It’s no secret that historians are drawn to archives. There, they confront the raw stuff of the past—documents, photographs, films, ephemera, material objects—from which they stitch together the narratives of their histories. The reality of archival work, hours spent sifting through reams of the mundane, is countered by the thrill of discovery: a lock of hair, a photograph unseen for decades, the marginal notes penned by someone long since departed.

This year’s Michigan in the World (MITW) undergraduates began their eight-week archival odyssey in May. Collectively, they spent hundreds of hours in the Bentley Historical Library uncovering the story of women at the University of Michigan for an online exhibit, “‘A Dangerous Experiment’: Women at the University of Michigan.”

“I feel drawn to the archives because I am forced to expect the unexpected,” said Levi Teitel, a junior in history and communication studies. “This sort of uncertainty forces me to always be on my feet, by trying to find conclusions and connections between people, ideas, places, and events.”

The opening page of the spring 2016 Michigan in the World exhibit, "'A Dangerous Experiment': Women at the University of Michigan.

“The great thing about MITW is that we were based at the Bentley,” said Michelle McClellan, an assistant professor in history and the Residential College and the leader of the spring 2016 program. “It became our second home, not just for research but for our meetings, conversations, even picnics on the grounds.”

After an orientation and tour from Bentley archivist Cinda Nofziger, and a strategy session with McClellan and MITW graduate student coordinator Molly Brookfield, the students got to work.

Their first task: get a lay of the land. A vast paper trail follows the history of women at U-M, and as the official archive of the university, the Bentley’s holdings are immense. From official records to student scrapbooks, the biggest challenge is how to focus the research. The team would spend more than one thousand hours at the Bentley, but could only examine a fraction of the related records. They needed to assess what materials were available, how they were organized, and then determine what might be most promising for the exhibit.

After some background reading, the students homed in on the themes they wanted to feature in the exhibit: educating women; student life; space and segregation; fighting for change; and beyond campus. Then they started examining the materials in detail.

For Sophia Kaufman, a junior majoring in English and history, the material nature of the archives is what makes it essential. “The benefits of tactile work like this may never be quantifiable, but I believe they include imbuing any project with some measure of empathy,” she said.

“It was overwhelming to think that I held in my hands the same papers that had been used over one hundred years ago by women who were fighting for the right to vote,” said Laura Marsh, a junior history major.

Abigail Esbrook traced the life of Wu Yi-Fang, a Chinese woman who attended the university and later assumed the presidency of Ginling College, the first female to hold such a position in China. “I read Yi-Fang’s letters and was able to get a glimpse into her life, something so personal and inaccessible otherwise. Eventually, in one odd folder, I stumbled upon a photograph of her and then-president Chiang Kai-shek, who was honoring her,” said Esbrook.

An exhibit is supposed to be a visual experience. Rather than telling a story and citing the archival sources, MITW students had to use archival materials to show the story. 

Kaufmann called it “detective work without always knowing the assignment.”

Dead ends—a futile search for an image, or a promising lead going nowhere—could jeopardize the project timeline. Yet there was the tantalizing prospect of looking at just one more box to find the perfect image or the most compelling letter. 

“I felt like I was always a box or a file closer to discovering a missing piece of a puzzle I didn’t even know I was working on,” said Kaufman.

The students have wrapped up their stint in the Bentley, and “A Dangerous Experiment” is now online for the public to explore.

“These students did an amazing job,” said McClellan. “They immersed themselves fully in the archives and embraced the imaginative leap into the past that is central to historical interpretation. And with Molly’s gentle guidance, they also stayed focused enough to complete the exhibit on time. What’s more, we had a blast doing it—their energy and enthusiasm were infectious!”

The spring 2016 Michigan in the World team. Top, left to right: Laura Marsh, Michelle McClellan, Molly Brookfield, Melissa Neal; bottom, left to right: Sophia Kaufman, Abigail Esbrook, Emma Stout, Levi Teitel. (photo: Gregory Parker)