The Heart of Campus, Revisited

As a first year graduate student, I was not familiar with MSU’s historic campus. Over this past semester, through Campus Archaeology, I have learned about the the significance of certain buildings and history making moments of MSU’s journey. Because it is such a large campus with a plethora of resources and opportunities, you must take it upon yourself to broaden your horizons and experience all that MSU has to offer. As previous CAP intern Eve Avdoulos has noted, the spaces on campus have different meanings for various individuals depending on your major, involvements, and where you happen to spend much of your time. For those that live in the dormitories, campus is home. For those who are involved with sports, campus is a place of potential victory. For many, it is the space of opportunity and growth.

MAC Campus Vista, MSU in late 19th c., via MSU Archives

Anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has argued that history is written largely based on physical remains. Historical buildings like those on our campus “embody the ambiguities of history. They give us the power to touch it, but not that to hold it firmly in our hands… no revelation may fully dissipate their silences” (Trouillot 1995: 30). This brings to mind the many buildings that have disappeared on our campus; the buildings that have fallen over, burned down, or have been removed because of construction or changing facility. Without the physical remains of these buildings, their full significance has perhaps been lost to the very fluid process of writing history. Indeed, some of our most cherished buildings are the oldest. Looking back in the archives and publications about the history of our campus is not just evaluating chronological data about the erecting and falling of buildings, but the significance that these buildings provided for the students who utilized them. The more we can discover about what these buildings meant to the students, the more our current understandings of and interactions with history change.

Because so many monuments have disappeared physically, Campus Archaeology Program does more than just preserve artifacts. The very writing of history and how students, staff, faculty, and alumni understand our legacy and our future is entwined in the understanding of what certain buildings meant to our evolving campus. As I read scrapbooks, catalogues, yearbooks, and map legends, the importance of certain spaces on campus shined through. I understood that how students valued various buildings reflects how they interacted with their world and with each other. It could be argued that students’ very identities were constructed by their interactions with their environment, which was largely the buildings and landscape of our campus.

Women Students outside Morrill Hall in 1900, via MSU Archives

As I move forward with my research, I will be evaluating several questions. What is the function of the center of campus, and what might it mean if, as Eve asserted, there is no longer a center of campus? Would our campus benefit from a common idea of a heart of campus? Can a collective student identity be attained or measured, or is that even a desire? What do elements like gender, war, expansion, reputation, curriculum, and leadership have to contribute to the change of campus and thus identity?

From a more theoretical perspective, what does place even mean? Is it just the physical environment or is there more to it? How does the river, farmland, and green space negotiate with buildings, demographics, and the larger society to construct the heart of campus and the identity of its inhabitants?

I look forward to grappling with these questions and offering my analysis as I continue to learn more about the changing heart of campus.

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