Monday, June 16, 2014

[624] MTSU students infuse Jekyll Island’s gilded history with a dose of reality

MURFREESBORO — In a mere three weeks, some MTSU students have transformed a national historic site.

The three-week field school took place May 10-31 on Georgia’s Jekyll Island, where the multimillionaire magnates of America’s Gilded Age created a retreat fit for royalty.

However, the 13 graduate students of MTSU’s Current Issues of Public Policy Practice class were hardly there to lounge around.

Dr. Brenden Martin, the class professor, said curators stated that MTSU students accomplished more in the first week-and-a-half than all other field schools conducted at Jekyll Island combined.

“They’re begging us to come back now,” said Martin. “I think it would be a tremendous opportunity to go there again.”

In the three weeks, the students set up three exhibit projects, conducted four oral history interviews, developed an interactive multimedia website, developed a booklet interpreting African-Americans’ contributions to local history, initiated a records management training program for new employees and developed an outreach program for schools connecting local history to science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, as well as projects related to archival and records management.

The state of Georgia purchased the island in 1947 and, by law, is obligated to keep 65 percent of it in a mostly natural state. However, its uniquely rich history includes Native American and Spanish and English colonial cultures.

In addition, the Du Bignons, a family of French Huguenots who moved there during the French Revolution, established plantations and introduced slavery to the island off the Atlantic coast some 13 miles from Brunswick and 93 miles from Savannah.

In 1888, the descendants of the original Du Bignons sold the island to a private group of wealthy investors, who established the Jekyll Island Club for their exclusive use.

Martin said the curators’ main interpretive focus has been on the millionaires, but his students gave voice to women, servants, children and other marginalized people.

These were the people who enabled their wealthy employers to relax in their two- and three-story cottages and enjoy what the privileged class called “the simple life.”

Students Rachel Lewis and Jenna Stout created a tactile, interactive display in Mistletoe Cottage to show tourists what the servants’ lives were like.

“Our goal for the exhibit was to show that, yes, there’s this extravagance that everybody’s attracted to,” said Lewis, “but somebody still has to make the food. Somebody still has to empty the chamber pots.”

Lewis said Stout and she created a table setting based on the rather complicated, detailed instructions the servants had to follow. They also invited tourists to pick up an empty wooden crate, which is heavier than it appears, to provide some idea of the physical burden of carrying full crates in the heat and humidity.

These accomplishments are expected to remain part of the Jekyll Island experience for a long time, enabling tour guides to learn things they can incorporate into their dialogues with visitors.

Working with curator Gretchen Greminger and Dr. June Hall McCash, MTSU professor emerita and founder of its University Honors Program, the budding historians added an experience to their resumes that will serve them well in the job market.

“They can sell their time in school as professional work experience,” Martin said.

“It’s extremely gratifying to be able to see something that you’ve worked very hard on, that your peers have critiqued and have helped you bring to fruition, up on the wall,” Lewis said.

For more information, contact Martin at 615-898-2643 or

To sample the students’ work at their interactive website, go to

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