From the Archives: Spence Students, Alumna Curate Anniversary Exhibition

The Spence archives allow for a deep dive into the School’s history through almost all the five senses: One can smell the leather of an early school medal given to students for punctuality, feel the cool gold of a class bracelet, hear the singing of Grade 3 students and watch a silent, black and white film from the 1920s.
The archives, a collection of nearly 9,000 meticulously organized and cataloged objects, photos and documents dating back to the founding of the School, live at an off-site facility but are readily accessible through a database.
This year, three Spence student interns and an alumna, Sarah Hermanson Meister ’90, photography curator at The Museum of Modern Art, immersed themselves in the archives to curate an exhibition for the 125th anniversary of the School.
Seniors Phoebe V. and Elizabeth A. and junior Mary McKenzie G. spent a month this summer searching the archival database and studying and sorting through scanned documents and photos to identify hidden gems representing important aspects of School life and history.
This was a one-of-a-kind internship and the first time Spence students have delved into the School archives in a scholarly pursuit. For the students—two seniors and a junior—both finding out more about Spence history and the opportunity to work with the curator of a major museum held exceptional promise.
Their diligent work will be manifested in a series of mini exhibits throughout the School this year. The students have already installed “Then and Now” photos and “A Day in the Life” exhibit, and on April 5, 2017, at 6 p.m., the 125th anniversary exhibition will open in the 7th floor gallery.
The framework for the exhibition is shaped by the broader themes of the 125th anniversary—teaching and learning, adventure, activism and women in leadership—as well as a series of questions that students and faculty posed as a part of a planning dinner last May.
The students spent 20 hours each week exploring the archival database and met with Meister weekly for guidance. Once they identified a preliminary list of items of interest, the actual items were requested from the storage facilities. Their physical encounter with the 30-plus boxes filled with artifacts of the past added a new dimension to their intrigue.
One of Meister’s favorite objects so far is a little leather medal that was given for punctuality at meals, which she found both marvelous and amusing that students would be rewarded for such a thing.
The Spence students said they were most fascinated by the scrapbooks, rulebooks, founding documents from the first days of the School and Commencement speeches.
The students also learned for the first time about the early 1900s work that the Spence Alumnae Society did for orphaned babies, which later turned into the Spence-Chapin Adoption Service.
Phoebe V. also said she was impressed with the School’s early efforts to support those serving in the world wars.
“I really liked how the School was motivated to help Americans and people abroad during World War I and II before the whole country started doing that,” Phoebe V. said. “They were very proactive in sending clothes and doing fundraising.”
Some of the major differences they observed between Spence then and now had to do with the student body. The students saw many similarities, however, in the core ideals and beliefs that were circulated around the School then and now. 
“I think the basic educational principles are the same, but who was facilitating them and who was benefiting from them has changed,” Elizabeth A. said.
For the 125th anniversary, the School is engaged in a project to deepen the archive’s stories. In recent years, acquisitions from Clara Spence’s granddaughter Marty Heck Ulman ’55 and from Mikel Witte (parent of Josie Witte ’98) this fall have contributed invaluable stories and artifacts. One more reason to contribute: Meister and the Spence students may choose to display an alum’s donated artifacts in the April exhibition.
Alumnae can email their stories to, engage with fellow classmates on the Spence School Alumnae Association Facebook page or send artifacts, letters, photos and stories to The Spence School, Advancement Office, 22 East 91st Street, New York, New York 10128.
“The archives are only as rich as the material in it,” Meister said. “That’s the reason they’re so wonderful.”