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“Survival Kit: Provisions for your Research Journey” Exhibit Interview

Three of the collaborators for the new exhibit in the Plastics Pioneers Reading Room on the 6th floor of Bird Library — Courtney Asztalos, Plastics and Historical Artifacts Curator; Jana Rosinski, Plastics Collection Curatorial Assistant; and Lynn Wilcox, Design Specialist for Syracuse University Press — discuss the process of putting together “Survival Kit: Provisions for your Research Journey,” and how the exhibit came together, even while working remotely for much of the planning period, below.


Grace Wagner: What sparked the idea for this exhibit and did you know which collections you were interested in working with from the outset?

Courtney Asztalos: I knew I wanted to do an exhibit on Edwin Bushman, because there is such a rich wide range of materials within his papers and also within the Plastics Artifacts Collection, materials that ranged from not only documents but photographs and technical reports as well. Jana and I were originally thinking the exhibit would focus on the ways in which Edwin Bushman’s artifacts reflected the shifts in materiality within plastics engineering.

GW: For the Edwin Bushman Papers, do you want to talk a little about what makes up that collection and who Edwin Bushman was?

CA: Yes, the papers that we have are inclusive between 1946 to 1992 and the collection contains photographs, drawings, blueprints, technical reports, product literature, and scrapbooks from the Society of Plastic Engineers (SPE). [Bushman] was an avid photographer so there’s a lot of documentation of not only his contributions to the field, but also of social events through the SPE he was a part of and he was invested into this idea of preserving plastic’s history. What’s really interesting about this collection is that [Bushman] saved a lot of his material and you can see documentation for specific artifacts that we have reflected in the plastic artifacts collection, including plastic bottle holders that used to hold glassware in transit on trains, and then helmets that he designed for the military and the early space mission like Skylab and early shuttle missions for NASA.

Plastics Exhibit
A close up on the Survival Kit, the artifact from the Edwin Bushman Papers included in the exhibit’s title.

GW: The exhibit is titled, “Survival Kit: Provisions for your Research Journey,” and it takes a more meta approach to the topic of research and researching in the archives. How did the Bushman Papers and the Plastics Artifacts Collection inform and aid your approach to the exhibit and why did you decide to center it on the survival seat as this primary artifact?

Jana Rosinski: There’s an anthropologist I love named Kathleen Stewart and she writes with this term, “worldings,” like tiny worlds, that’s like the lived entanglements we’re in everyday and kind of pulling on traces and just really writing from intensities of things, so whatever sort of strikes you. I think for me it was hard to pick one artifact, but I thought that the survival kit was interesting as an object because it’s unfamiliar, but you could look at it and have some kind of cultural associations with it to understand that it’s military or that it looks like a seat or something with transportation.

Plastics Exhibit
The left side of the “Survival Kit: Provisions for Your Research Journey” exhibit.

GW: The design of this exhibit space is so essential to how the concept functions. Lynn, were you involved in the process early on, or did it become apparent that you would be taking a very active role in designing this exhibit later on?

Lynn Wilcox: It was really early on, maybe in February, when they brought me on board. I knew that it was going to be a lot of design work and pretty much everything was created for this exhibit as far as the visual elements go. I had the idea from our first meeting that it would be very graphic and had that sort of 1950s aesthetic. It developed over time with the diner signs and other elements like the camera and so on but I did have that in mind right from the get-go. I wanted it to be really colorful and engaging, because the actual artifacts and the documents aren’t necessarily that exciting by themselves, so that’s what we were trying to accomplish to make sure you’d stand in the space for a long time.

GW: Absolutely, I love the colors too they’re these bright oranges and these cool greens and everything.

LW: The colors come from the seat that’s sort of green, not quite army green or teal, but the yellow is from some of the documents — the tape on the documents. 

Plastics Exhibit
Some design details that showcase the document boxes used to house research materials in SCRC and other special collections repositories.

