c/o Caleb Henning

c/o Caleb Henning

“Archival Methods in the Eclectic Collection(s),” an exhibition curated by Emma Steckline ’24 in partial fulfillment of her history capstone, opened in the Olin Memorial Library on Dec. 8, 2023. The exhibition takes up three glass display cases, otherwise known as vitrines, and is set up opposite the other student-curated gallery in Olin, “Sum of Its Parts, which opened on Thursday, Jan. 25. Steckline explores the history and development of Eclectic as both a Greek society and a space for campus life beginning in the late 1800s and ending by addressing Eclectic’s role on campus today and the process of curating the exhibition. 

Each of the three metal-rimmed vitrines captures a different timeframe and aspect of the Eclectic Society and its house at 200 High St., which is a program house shared with residents of Movement House. The first vitrine focuses on the history of the house itself as a physical space on campus, the second on the students who occupy that space and how they’ve changed over time, and the third is a reflection on the process of curating the exhibit itself and the challenges of working with archives. 

“At the beginning, I struggled ’cause I was like, ‘Who’s gonna care about my silly little frat history?’” Steckline said. “But then I was like, actually it’s not frat history, it’s also student culture at Wesleyan and there’s so much else encapsulated within this.” 

While none of the vitrines are arranged in strictly chronological order, within each case the images presented develop a timeline of the subject they’re presenting. With its focus on the Eclectic house, the first vitrine creates a sense of how it’s changed over time, placing photos of the space from 1931, 1995, and 2023 next to each other. This placement reveals the many uses the ballroom has had over time, beginning as a lounge space and slowly becoming the party space that the house is known for on campus today. By juxtaposing old designs, announcements of the house and its grand opening in 1907, photos of members, and posters from old events, the vitrine invites the viewer to consider the many ways that the Eclectic house operates both as a space and as a community. 

“I was looking at the house as a monument and as a way to spatially center the activities of the Society,” Steckline said. “The house was a big thing that I wanted to show. I think it’s an easy way to also look at the house in different eras and show just how much Wesleyan’s changed and use that as a little benchmark or microcosm.” 

The second vitrine–which studies student life in the house–deepens this examination of the ever-changing nature of the University and its perceptions of fraternity houses. The photos on display include a group of Eclectic students dressed up for a play, programs for social events, and even an old constitution of the Society. Here, the viewer is asked to consider how the context of Eclectic as what was originally an all-male fraternity in tandem with the various ways in which the community that inhabits the space has changed.

“The transition between this all-male, small college, [to there being] a bunch more people and then…co-education—how are these things reflected in the archive in a way that’s useful to studying these changes at Wesleyan?” Steckline said. “Eclectic co-educated ages ago. They were on it.” 

However, the most impactful part of the project is the third vitrine, which gives the viewer a detailed look into the archival and curation processes that went into creating this exhibit. This virtine is where the exhibit’s overall theme of highlighting the importance of student archives really shines, providing viewers with an insight into how they could create and understand their own club or fraternity archives and make sense of them in a meaningful way. 

“I wanted the three cases to be distinct so that you could look at one one day and the other another day, so you didn’t have to take it all as one big thing, but I wanted to build on each other,” Steckline said. “Going from the house which everybody has seen, been in or been to an event in…something that is more obvious as a representation of Eclectic, then moving to the more internal and the more meta and personal of my experience with it as an archivist.” 

This project was a huge undertaking and has been in development since the summer of 2022, when Steckline was given archives by alumni of Eclectic. Ever since then, she was inspired to leverage her knowledge as a member of Eclectic and her access to these archives to create this exhibit. 

“There was a point where Eclectic lost the house completely in 2016…around that time a lot of the archives that were in the house were removed,” Steckline said. “At Reunion and Commencement in 2022, a couple of younger alumni brought back these three giant trunks [to us] and we were basically like ‘Hey, here’s all our archives, let’s get them back in the house.’” 

Because of the way that the archives were stored, it was incredibly difficult to sift through them all and figure out how to tell a story with this information. To find a lot of the necessary information, Steckline also looked into the University’s Special Collections & Archives, worked with other students through a student forum she directed, and even interviewed 10 Eclectic alumni to learn more about the photos and documents that she found. 

“I taught a student forum about the Eclectic archive…it was about half people in Eclectic and half people who weren’t in Eclectic, and we were just looking together at all of these primary documents and talking about what they can tell us,” Steckline said. “And that’s when I talked to [University Archivist] Amanda Nelson for the first time, and that’s when I figured out that there was a huge repository of information in the Special Collections that was just completely unprocessed because nobody had really touched it for a long time.” 

In addition to the sheer amount of work that went into organizing, dissecting, and curating this exhibit, Steckline was required to write a paper that explained its historical narrative and the archival process. While all history majors are required to complete a senior research project in some form, these projects normally end up being theses or essays rather than creative endeavors like Steckline’s exhibition. 

“My paper ended up being 35 pages, including the citations, because I had a lot to say,” Steckline said. “I don’t know any other students who are independently doing curation projects. When I did it, my capstone advisor was like, ‘I’ve never heard of anybody doing this for their capstone before. That’s really cool.’” 

The main goal of the exhibit is to encourage students at the University to think critically about what they’re doing in their student groups and think about the information they want to leave behind for future generations. 

“I wanted to use the exhibit to showcase why [archiving] is important,” Steckline said. “And also to get people excited about collecting their own archives, and encourage students to take the things that they create and are involved in seriously—because they are serious historical material and important for the legacy we leave.”

Many students believe that archiving student groups are important, so much so that the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life has organized an event called “Archives for Action: Institutional Memory, Storytelling, and Activism” where Steckline and others will be speaking about this process. The event will take place in the Smith Reading Room in Olin on Thursday, Feb. 29 at 12 p.m. All interested students are encouraged to attend and lunch will be provided. 

Correction note: This article initially incorrectly stated that “Archives for Action: Institutional Memory, Storytelling, and Activism” was organized by the History Department. It has been updated to reflect that the event was organized by the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life.

Caleb Henning can be reached at chenning@wesleyan.edu

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