Norwich University's Sullivan Museum Becomes Smithsonian Affiliate | Live Culture

Norwich University's Sullivan Museum Becomes Smithsonian Affiliate


An artifact from the Wilkes Expedition - COURTESY OF NORWICH UNIVERSITY/MARK COLLIER
  • Courtesy of Norwich University/Mark Collier
  • An artifact from the Wilkes Expedition

A grass mini-skirt is not what you would necessarily expect to see displayed at so august an occasion as being named an affiliate museum of the Smithsonian Institution. After all, the press conference and ceremony today at Norwich University will feature dignitaries including college president Richard W. Schneider, Sullivan Museum director Sarah Henrich, Smithsonian Affiliations director Harold Closter and Sen. Patrick Leahy.

That grass skirt is more relevant to the proceedings than you would guess, but more on that in a moment.

The event is to announce that the Sullivan Museum and History Center has been accepted as the first Smithsonian Affiliate in the state of Vermont. Cool, right? But what does it mean?

For starters, "It offers us the opportunity to work with the 19 museums in the Smithsonian," says Henrich of the mammoth Washington, D.C., institution. "When we're planning our exhibits, we can borrow objects from those museums, and we can bring in subject specialists for lectures and programming … they have a fabulous speakers' series."

In addition, the Sullivan can enjoy a mutually advantageous relationship with other affiliate museums across the country, as can individual members of the affiliates and the Smithsonian itself. Think of it like an interlibrary-loan and cross-membership program rolled into one. Henrich says affiliates number "about 194 out of 6,000 museums nationwide." That's a lot of potential partners.

Henrich adds that the Smithsonian affiliation will enable the Sullivan to do more educational outreach in the Northfield community at large. Over the coming year, she and her colleagues will be looking to partner with a local public school in order to create additional programming — a boon to both students and teachers.

The current Sullivan Museum was built just seven years ago and is a 16,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. It is focused primarily — though not exclusively — on military history, particularly as it relates to Norwich alums, and the history of the university itself. Previously its collections were kept in a variety of locations around the campus, Henrich says. Several departments utilize the museum's holdings and research opportunities in curricula, and Henrich notes that a "lunch and learn" program on a variety of subjects brings in the public.

"Right now we're in the middle of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War," she says, "and there is lots of community interest." A current exhibit, titled "1864: Some Suffer So Much," examines the role of Norwich alums as military surgeons on the battlefields, and draws a thread to the present by tracing the history of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Though the museum's affiliate application to the Smithsonian is recent, the relationship between the D.C. institution and Norwich University actually goes back to 1838. And here's where that grass skirt comes in.

It is but one of the items Norwich alumnus (class of 1831) George Colcovoresses brought back from the Wilkes Expedition, an American exploration of the South Seas under the command of Capt. Charles Wilkes. Several thousand artifacts from that expedition later made up the founding collection of the National Museum of Natural History — which is administered by the Smithsonian. The skirt is on loan from a descendent of Colcovoresses.

A ceremony honoring the Sullivan Museum's new Smithsonian affiliation is today, September 2, at 1:30 p.m., at the museum. 

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