GW: In this exhibit, the process of research is centered and there are far fewer artifacts in the display cases. How did you come to making that decision? What’s the benefit of centering the exhibit in such a way?

CA: Previous plastics exhibits at SCRC focused primarily on highlighting our plastics artifact holdings. So it was important to focus on highlighting a manuscript collection to exhibit the wide range of materials we have within the plastics collection area at SCRC, to emphasize the potential in researching plastics outside of our artifact holdings alone. The narrative or the basic structure of the exhibit is how one artifact alone can be of enough interest to take you on a journey of research down this path of discovery.

LW: And then also, “How do you make it look interesting for someone to come in and stand in the room for a long period of time?” That’s what I was also considering when I was creating the graphics. 

JR: I think we had an idea of how we wanted to move through this space, but it was really working with Lynn to visualize and spatialize our textual ideas. Lynn figured out ways to make visual cues for moving through the room for contextualizing and understanding [the exhibit].

Plastics Exhibit
This “Reading Across Documents” section of the exhibit shows researchers how they can use different documents in SCRC to aid their understanding and interpretation of materials.

GW: It does sound like a lot of the planning and design of this was happening almost entirely while you guys were away from campus.

LW: Yeah, I think we only had one actual design meeting just the three of us in the space before everything was shut down.

CA: I think it’s really important to note and hold space for how appreciative I am for Lynn and Jana’s collaboration and tireless work on this exhibit throughout the pandemic. We were collaborating back and forth constantly for months on end and throughout this process, their sense of humor was really appreciated. This collaboration and exhibit process was a joy to be able to focus on and have hope at the end of the tunnel during the time we were remote.

GW: Are there any favorite design features or hidden surprises that you might have to go back and look at it a couple of times to see?

LW: I had imagined that there would be some sort of connection between the left side of the room at the beginning. I came up with the runway, so the runway goes around the room and if you look at both sides it gives you directional points — turn right, turn left, and then you “take off” out the window, so I think that’s kind of a cool feature.

CA: I love that Lynn used the General American Transportation logo as a feature and departure point for inspiration. There’s [also] text observations on the glass and pop-outs inside the cases. It’s really inspired by interactive exhibits that think about all the multiple layers of researching and that’s reflected in the design of the exhibit.

Plastics Exhibit
The right side of the “Survival Kit: Provisions for Your Research Journey” exhibit.

GW: Are there any plans for a digital exhibit or a digital version of this exhibit and did you think about the potential function of the online version of the exhibit differently considering the impact of COVID-19 on the SU campus this year?

CA: Yes! We are working with the Digital Library Program to create a digital version of the exhibit. We’re also planning to create a video tour of the exhibit as well as livestream from the physical exhibit to provide interactive instruction sessions and immerse students in the environment.

GW: Awesome. Well, last thing, what are you most excited for people to see and discover within the exhibit?

LW: I think it’s just the new life in there. The other exhibit had just been up for a long time, so I’m excited for people just to experience the space. 

CA: I’m really excited for people to walk away empowered with the knowledge that our plastics collections at SCRC are available for them and their interpretations of these collections. There’s no right way to research and there’s so much opportunity to uncover within the plastics collections. These plastic collections are really unique to Syracuse University and there’s just immense potential to discover untold histories. My hope for this exhibit is that it will inspire students to follow their curiosities into and within this unique resource. I’m also appreciative of the collaboration of Ann Skiold, Librarian for Visual Arts, and Emily Hart, Science Librarian, Research Impact Lead, who are featured in this exhibit and share their guidance on SUL resources for potential research avenues. 

JR: What’s important to me is research is really hard to distill, it’s really hard to teach, so I’m excited for people to be able to reimagine what they think research is and to approach it differently. This idea of curiosity and that you’re not necessarily looking for an answer, but you’re storytelling through what you’re pulling out and tracing and I think just to demystify research and to think of it as more just following curiosity.

