Hands On History

Thea Ezinga '15 records data during a class visit to the Anne Spencer House.

Thea Ezinga ’15 records data during a class visit to the Anne Spencer House.

Randolph students work to preserve artifacts at Anne Spencer House

The home of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer buzzed with activity. Randolph students zipped through rooms full of paintings, pottery, plates, furniture, and stacks of papers scrawled with poems. They measured, weighed, and made notes about the artifacts located throughout the house.

Students investigate an old painting of Anne Spencer's husband, Edward.

Students investigate an old painting of Anne Spencer’s husband, Edward.

A portrait of the poet’s husband caught the attention of Claire Sumner ’15 when she noticed an envelope hidden behind the frame. She wanted to discover its contents. “I think it could be the paperwork from the purchase of the painting,” said Sumner, an art history and museum studies major.

After the group documented other artifacts and cleared a table, they brought the painting to the table. With the guidance of art history professor Andrea Campbell and Debbie Spanich, registrar at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, the students carefully removed the painting from its frame.

The envelope on the back turned out to be empty, but the effort was not wasted. Removing the frame let the students clearly examine the details—including discolorations called “foxing” that they had only read about before.

Campbell took her students to the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum to document artifacts and help preserve the poet’s legacy. For the museum, this partnership created an enhanced visitor experience. For the students, it presented a rare opportunity to establish a museum collection.

“The Anne Spencer House provided a new experience because these objects have never been studied,” Campbell said. “This was research from the ground level.”

“I loved being able to work in a real museum with real objects, rather than just learn about museum theory,” said Thea Ezinga ’15. “I plan to go into the field of object curation, so the experience was very valuable to me.”

Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer lived in Lynchburg, just a few miles from the College.

Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer lived in Lynchburg, just a few miles from the College.

Anne Spencer made her home just a few miles from the College. Her husband, Edward, was Lynchburg’s first African American postal carrier and delivered mail to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

Spencer published poetry on a variety of topics, including the experience of African Americans. She and her husband hosted literary figures and Civil Rights activists, including W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr., as they traveled through Virginia.

The College has many historical connections with the Spencers. In fact, Edward Spencer salvaged some items from the College to use in his home and garden. “Edward was really well known for his creativity in re-using found objects in his garden,” said Jane Baber White, one of several Lynchburg residents who helped restore the Spencers’ garden. She documented many connections to the College in her book, Lessons Learned From a Poet’s Garden.

These links can be seen throughout the home. In the attic are some mattresses bearing tags with the name “Randolph-Macon College,” which Shaun Spencer-Hester, the poet’s granddaughter and overseer of the museum, believes were transferred to R-MWC and eventually given to the Spencers. The garden is surrounded by a fence topped with iron trim that came from the original fence that surrounded the College before the Red Brick Wall was built in 1930.

Behind the museum is Edenkraal, a small cabin where Anne wrote much of her poetry and occasionally hosted students from the College. “She would meet students from R-MWC here on Saturday mornings, and she would cook them breakfast,” said Spencer-Hester. “They realized that they had a Harlem Renaissance poet living here, so they came to meet her.”

Recently, the College and the Anne Spencer House entered an official partnership to provide educational opportunities to Randolph students. This prompted Campbell to organize her students’ project.

Spencer-Hester was excited about the partnership’s possibilities. For years, she had worked to preserve the home as a heritage museum without official training. “This gave us a good jump start,” she said. “It’s the beginning of a formal catalog. If somebody else comes and they want to research something, they can add to what the students have already done.”

Campbell was glad her students were able to learn from the challenges of working with undocumented artifacts. “It is very exciting because the process of discovery is very immediate, and you feel like you’re in uncharted territory,” she said.

(L to R) Glenna Gray '14 and Ainsley Hoglund '14 take measurements of an artifact.

(L to R) Glenna Gray ’14 and Ainsley Hoglund ’14 take measurements of an artifact.

Glenna Gray ’14 researched the iron trim from the College. She pored over yearbooks, publications, and photographs and even searched old executive minutes from the President’s Office. But she found little information about the fence other than the fact that it had existed.

Later, on a behind-the-scenes tour with a curator in the United States Capitol Building, she learned that such roadblocks are normal, even in large museums.

This project gave Gray and other students hands-on experience working with artifacts, dealing with a minimal museum budget, and conducting original research. But what really captured Gray’s attention was the potential she saw at the Anne Spencer House. She volunteered there this past summer to work on the concept of self-guided tours and a “traveling exhibit” that teachers could borrow.

Making the house’s history more accessible for visitors was the highlight, she said. “Once we saw the project come together and we knew that the public was going to be seeing our work, we really enjoyed it.”