Institute for Human Science and Culture ‘explores what it means to be human’

by Ken Evans

For Akronites looking to contemplate the subtleties of the human experience, the recently opened Institute for Human Science and Culture hopes to provide many new avenues to explore. Located on the upper two floors of the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, the institute’s grand opening was on Sept. 14. 

The Institute for Human Science and Culture is billed as a “multidisciplinary institute that promotes education and research in the history, preservation, documentation, and interpretation of the human experience.” 

Jodi Kearns, director of the institute, put it more simply: their mission is to “explore what it means to be human.” 

The National Museum of Psychology at the Cummings Center is the only one of its kind in the world, but not every collection housed in the building is relevant to the history of psychology. “The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology has three equal arms: The archives, which are the research arm; the museum which is the public face; and the Institute, which is the educational and experimental space,” Jodi says. “We have had a bunch of curious collections that don’t really fit into the history of psychology so they are part of the institute collections” — hence the need to create additional spaces for visitors on the top floor of the Cummings Center.

The Oak Native American Gallery

The Oak Native American Gallery will be the permanent home of the Oak Native American Ethnographic Collection, assembled by Jim and Vanita Oelschlager and displayed with their financial support. According to Jodi, “There are about 1,000 objects in this collection, so this exhibit will rotate about every three to four years.” 

In its current incarnation, the Oak Native American Gallery seeks to reach a wide audience and endeavors to help the visitor better understand the subtleties of the Native American experience. The pieces range from 800-year-old woven sandals to modern statues made of whalebone that depict aspects of traditional Alaskan life. 

The gallery’s first half seeks to show the connection between culture and the environment, demonstrating how resources and weather can lead to vastly different peoples. Items like small model canoes used by Native Alaskan children to learn the process needed to build these vital vessels emphasize this culture’s tight connection to the land and the necessity of understanding the environment.  

The second half of the gallery frames the tools of everyday living and asks visitors to consider how each encounter with Europeans led to profound changes for Native American people. An example of this can be seen in a beautifully illustrated pelt from the Great Plains region that depicts a hunt with horses, a cultural change that would have been impossible without European contact. 

Throughout the gallery, great care has been taken to respect the items and the people who made them, Jodi says. 

“We have an advisory board made up of local historians and members of Indigenous communities helping to us to ensure we are being sensitive to content,” Jodi says. This care is demonstrated in the display of an elaborate headdress: The headdress is adorned with turkey feathers as opposed to the sacred eagle feathers, changing its ceremonial context and making the piece culturally appropriate to display. 

The Lynn Rodeman Metzger Galleries

The second gallery, the Lynn Rodeman Metzger Galleries, will be the home for the institute’s student work and will regularly rotate with different student-led exhibitions and projects. 

“Next month, we will have two students from the Myers School of Art who are installing their senior exhibits here. And then our students in the Museums and Archives Studies Certificate Program, for their final project in the spring semester, they will do all the archival research, all the digging, all the writing, all the installation for a full-scale museum exhibition,” Jodi says.

That installation will likely open in May 2020 and will focus on the Lee L. Forman Collection of Bags, which consists of some 20,000 different shopping bags and items representing bags. This collection pulls together traditional collectibles, like a near-complete set of Bloomingdale’s bags, to more obscure items, like a paper bag Conan O’Brien had celebrities sit on during his run at the Late Show. A sneak peek of the collection is on view now. 

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection

Worth noting but not housed in the two primary galleries is the David P. Campbell Postcard Collection. The collection consists of approximately 250,000 postcards organized into hundreds of categories that visitors can look through with care. Hidden in the volumes are postcards designed to reveal a message when held up to the light and postcards of cute cats, as well as postcards depicting the destruction of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Adolf Hitler’s speech at the 1938 Nuremberg Rally. 

Visitors can even send a postcard if they like, and the institute will provide the stamps. The collection is open from 11 am to 4 pm on Thursdays or by appointment.  

Ken Evans finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home. 

The Institute for Human and Science Culture is open as part of the National Museum of Psychology on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and  Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm and on Thursday from 11 am to 8 pm.