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Students help curate exhibition of historical oddities

June 7, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. –  As a history student, Hannah Hanson appreciates ordinary items like clothing, hairbrushes, and books, because they provide a glimpse into what it was like to live in the past.

Her summer internship at the Howard County Historical Society introduced her to famed circus sideshow performer and Howard County native Nellie Keeler — through a pair of her tiny shoes, donated to the museum by a family member.

“I really like having artifacts from people’s lives,” said Hanson, who is working with fellow intern Patrick Morin to create A Curator’s Cabinet of Curiosity, an exhibition of odd and unusual items with ties to Howard County, including the shoes. Keeler was born with dwarfism, and spent six years with P. T. Barnum’s circus in the 1870s and 1880s.

“We have so many objects from people’s lives, like their clothes, or personal items,” she said. “It’s cool to be able to hold or see what they held. It connects you to those people who came before you.”

The pair of shoes are just one of the unusual artifacts Hanson and Morin, both seniors, have identified for the exhibit, from the museum’s collection.

So far, the exhibit includes eurypterid (sea scorpion) fossils, information about Mickey, the singing mouse who enjoyed about a week of fame, including broadcast on WIOU, in Kokomo in 1949, before disappearing into a field, a three-handed clock used at the Kokomo KFC, and information about the Kokomo Hum, a strange, low hum reported in the city from about 1999 to 2004, when the source was identified and repaired.

Morin, from Westfield, has considered going to graduate school in museum science after he graduates in December.

“Just learning what I am from this internship is good insight if I would want to do this as a career,” he said. “We’re learning how to put an exhibit together, and what kind of research is involved in how museum staff determine if they are going to keep an item, and if it is significant to that museum.”

He noted that most museums have less than 10 percent of items owned on display at one time, and with limited storage space, it’s not possible to keep everything donated.

He’s enjoyed working with the curious items, and seeing what the museum has that isn’t currently displayed. He’s especially interested in a child-sized iron lung that was constructed by Hoosier Iron Works in Kokomo in 1919, using grease drums. The iron lung is a mechanical respirator, helping a person breathe when their breathing muscles were paralyzed by the polio virus. As of late 2018, only three people were known to still be using the iron lung.

His favorite item, however, is a display enacting the poem “Who Killed Cock Robin,” using animals preserved through taxidermy.

“It’s different, and not what I would expect to find in a museum,” he said. “It’s really weird, and I like it.”

Hanson, from Kokomo,  plans to be a college history professor, and said her experience with the museum gives her tools to be a more engaging teacher.

“I want to try to bring artifacts into my classroom, so I’m not just teaching about a time period, I’m showing them things from that time period,” she said. “I want them to be able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the people they learn about. I want them to know how important it is to go to museums and see these things.”

Morin appreciates the opportunity to learn about local history, and to make it accessible to others.

“It’s actually taking what you are learning and applying it to something real, rather than reading a book and writing a paper,” he said. “We’re taking care of history, learning about what’s in front of us, and about the past and our connections to it.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 06/07/2019