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Penn State Diary: Beta Theta Pi controversy

by on July 31, 2017 12:53 PM

In June, the Beta Theta Pi controversy prompted me to write about the challenges of being a fraternity member or leader. Recently, the fate of the house itself has become a topic of controversy as well. The land the house sits on is under a long-term lease from the university, which requires the building to continue its association with its original fraternity. This is now confounded by the permanent ban of Beta Theta Pi from Penn State.

In years past the Sigma Chi and Phi Delta Theta chapters closed their houses on campus. The lots reverted to university control and the buildings were torn down and used for other purposes. However, those two buildings were dilapidated, while the Beta house may be one of the most beautiful and elegant structures on campus. Demolishing it would be a senseless act. But what to do with it?

Around 50 years ago, two of the campus’s most historic structures were in danger of being razed to make way for newer buildings on the spaces they occupied. The Armory was demolished in 1964, despite student, alumni, and faculty objections. But when it was proposed that the President’s Residence should also go, Penn Staters arose in protest. Today, the Armory site is home to the undistinguished Willard Building extension, while the former President’s Residence has been incorporated in the modern Hintz Family Alumni Center, much-admired for both its style and historical sensibility.

But before the one disappeared and the other survived, both the Armory and the President’s Residence were proposed as possible sites for a Penn State history museum, and now there has been a suggestion that the Beta house might also serve such a purpose.

The University Park campus is well-stocked with museums. We have the Palmer Museum of Art along with several other galleries on campus, the Matson Museum of Anthropology, the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum, the Frost Entomological Museum, and at Rock Springs, the Pasto Agricultural Museum.

While most people think of art when they hear the word “museum,” there are also natural history collections, like the geological and entomological displays, as well as “systematics” collections in the life sciences, ranging from the much-loved H.O. Smith Arboretum to collections like the Penn State Agricultural College Herbarium and the Mushroom Spawn Laboratory’s Culture Collection, which are restricted to instruction and research uses.

But what about Penn State history? Reminders of the school’s past range from the Land-Grant murals in Old Main to the historical markers all over campus, and perhaps most popular with the public, the Penn State All-Sports Museum at Beaver Stadium. But sport offers only one perspective on the history of Penn State. The other center for collections and research on the institution’s history is the University Archives in Paterno Library. It stages periodic history exhibits in the Library, the Hintz Family Alumni Center, and other spots on campus.

The Archives has numerous photographs and documents to display, even paintings and prints showing past views of the campus, the students, faculty, staff, and campus life in general. There are also a limited number of artifacts, objects that could be displayed, but opportunities to exhibit them, space to store, preserve, and maintain information about them, are all limited. Simply put, the Archives is a research center, not a museum.

Modern history museums are centers for stories and interpretation, education and enlightenment, as well as entertainment and community-building. Some history museums are housed in modern buildings where exhibits are like open books telling stories of the past through images and artifacts. These museums may also include recreated period rooms, work or living spaces where artifacts are shown in context, like a colonial frontier cabin or a 1920s kitchen, for example.

Other history museums are housed in historic buildings themselves where we can see, say, Victorian family life or a factory shop for making buggies in their original context. Their past can be interpreted for us by docents or sometimes by living history recreators, who give us a first-person narration.

So, what would a Penn State history museum be? Among the many stories it could tell would be the evolution of the institution itself; the nature of instruction, research, or outreach; or even the story of the community that hosts the university and its population.

Spaces of the past, such as early classrooms or laboratories, could be recreated and the nature of teaching or discovery explained. Deeper dives could take us into the evolution of knowledge in various fields and how it was discovered and taught in various disciplines. Changes in the student or faculty experience — social life as well as academics — could be interpreted.

Penn Staters love their history and traditions. A Penn State museum could provide both a venue to strengthen community bonds, as well as a use for a beautiful building that has likely outlived its original purpose.


Lee Stout is Librarian Emeritus, Special Collections for Penn State.
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