University News

Smithsonian spotlights AmCiv projects

Contributing Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nine undergraduates who took AMCV 1610A: “American Advertising: History and Consequences” last fall were selected to co-curate a portion of the upcoming American Enterprise exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The exhibit’s website currently features a mini-exhibit of projects the students produced during the course exploring trends in the history of advertising.

“I think we should work with Brown undergraduates all the time,” said Kathleen Franz MA’91 PhD’99, curator and senior fellow of the American Enterprise team, who helped facilitate the collaboration with the students. The theme of the course and the close relationship between Franz and Susan Smulyan, professor of American Civilization and the course instructor, led to the arrangement, Franz said. Franz is Smulyan’s former student, and the two co-edited a book together.

As part of their final exam, students in Smulyan’s class assembled a “mini-exhibit” consisting of eight to 10 images of advertisements they felt best represented the history of American advertising, Smulyan said. Images were drawn from the Smithsonian archival collection that had been uploaded on the museum’s Flickr account for this very purpose. Choosing from the class’ more than 100 submissions, Smulyan, teaching assistants and members of the American Enterprise team chose the most visually appealing pieces that best captured the essence of advertising history, Smulyan said.  

The enterprise exhibit, which is set to open in 2015 and explores the history of business and innovation in the United States, comes at an opportune moment in light of the recent recession. Franz said the exhibit will trace the structure of American enterprise from 1750 to 2010. While American Enterprise is broadly concerned with the dynamics of the marketplace in the United States, “Marketing Moments” focuses on advertising as an industry, Franz said. The emphasis on advertising stems from the consumerism that currently defines American culture.

“Advertising is the language we are speaking,” said Smulyan, adding that her class focused on the exploration of this language.

The students’ displays have been instrumental in helping the team make choices about which advertisements to select for the Marketing Moments section that will appear in the Smithsonian, Franz said. This section, which Franz described as the “visual tract” of the whole exhibit, will consist of a glass wall that showcases the history of advertising “at a glance.” The images selected by the undergraduates have enabled Franz and her co-workers to note which advertisements are particularly compelling and visually appealing, and allowed for a fresh perspective on the subject of advertising, she added.

The website, which features the students’ work, is “a new venture in learning in public,” Franz said.

The site was a chance to “illuminate the process that usually happens behind closed doors, and behind the walls of the Smithsonian,” said Jordan Grant, graduate fellow on the enterprise team.

While all of the selected mini-exhibits documented the history of advertising, students interpreted the theme in different ways. Katrina Post ’13 focused on the changing structure of cigarette advertising and its implications for notions of masculinity. Post said the decision to focus on one particular product and its different brands arose from her interest in cigarettes as a consumer good.

“It has blown my mind that people have managed to sell cancer sticks to other people,” she said.

Bradley Burns ’13 selected pieces that explored the relationship between historical events and the changing nature of advertisement. Burns said his work demonstrates how a need for branding arose with the advent of the railway, which expanded the market structure and forced companies to differentiate their products on a level besides quality. Burns elected to use the Prezi software, a unique approach to presentations which allows users to zoom in on certain features of the image, he said.

The website experienced a large boost in traffic following the posting of the students’ mini-exhibits, Grant said. The historical images also seem to have struck a nostalgic chord with some viewers who have expressed their appreciation of the students’ work in their emails to the American Enterprise team, Franz said.

Smulyan said the final project was a chance for all students to familiarize themselves with the curation process. To assist them, Franz also delivered a guest lecture during the semester about museum curating, said Sarah Friedland ’14, whose work was also selected for the mini-exhibit. Though Smulyan said the course was not designed to expose students to the workings of a museum, she said she was pleased it ended up taking such a direction.

Smulyan said the chance to work directly with associates from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History highlights the AmCiv department’s focus on  “publicly engaging scholarship.” Smulyan said she plans to offer the course again in the future as a way to engage students with the world outside Brown.