Campus Archaeology at the Broad Art Museum: Exploring Gendered Spaces in a Conceptual Writing Residency Program

I am pleased to announce that I was accepted to the Spring 2015 Writing Residency program at the Broad Art Museum (support by the Department of English and the Graduate School as well). Five other graduate students from the departments of English, Film Studies, and Digital Rhetoric will be participating in the program that connects the upcoming exhibition by artist Trevor Paglen to MSU students. Per the residency announcement, I will be “encouraged to investigate the broader themes of spatial theory, technological impacts on landscape, experimental geography, and the mapping and mediation of public and private spheres as they are played out in the exhibition and as they relate to visual arts practices.”

In addition to a public talk at the Broad and the creation of a blog regarding themes of landscape and land use, I will also put together a final project. I am excited to explore the intersection between anthropology and contemporary art, especially in the fantastic museum space on campus. We will also be expected to “facilitate connections between visual and verbal media in the hopes of expanding on residents’ already existing writing practice.”

From the Broad website about artist Trevor Paglen:

“For the past eight years New York–based social scientist, artist, writer, and provocateur Trevor Paglen has been publishing, speaking, and making remarkable photographs about the secret “black ops” activities of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Blurring the lines between the intersecting discourses of science, contemporary art, and journalism, his meticulously researched work exposes the ways in which we see and interpret the world.

The Genres: Landscape featuring Trevor Paglen is the third and final installment of the Broad MSU’s exhibition series The Genres: Portraiture, Still Life, and Landscape. Each installment features a single artist who is emerging as a significant voice in contemporary artistic discourse and whose work has reinvented, reworked, or re-engaged one of these three traditional genres of Western art history. Paglen’s practice provides a critical lens on today’s socio-political landscape, utilizing photography as both a political tool and a performative act. He creates large-format prints that raise and respond to questions of mediated perception, both engaging with the grand tradition of early twentieth-century landscape photography and moving steadfastly into the most contemporary of realms.”


You can view the artist’s website here:

Trevor Paglen’s focus on military space and geographic access to locales used by the Pentagon (“classified landscapes” in his words) may be an interesting juxtaposition to the mediated landscapes of MSU’s past. Different in scale and function, these two landscapes nonetheless share some commonalities: namely, restricted access and tiered use tied to status.

I have copied my residency application below. I look forward to expanding this archaeology project throughout the semester!

For the past year, I have been researching gendered use of space on the historic Michigan State campus under the Campus Archaeology Program (CAP). CAP acts as a steward of this past, mitigating and protecting the cultural heritage of the university through archaeological and archival research. CAP organizes campus history into four temporal phases beginning with the inception of MSU in 1855 (Phase 1: 1855-1875; Phase 2: 1875-1900; Phase 3: 1900-1925; Phase 4: 1925-1955). These divisions help to categorize archaeological finds, but also reflect periods of social, spatial, and historical change both locally and nationally. Women were admitted to the college fairly early on, though acceptance and recognition both on campus and in the greater community was gradual. I am interested in resolving issues of gendered interaction with the historic landscape and general invisibility of female student experience (both in private and public arenas), which articulates well with the Broad Residency themes. My project addresses a historically understudied yet integral portion of MSU’s past campus culture by blending archaeological spatial theory, artifact analysis, and historical narratives.

Gendered use of the early campus landscape is somewhat ephemeral; facts about admission, dorm space, and women’s programs are known, but the female experience is largely absent from the historical record. Women were present on the historic campus, though they were essentially an appendage of a male-dominated educational system. While the university began to systematically admit female students in 1870, East Lansing was still geographically isolated and transportation via stagecoach to the fledgling college was arduous. Early female students boarded with faculty and attended the same classes as men; scrapbooks and journals reveal that women often felt constraint both academically and spatially as the college slowly acted to create specifically female spaces. Enrollment did not increase significantly until 1896 when the college began to consciously plan for female education; in that year, a Home Economics program was created and a dedicated female dormitory was established.

Rather than the gender neutral or inclusive living atmosphere fostered on the modern campus, the historic college was clearly marked by gendered restriction in both academic pursuits (“women’s course”) and physical space (women’s dorms). Through access to CAP artifacts and the University Archives, I am in the unique position of being able to create a predictive model about gendered space that can inform future archaeological excavations and problem-oriented research questions. This blended research focus integrates well with the themes of the Broad Writing Residency by examining differential student use of landscape over time and by describing the intersection between public and private spaces in the female experience.

Throughout MSU’s history, gendered space on the campus has been built, maintained, and fissioned. I hope to identify archaeological correlates and material culture that can be linked to changing gender roles and expectations. Predictive modeling may help to identify landscapes worth investigating to explore such questions as: Who gets access to “premier” space at the heart of campus? How much space was dedicated to female pursuits (e.g. dorms, classes, social clubs)? How did female students work to define exclusive space to live, study, and socialize? When out-of-doors, was there space that women tended to use more than other spaces? What happens when these female spaces overlap or intrude into traditionally male space? Were female students playing by the rules and populating only the locales designated for them? How does this space shrink or grow through time? Can artifacts recovered by CAP be considered “gendered”? If so, how can these items place women on the campus? Can these artifacts add to the historical narrative regarding women’s experience in the early years of the university? Can we visualize a women’s landscape at MSU over time?


Author: Amy Michael

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