IUPUI School of Liberal Arts museum studies partnership comes to life in new exhibit

By John Schwarb, IU Communications specialist:

In the annals of Indiana crime, Nancy Clem has a singular place in history: first woman convicted of murder. She was believed to have been a loan shark and a Ponzi schemer (long before the term was invented), and her role in a double murder — and subsequent multiple trials — made her a celebrity criminal.

One hundred and fifty years later, she’s one of three inviting subjects for a museum exhibit.

“New Women of the Harrison Era,” a new exhibit running through Oct. 31 at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, features Clem and two other women with connections to the former president. The exhibit was conceptualized by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis students in the School of Liberal Arts museum studies program, with the collection, compiling and displaying of artifacts by Katelyn Coyne, 2016 curatorial fellow and museum studies MA candidate.

It’s the first Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site “New Century Curator” exhibit, the result of a partnership with IUPUI.

Visitors can take a selfie with Frances Benjamin Johnston in a studio resembling what hers might have looked like.

Visitors can take a selfie with Frances Benjamin Johnston in a studio resembling what hers might have looked like.

“When the Presidential Site came to us with the idea to partner, it was an easy decision to get on board,” said Elee Wood, director of museum studies at the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts. “Our objective is to help grow a new generation of museum professionals through collaborative training and hands-on experience with innovative exhibit planning, curatorial research, education and collections, so this was a great opportunity to do just that.”

In addition to Clem (whose trials were handled by Harrison’s law firm), also spotlighted are Frances Benjamin Johnston, who pioneered the role of official White House photographer beginning with Harrison’s term; and Belva Lockwood, who ran against Harrison for the presidency in 1888 and became the first woman to receive votes for the nation’s highest office.

“This timely exhibit gives an important glimpse into that era,” said Charles Hyde, president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. “It defies expectations for what women were doing at that time to assert their own rights. It’s surprising to see the common thread and how each story intertwines with Harrison’s at the dawn of the modern era.”

Another common thread, however, was a need to find proper major artifacts for each woman. That’s where Coyne earned her stripes as a first-time exhibit curator, partnering with Presidential Site staff, researching and working contacts to build a compelling exhibit from more than just photographs — all while heeding a budget.

“The largest challenge was the lack of 3-D objects related to the women,” Coyne said. “We wanted to bring that interactive element in, to figure out how to design some interactives that were low-impact and didn’t need a lot of upkeep, yet would still engage people.”

Visitors will be able to take a selfie alongside a portrait of Johnston in her studio, as it might have looked in the period. A promotional puzzle from 1888 featuring Harrison and presidential opponents such as Lockwood and Grover Cleveland has been reproduced and are available for guests to play with. As for Clem, Coyne called on colleagues at her workplace, the Indiana State Museum, to borrow a double-barreled shotgun from the 1860s, a pistol and a pair of ladies’ shoes similar to what Clem would have worn. Fun fact: She was connected to the murder scene by footprints.

For more information on the exhibit, visit the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site website.

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