Hands-On History: Melissa Cannarozzi Designs 50th Anniversary Exhibit in Horizon Hall

Hands-On History: Melissa Cannarozzi Designs 50th Anniversary Exhibit in Horizon Hall

Where was your internship and how did you find it?

The internship that I completed this semester was part of the 50th anniversary of George Mason University celebration. An exhibit entitled Past, Present, Future: Mason’s Core Remains Constant features photos from Broadside, Mason’s student newspaper from 1969 to 2014. It is currently printed on vinyl sheets hung in the six alcoves of the hallway in the lower level of Horizon Hall. A description of the exhibit and the 50th mark appear at each side of the hallway, a pathway leading from the old part of campus to the new part of campus. The benches below the exhibit are made from wood that was repurposed from trees cut down as part of the renovation of the plaza and the building. This exhibit was designed to complement the main 50th anniversary exhibit, We Are Mason: A Student History, on display in Fenwick Library.

I crafted this internship with the help of archivist Bob Vay, who agreed to take on the role of advisor for this project. The 50th anniversary committee paid for the printing and installation of the panels. I was fortunate to collaborate with different offices at Mason, University Libraries and Facilities, along with divisions inside of the Office of University Branding where I currently work, as well as with an outside vendor. I learned a tremendous amount, not just about the history of the university and the publications that were printed in the last 50 years, but about the production, design, and printing a project in a custom size for a space that is frequently in use.

What were your main responsibilities on the job?

As a self-generated project, my first step was identifying exactly what I wanted to do and how I was going to execute it. The space that I used is in a hallway outside of several classrooms. I wanted it to be something that students would be drawn to as they passed through or congregated on the benches in the alcoves below to study or rest before class.

Going through the archive of roughly 60,000 digitized black and white photographs from Broadside, themes started to emerge and those were the categories that I used for the six panels: Growth, Diversity, Engagement, Opportunity, Student life and Traditions. It was easier to download images as I went, so I had to edit down the images to about twenty for each category. When I started out, I was hoping to use a photo in each of the six categories from 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. I was going to supplement the 2000s with images from Special Collections Research Center. I ended up stopping at the 1990s.

Once I determined that I had six photos to use per panel, I edited the categories and found the best six that incorporated at least one image from each of the decades mentioned earlier. I wanted images that were visually appealing, expressed the decade that they were from reasonably well and were recognizable without much detailed explanation.

What did your internship teach you about being a professional historian?

After I selected the images, I had to research the historical context that would support, describe, or explain them. This is where I learned most what it was like to be a professional historian. There were events, such as Mason Day or Homecoming, that were straightforward, and I could find a website or blog entry from SCRC that chronicled the history or an article from day at Broadside. Yet, since many of the categories I worked on were not tied to a recognizable event, and the caption information given was sorely lacking, I had to make an educated guess about what was happening in some of the photos. Bob shared that this was, in fact, common when writing copy for exhibits.

Did anything surprise you?

It surprised me that even when I had plenty of information about why Civil Rights Activist Julian Bond was on campus, because of the Festival of Exposure, I still was only able to identify half of the people in a photo of four. Also, when I did more research at SCRC, the photos from University Relations, and even those taken by freelance photographers, did not have any more information than the images I found in the Broadside photo collection, which was the name of the photographer, sometimes a full date and sometimes only the year the photo was taken, and a description that lacked any context outside of a basic description of the action being performed. Having worked at newspapers, I was used to having hard copies of photos and even negative sheets that contained information describing who, what, when, and where.

There were two other things that surprised me while I was working on my exhibit. I realized that I was selecting images based on my eye which was inherently subjective. I was looking for diversity because it has been ingrained in my brain from years of photo editing. I realized that I was imparting my bias as a frame while I was looking at photos. I was also immediately disqualifying images that were insensitive – like able-bodied fraternities and sororities members using wheelchairs in races. I did end up selecting more pictures of women than men which was also interesting to me when I realized it.

I had the opportunity to share with some alumni recently about my perceived bias and, while intrigued, they said that they thought I did a good job of capturing the essence of the history. I was relieved to hear that because I had slightly prioritized current college students identifying with the images over presenting a comprehensive history. Since mine was the secondary exhibit I felt I had that longitude.

The other outcome of this exhibit that I did not anticipate was learning so much about the other side of the production process, which is part of my current role in the Office of University Branding. I entered the process as a “client” instead of as part of the team. In this capacity I saw the files sent to the client and got to be a part of the proofing process with the outside vendor. I also met the installation team and oversaw the installation of the panels and wing walls.

What was your biggest accomplishment?

My biggest accomplishment for the exhibit was keeping the project on track and simply getting it over the finish line and up on the wall. It proved challenging at times because I was relying on other people who had expertise outside of my area, like graphic designers and the vendor who printed the panels.

At one point the graphic designer we had secured was stuck on using a sepia toned background image, which I had not requested, and I had to challenge that and dig deep to find out what the background would be. Was it transparent as I had suspected? Ultimately, after finding out that the green walls would not show through, I decided to go with pastel colors from the secondary brand palette that complemented the colors on the signage for the main exhibit at the library.

Less than a week after this, I had to pivot and have a graphic designer in Creative Services take over the project because it was coming close to the window needed for printing and it became clear that we were going to have an outside vendor print the project anyway, instead of the in-house print shop which I was led to believe initially. Negotiating this exchange was challenging but a skill that I will utilize in the future.

What were the most rewarding aspects of your internship?

I was dreading giving an introductory speech as part of the opening reception. It turned out to be extremely rewarding. A colleague imparted some knowledge explaining that most people needed to practice their speech ahead of time and that it was better because that way you could nail down the points you want to say and make it tight. In the past, I have read heavily during speeches but practiced so much that all I needed was a rough outline.

The most rewarding part of Past, Present, Future: Mason’s Core Remains Constant, besides having the final product on the wall, was seeing students point out an image as they walked out of class and down the hallway, as others stopped to give it a closer glance.