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Students and Watts Museum collaborate to create new West Virginia glass exhibit

The Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum will open its new exhibit on September 20, 2016. The exhibit, “Molded in the Mountains: The Glass Industry in West Virginia,” has been created through collaborative efforts involving many students from the Department of History, including two public history classes, two interns, student workers, and especially the museum’s two full-time employees, Danielle Petrak, a current Ph.D. student in the History Department, and Eliza Newland, who received her MA in History from WVU in 2014. 


”Molded in the Mountains” depicts the West Virginia glass industry and its lasting impacts. Large glass factories developed in West Virginia in the 19th century due to the rich mineral deposits found in the state, and the glass-making industry played a key role in the economic and industrial development of West Virginia. Large scale glass production largely disappeared from the state; however, recent years have seen a rise in glass artistry, with artisans preserving and expanding upon the Mountain State’s tradition of hand-crafted glass.

 Glass pieces

The exhibit provides a glimpse at table settings from three distinct eras of the 20th century glass industry in West Virginia, featuring popular patterns and lines from each period. The appearance, and often disappearance, of the 500 glass manufacturers within 200 years across West Virginia is depicted on a large animated map within the exhibit.


 Zac Cowsert, third-year History Ph.D. candidate and intern who worked on the exhibit this summer said, “In some ways, I think this exhibit is helping recover an incredibly important, even defining chapter in West Virginia’s history and growth.”


This exhibit will be just the beginning on shedding light on the glass industry in West Virginia. After the exhibit closes, it will be re-worked into a traveling exhibit. Additionally, Sally Deskins, an art history graduate student, will open a satellite exhibit on contemporary glass artists at the Erickson Alumni Center in November. She developed this idea through her work on “Molded in the Mountains” when she took the public history courses last year.


There were two public history courses, both taught by Dr. Melissa Bingmann, who worked on the exhibit as both a hands-on approach to learning about museums, and also in service to the Watts Museum.


The first class, Museum Studies (HIST 615) in Fall 2015, collaborated with the Watts Museum to provide research and context in preparation for the exhibit. The class divided the larger topic of West Virginia glass into smaller sub-topics that they could research and then worked with Petrak and Newland to tailor the information to fit the Watts Museum and its mission.

 Brainstorming ideas

According to Petrak, this break-down of the subject material was helpful because the students could cover areas that the museum’s staff might not have been able to explore as deeply, since they had their own preparations for the exhibit. It also allowed students to research topics that personally interested them, either by looking more closely at ideas within their own areas of study or by pursuing new topics with which they previously had little familiarity


The students in HIST 615 also worked with guest speakers such as Stan Bumgardner, a graduate of the WVU Public History program, and Editor of Goldenseal Magazine/WV State Folklife Director at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Bumgardner spoke with the Fall 2015 class about his involvement with the museum exhibit research and design process at the WV State Museum.

In Spring 2016, a thematic class on Museum Exhibit Development collaborated on planning the “Molded in the Mountains” exhibit. They also looked closely at what sorts of events and special design elements could be included in the presentation.

For this class, students created storyline maps using themes that were developed from the research in the fall class. They researched, located, and suggested photographs, artifacts, maps, archival documents, and videos for inclusion in the exhibit. They also helped visualize the layout of the exhibit, developing floor plan options and ideas for specific displays.

Chelsea Elliott, a Public History graduate student, was involved in both classes and found the experience helpful in learning how work in a collaborative model with so many other people, with each person given specific roles in managing the exhibit process but all trying to work toward developing a great exhibit.

Students at Fostoria Glass Company

“Danielle and Eliza have such amazing talent and it was awesome to see how they think creatively as well as critically about what will work in that space,” Elliott said.

Petrak and Newland enjoyed working with the students and believe that the multitude of minds involved with the exhibit really shaped it and made it stronger.

“Museum developers cannot be experts in everything,” Newland said. “It’s always great to have different people with different insights and different skills.”

Newland thought the brainstorming sessions were particularly fun, with “many ideas floating around the table,” and Petrak agreed that “the brainstorming sessions were inspiring and fruitful.” She added that the sessions were also complicated, with the extra difficulty of holding onto the exhibit vision with so many ideas in the mix. But ultimately, she believes, “the end result is stronger.”

In addition, several student workers such as Public History student Amanda West contributed to the exhibit’s development. Aaron Hollis, Public History MA student, is the current graduate assistant at the Watts Museum this fall and has been a part of the final stages of preparation to open the exhibit: the installation. He has experienced the “tricks of the trade” that come with real-world installation—including gallons and gallons of paint!

As an intern over the summer, Cowsert played a considerable role in developing, “Promotion,” a section of the exhibit that examines the ways in which the American glass industry and West Virginia glass companies marketed themselves to the public and emerged as a burgeoning industry in the twentieth century.

 “I should note, however, that throughout the exhibit design and writing processes, our decisions and content were honed through collaborative discussion and editing,” Cowsert said. “This teamwork undoubtedly helped produce a finer final product.”

Cowsert found his work at the museum to be invaluable to learning about public history, and is thankful to West Virginia University and the Department of History for facilitating and funding internships such as the one he completed over the summer.

“While I have learned much about public history in the classroom, I think my academic understanding of public history was greatly complemented by the practical, hands-on experiences afforded me this summer during my time with the Watts Museum,” he said.

Students in class

Elliott agrees that working with real organizations is an essential aspect of her education in history and her future in museum work.

“I don't think there is another way to learn public history and apply what we learn in the classroom other than working with an organization. We are there to learn the process and aid that organization. There is no one universal way to create an exhibit, and through projects such as this we learn how one museum operates and build sustaining relationships,” Elliott said.