newspaper headlines from the decade, along with a replication of the Sharon Statement, the declaration produced by famous New Right student group Young Americans for Freedom during its first meeting in September 1960 in Sharon, Pennsylvania.
A cool component of this exhibit is its use of sources from the library’s Special Collections archives. These include 1960s editions of the Acropolis yearbook, as well as Nixon memorabilia from his election years. “I think that relating the conservative student movement back to Whittier College will help students and faculty understand the conservative student movements a bit more since they can make the Whittier College connection,” Infusino said.
The students are proud that their exhibits will be on display for the month of January. “We worked really hard on our exhibit, and I think it is great that our peers get to see that work,” McDade said. “Even when we were putting up our exhibit, students would walk past us and peer over to see what we were doing…So, hopefully, that curiosity brings them to get a closer look inside and to see what we have displayed.”