By Jessica Lovell
The Guelph Civic Museum has a new exhibit on the University of Guelph, and it’s one that is educational in more ways than one.
“I’ve learned so much about the process of putting something like this together,” says Keltie Laidlaw, a third-year arts student who has spend the past semester working on the exhibit.
The show, titled University of Guelph: 50 Year of Building a Better Planet, has its opening reception on Jan. 4 from 2 to 4 p.m.
Created as part of the university’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2014, the exhibit highlights some of the interesting research, innovations and community contributions that have come out of the school over a history that actually goes back much longer than those 50 years.
“There’s a ton of information about the university that I wasn’t aware of,” Laidlaw says. “I definitely learned a lot.”
That has been at least part of the purpose. Creating the exhibit has been a three-semester process involving around 30 students in a special humanities course.
“It’s basically a museum course,” says teaching assistant Lisa Cox.
The three-part course was a one-time- only offering for the purpose of mounting the exhibit. Each semester, the students – a different group each time – covered a different part of the process. In the first semester, the students did the research that would form the basis of the exhibit; in the second semester, they planned the exhibit; in the third semester, they turned those plans into reality.
“This exhibit was totally student led – so the students decided on everything,” says Cox.
To give them a focus, the students were asked to look at the history of the university through the lens of the Better Planet Project, a fundraising and public relations campaign based on the university’s vision to help improve the quality of food, environment, health and communities locally and around the world.
Those four “pillars” – food, environment, health and community – form the four main themes of the exhibit, explains Cox.
For example, under the food pillar, expect to see representations of U of G’s history of innovation – like Yukon Gold potatoes and Omega 3 eggs.
“The idea of improvement of food, that’s really where Guelph started,” says Cox, referencing the university’s roots in the Ontario Agricultural College.
Under health, expect to see some examples of the university’s contributions to public health – work that figures prominently at the Ontario Veterinary College, says Cox.
There will even be some fun, interactive elements with “ick factor” in the form of parasites that people can check out under microscopes, she says.
Among the things featured in the environment section will be U of G’s work in the field of apiculture (bee-keeping) and some examples of U of G’s space research, including the Tomatosphere project.
In the community section, the Guelph Guitar – an instrument made by a U of G professor from elements collect in Guelph and around the world – and paint chunks from the famed cannon in the U of G’s Branion Plaza will be on display.
“When I visited Guelph to possibly go here, one of the things that really stuck out was the cannon,” says Laidlaw.
It was an obvious choice for the exhibit, but other choices were not so easy.
“We asked the students to select the things that were of interest and importance to them,” says Sue Bennett, the instructor for the course. “They came up with this huge list.”
The interpretive plan that the students in the first semester came up with was literally “pages and pages,” she says. It had to be pared down significantly.
“It was very interesting to see how they selected things that were important to them that they thought other people should know about the university,” Bennett says.
The exhibit project was her idea, but it was one that the students really latched onto, she says.
“It’s a really great experiential learning opportunity for arts students,” she says.
For Laidlaw, it has meant hands-on work, including sanding and painting some of the elements that will be part of the display.
She was also there to help set up the exhibit, while most of her fellow students were long gone on holiday.
“I like seeing it through the whole process,” she says, watching exhibit elements that were once just images on the computer go onto the walls in the form of larger-than-life banners.
Those banners have been designed to be reusable, so when the exhibit closes July 1 they can be used at other locations around the university, says Bennett.
They may well come out later on, as the exhibit is just the beginning of the anniversary celebrations at U of G.
Besides the university’s 50th anniversary, 2014 is also a milestone year for a number of other U of G institutions. It’s the OAC’s 140th anniversary, the ice cream course’s 100th anniversary and College Royal’s 90th anniversary, to name just a few.
While Cox’s favourite element in the show is a Shakespeare portrait – a valuable picture whose authenticity is backed by extensive U of G research – Bennett can’t identify the top piece.
“I find it all interesting, because I think the university is a unique place and we have a story that no one else does,” she says.