LW: I would also add that it’s kind of fascinating too about how many subjects are just in this little exhibit. There’s so many different areas of study even within plastics [that] there really is something for everybody.

CA: The plastics collection is still, I think, not known to a lot of people on campus and I invite students and faculty and people from the Syracuse community to come and feel free to reach out if they have any questions about these collections. I really hope that this exhibit brings awareness to these collections and engagement with them and that’s something that was really important.

Plastics Exhibit
The windows in the Plastics Pioneers Reading Room read “The Sky Is The Limit” and mimic the viewpoint of a pilot in a plane.

The Edwin F. Bushman Papers (Edwin F. Bushman Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.


World War II Veterans at Syracuse University

By Meg Mason, University Archivist

This week, we honor our veterans and their service. Veterans have long been a significant part of Syracuse University history. Most notably, the University Archives holds documentation of the dramatic influx of veterans on campus right after World War II. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, offered millions of veterans a college education, something most would not have been able to otherwise achieve. Syracuse University reached out to veterans, who enrolled in significant numbers immediately after the war, bringing immense change to campus. Within four years following the end of the war, total enrollment at the University more than tripled. SU ranked first in New York State and 17th in the country in veteran enrollment. As a result, the campus immediately needed more housing and classrooms, and temporary buildings sprang up all around campus and surrounding areas. The University Archives not only holds University records that document these transformations, but also holds archival materials about individual veterans who attended SU. Together, they tell the story of SU’s postwar years, and reveal where there are still gaps in our collections.

From POW to Undergrad

Photograph of Attilio Mascone and Beatrice Jean, circa late 1940s. Attilio Mascone Papers.

Although every veteran enrollment experience was different, Attilio Mascone (1921-2009) serves as a good example of one World War II veteran’s time on campus. Mascone served in the 106th Infantry during the war. In December 1944, within days of arrival in Europe, his unit, the 422nd, was captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. After a forced march in the freezing cold and a grueling trip crammed in boxcars, Mascone and his fellow POWs were held in the overcrowded prison camp Stalag IX-B, near Bad Orb, Germany, one of the most brutal of the German POW camps. American forces liberated the prisoners in the spring of 1945. Back in the United States, Mascone spent some time recuperating. As he later recounted to his daughter, despite being “several pounds lighter, suffering from malnutrition, stomach pain, the residual effects of frostbite, and lack of dental care in the camp,” he entered Syracuse on the GI Bill. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1948.

Room Assignment Slip
Dormitory assignment slip for Attilio Mascone, August 16, 1946. Attilio Mascone Papers.

Though a very small collection, the Attilio Mascone Papers document much about the veteran student experience at SU. Mascone was older than the average undergrad and lived in various temporary housing instead of regular dorms. Until the new housing was ready for veterans on campus, veterans lived all over the local area, including the New York State Fairgrounds, Baldwinsville Ordinance Works, and the Army Air Base at Mattydale. Mascone was assigned to Baldwinsville in 1946. Other materials document campus life, including visits from Mascone’s future wife, Beatrice Jean, who would come to campus to attend campus events such as dances with him.

Women Veterans

Margaret Hastings and Dwight Eisenhower
Photograph of Margaret Hastings and Dwight Eisenhower after her return from New Guinea, November 1945. Photograph by ACME. Margaret Hastings Collection.

Attilio Mascone’s experience may have been typical for a male veteran, but what about the women? We can look to Margaret Hastings (1914-1978), who attended Syracuse University in the late 1940s. She joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1944, becoming a corporal and serving in New Guinea. In May 1945, Hastings was aboard a military transport plane with 23 other service men and women when it crashed into the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. Injured, she was one of only three survivors, stranded for 47 days until rescue. Hastings’ story turned her into a media sensation in the United States, where reporters dubbed the New Guinea jungle “Shangri-la.” Upon her return to her hometown of Owego, New York, she received a hero’s welcome with a parade. There was even some Daily Orange coverage about her.

