Re-ordering the past: Professor, students take on museum archives

Thursday, August 9, 2012
Prof. Timothy Kovalcik looks through a Public School Exposition booklet, the equivalent of a senior portfolio, compiled by Lillian Fuller, a 19th century student at his alma mater, Eureka Springs High School.

Steven Sinclair had served as interim director of the Eureka Springs Historical Museum for one week when he got a phone call from Timothy Kovalcik. A history professor at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill.

Prof. Kovalcik, left, displays his prize find, a docket book dating from 1869, to museum board member Sara Armellini, spouse Rick Armellini and former board member Butch Berry, right.

Kovalcik, who is from Eureka Springs, had received a two-year, $5,000 grant to conduct a research or teaching project. Knowing his hometown historical museum was putting its archives online, he asked if he could he come down in a couple of weeks and help get the collection rooms in order.

Sinclair said yes, and on July 24, Kovalcik and two students, Kalee Mitchelson and Julia Hesse, arrived in town, and the next day, went to work.

"The purpose is to teach students how a collection is organized, and to give them experience sorting and assessing what is in a collection," Kovalcik said. "It's become popular for history students to go into museum and archival studies."When Kovalcik and students first saw the third floor collection rooms, there were boxes of documents stacked everywhere -- on the floor, on the tables, down the hallway. While there were some UIDs -- unidentified document, most were labeled boxes that had probably not been put away after the material had been on display. Sorting through the accumulation was like cleaning out the attic, he said.

Kovalcik and students Kalee Mitchelson, left, and Julia Hesse pack up copies of documents to take back to Millikin University, where assessment will be done

"It was like a scavenger hunt," Kovalcik said. "Every day we found some really neat stuff."

Among the treasures Kovalcik found: a docket book with entries starting in 1869, ten years before Eureka Springs was founded. It was used by two Carroll County justices , Enos Hilton and M.A. Keath, possibly in the Leatherwood Creek area, Kovalcik said.

Most entries concern property disputes, Kovalcik said, but has all the big names -- William Gaskins, John Gaskins, Wilson A. Beaver -- pioneers of Carroll County.

Kovalcik, right, shows Steven Sinclair, interim museum director, where different types of archival material has been shelved. Jackson/archives5: Stacks of newspapers and booklets line the hall of the museum's third floor, where Kovalcik and students, in background, worked.

Early local history is an interest of Kovalcik's. Two years ago, he used the museum's archives to research William H. Reid, a Chicago philanthropist who funded the Eureka Springs schoolhouse in 1891.

"When I was here, I saw they have so many historical documents, that it's impossible for one person to sort through," Kovalcik said.

Cleaning up the collection rooms was a lot of manual work, Hesse said, and hot and dusty until the air conditioning kicked in.

To give them a break from sorting, Kovalcik gave the students, who are both from Illinois, an assignment: to research education in Eureka Springs in the 1890s.

The find that got their attention: a description of the Eureka Springs High School's literature exhibit that won a gold medal at the 1894 Chicago World's Fair/Columbian Exposition. The students also found an essay by a student describing a visit to the exposition, and an account by Crystal Davis, a Eureka belle of the time, of her trip there.

Kovalcik's students, both juniors, are going to present their findings at the Illinois Conference of History next spring, he said, and possibly publish it.

"There is a gold mine here, especially for the 1890s," Kovalcik said of the archives.

A ESHS graduate, Kovalcik was in fourth grade when his father, John, moved to town to start the Kairos Institute, a retreat center on Mundell Road. His mother, Anne, works at the Passion Play bookstore.

Kovalcik graduated from ESHS in 1992 and from Millikin University in 1996, then attended Asbury College in Kentucky, where he studied church history. He earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Bristol in Britain, where he was ordained and served as supply pastor, filling in when he was needed.

Another major find in the museum archives was right up his alley: the minutes from meetings of the Eureka Springs' African Methodist Episcopal Church. Kovalcik said he has been looking for the church records for three years.

"It speaks to the education level, priorities, and society of African-Americans in the 1890s in a Southern city," Kovalcik said of the find.

Working for ten days, Kovalcik and the students managed to organize three of the four collection rooms. On their last day, Kovalcik gave Sinclair and board members a tour, showing them how they put away similar materials -- scrapbooks, maps, photographs, ledgers -- in the same place.

The assessment part of the archive project, which is funded by a Griswold Endowed Professorship from Millikin University, will be conducted on campus, Kovalcik said, using copies he and the students made.

But Kovalcik will bring more students back to the museum next year for phase two, he said, when they will help catalogue and prioritize what needs to be digitized.

"They'll take back stories of the difficulties of small museums moving forward," Kovalcik said of student participants.

Having the archives in order will make it a lot easier when Sinclair starts the scanning process, he said. Sinclair, who was hired as interim director when Gini Miller retired, has a degree in information technology with a minor in history from Arkansas State University.

Cornerstone Bank provided $3,000 worth of equipment, including a high-speed scanner, Sinclair said.

"We are getting it organized and online so we know where it lives, and you can type in the search bar what you want," he said said.

The Eureka Springs Historical Museum is located at 95 S. Main St. Open daily 9:30 a.m. -- 4 p.m. $5 Admission fee. Children under 12 free.

For more information: 479-253-9417.

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