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Cornell’s Hidden Artifacts

If you wander around Uris Hall long enough, you’ll probably stumble upon a small display of brains. The collection on display, while modest and relatively tucked away, is pretty fascinating. Of the eight brains on display, one belongs to Helen Hamilton Gardener, who was a well-known suffragist, and one, which was declared the largest on record, belongs to Edward Ruloff, a famous murderer.

There are 70 total brains in the Wilder Brain Collection, but most are not on display. Until the 70s, the brains were stored in a basement in Stimson Hall, where many of the more than 1000 original brains had dried up. But why are these brains placed in such an obscure location, and why are many of them stored away, impossible for the average Cornell student to ever see or study unless they’re doing some sort of brain research?

These brains are not the only “hidden” and neglected objects at Cornell. The Cornell Anthropology Collection in McGraw Hall, according to the Cornell University website, has “over 20,000 items representing human activity around the world from the Lower Paleolithic to the present.” However, the collection is only able to be seen by appointment. According to junior Archaeology student Karishma Bottari, “the curator literally can’t afford to both protect and display most of them, because he only gets $1000 per semester.”

She mentions some other interesting items Cornell has that most students don’t know of, like a passenger pigeon in Stimson Hall and the Entomology Museum, which is mainly only open for people doing research relating to the museum’s contents. She claims “if you look at the Cornell Digital Collections, there are countless things in storage that no one can see unless they are looking for them” and says there are certain items that have simply seemed to vanish without a trace.

With the help of their professor, this semester, students in the Archaic and Classical Greece class planned to display some long forgotten Greek casts as a culminating project (one of the displays is pictured below). Upon finishing their displays and setting them up in Goldwin Smith Hall, Bottari and her fellow classmates noticed three men measuring the casts in the displays. Bottari noticed them discussing “how they planned to move some of the casts into the dean’s office and others into a box display that they would presumably design.”

Bottari and many of her classmates were extremely frustrated. Senior Olivia Angsten says “This was my last class of my last semester of my last year at Cornell, and I, and every member of that class including the professor, was treated with a level of disrespect I never expected from Cornell community members.”

Their frustration is not only about the fact that their displays would be destroyed in the process of moving the casts, but also that the casts would be moved to the dean’s office, a location where the majority of Cornell students and faculty would be unable to appreciate them. Bottari remarks “After the men left, I realized that one of the students next to me was a stranger. He had been interested by our display and wanted to take a closer look. Two professors walked by and complemented our work. This display has the potential to be something beautiful, to be an opportunity for a student-led project to reach out to the Cornell community. I hope that other people can see this opportunity and help us to protect this chance and all it represents.”

In order to try to protect these displays from being destroyed, Bottari and her classmates plan on contacting Cornell administration to voice their concerns. In addition, Angsten composed an open letter to the Cornell community requesting their support. The text of the open letter is below:

“To The Cornell Community

We, the students of Cornell, experienced a gross injustice on May 9th, 2018.

As a part of the class Classics/Art History/Archaeology 3225 Archaic and Classical Greece, we students were tasked with creating displays for a set of miniatures from the Cornell Plaster Cast Collection. We were excited to help spread knowledge about the origins of the Temple of Zeus, both in antiquity and on this very campus.

Our intention was to detail the multifaceted nature of these casts in an accessible manner through the use of three different display cases in the North Wing on the ground level of Goldwin Smith Hall, just steps away from the new Temple of Zeus Cafe and also their original home in the old Temple of Zeus.

This project was, and is, the culmination of a semester-long process, both in understanding the original context of these beautiful pediments, and also in understanding what it means to make an effective museum display. Every one of us put in hours of hard work outside of class time in order to create these exhibits.

Within a mere five minutes of us putting the casts in the display cases, a group of staff members approached the niches. They completely ignored all of the students, many of whom were still adjusting the casts, and took a measuring tape to the pediments, speaking loudly about moving the casts into the Dean’s office. They treated an entire class of excited students as if we were not present, even going so far as to say, “Don’t worry, these won’t be here long.” Not one of them acknowledged the hard work that went into these exhibits.

They treated the content, the displays, and most importantly the students, with a level of disrespect bordering on contempt.

This goes well beyond plaster casts. This experience encompasses a much larger discussion about the treatment of Cornell students on this campus. Cornell University’s oft-cited motto is “Any person, any study,” and this should be reflected in the accessibility of educational tools, and the treatment of students by fellow Cornell community members. These objects were locked away in a basement for decades, and a group of students is dedicated to make their resurfacing visible. They should not be treated as mere status symbols, but as educational opportunities.

In fact, within the extremely short period of time that they were displayed, the casts were approached by at least two faculty members and one student. They stopped to look at and compliment the displays.

This part of Cornell’s history should be visible, and if the hard work of students, as well as the interest of passing Cornell community members, is dismissed in the derisive way that they were dismissed today, that reflects poorly on the execution of Cornell’s core values.

These displays are a legacy we would be proud to leave, and the hard work of Cornellians should never be treated as if it does not matter.

We implore you to join us in taking action against this injustice. We believe that these important pieces of Cornell’s history should be accessible to all, and any person of any study should be allowed to see them.”

Asian Studies major who enjoys horseback riding, crochet, singing, and musical theater. Passionate about public service and addressing economic inequality and women's, LGBTQ+ and minority rights.
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