Women's Veterans Association 1950.
Yearbook photo of the Women’s Veterans Association from the 1950 Onondagan. Syracuse University Yearbook Collection.

Hastings wasn’t the only woman veteran to attend Syracuse University or other colleges and universities under the GI Bill. About 35% of the 350,000 women who served in the armed forces during the war took advantage of the bill’s education benefits. Women represented less than 2 percent of those who served, though, and the federal government did not actively encourage them to utilize the GI Bill. There is very little documentation of women veterans after World War II in the University Archives, not even numbers, though they were probably small. They do show up in the yearbooks and the Daily Orange, so we know they were here! There is a tiny Margaret Hastings Collection in the Archives, but it focuses mainly on the New Guinea crash rather than her student experience.

Where are our Black Veterans?

The veterans discussed above were white, and there is more archival material about white male veterans in the University Archives than any other group. Students who were Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) were already in the minority of students on campus, and they have not been well represented in the University Archives. Historical enrollment records did not document students by race, and the presence of BIPOC veterans is difficult to trace as well. However, I was able to find one file that confirmed that, as early as September 1946, at least a few Black veterans were here after the war.

A file from the Syracuse University Treasurer’s Office Records contains reports that the University was required to submit to the federal government to account for its use of temporary housing purchased from the U.S. War Department. These reports required the University to provide demographic occupancy numbers of veterans — including by race. The file isn’t a complete accounting of all veteran housing on campus, and the reports seem to account for varying sets of housing. Black veterans probably lived in other parts on or off campus as well, but the numbers of Black veterans in these occupancy reports are disappointingly low — 1 or 2 at a time — and may reflect their likely low numbers here at SU. 

Occupancy in Veterans Housing
Detail from the monthly report on occupancy in veterans housing submitted by Syracuse University to the National Housing Agency and Federal Public Housing Authority, April 1947. Syracuse University Treasurer’s Office Records.

These low numbers were probably common at other colleges and universities, at least at those who admitted Black students. Black veterans were just as eligible for GI Bill benefits, but the bill presented obstacles, namely systemic racism and an unhelpful Veterans Administration, that prevented many from taking advantage of them. Some Black veterans could not afford to attend college, even with the benefits. Others found that a history of poorly funded public education for Black students did not prepare them for college. Many who applied for admission faced official or unofficial quotas for Black students (In the University Archives there is documentation of efforts of administrators to limit Black student enrollment at SU in the 1920s, but, so far, we haven’t found any such records in the decades following.).

While the GI Bill greatly improved and transformed the lives of white Americans in the postwar years, many Black veterans who had served their country in the war were shut out from those benefits. Even though those occupancy reports hint at measly numbers of Black veterans at Syracuse University, I was heartened to see their presence on campus documented here in the University Archives. I hope BIPOC and women veterans who are SU alumni may consider donating some materials or even information about their attendance here on campus. We need the voices of all our veterans heard and preserved in the University Archives because they are a part of Syracuse University history.

The Attilio Mascone Papers (Attilio Mascone Papers, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Syracuse University Treasurer’s Office Records (Syracuse University Treasurer’s Office Records, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Syracuse University Yearbook Collection (Syracuse University Yearbook Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), and the Margaret Hastings Collection (Margaret Hastings Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of our University Archives collections.


Additional Sources:

Herbold, Hilary. “Never a Level Playing Field: Black and the GI Bill.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education no. 6 (Winter 1994-95): 104-108. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2962479

Willenz, June A. “Invisible Veterans: Women Veterans Use of World War II GI Bill.” The Educational Record 75, iss. 4. (Fall 1994): 40.

Johnson, Shane. “Female World War II Veteran Gets Historic Marker in Owego.” WSKG (12 August 2016). Female World War II Veteran gets Historic Marker in Owego.