Touching the past

McKissick Museum curator uses digitization, touch screens to present natural history collections

Since 2011, the Office of Research has invested $20.9 million in internal grants for University of South Carolina researchers at every level, and in every field of study, through a system of merit-based research funding programs. Among the office’s chief internal grant programs are the ASPIRE awards, which help faculty develop new lines of exploration and acquire multi-user equipment while also encouraging interdisciplinary research. And the investment pays off — frequently leading to additional external funding and fueling more ambitious research. This story first appeared in USC Times Fall 2018 Issue No. 2.

As curator of collections at McKissick Museum, Christian Cicimurri is accustomed to handling old documents and artifacts. But thanks to an ASPIRE II grant and subsequent funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Cicimurri has got her hands on new touch screen technology, which is being incorporated into McKissick’s exhibits.

Wall-mounted touch screens put the museum’s current natural history exhibit at the fingertips of visitors, allowing exploration of various digitized documents and objects. But making history available at the swipe of a finger isn’t all that the grants have accomplished.

“The initial ASPIRE grant got us talking with folks in digital collections in the library, the A.C. Moore Herbarium, the Center for Digital Humanities, the Institute for Southern Studies and South Caroliniana Library, and that turned up a lot of material for the natural history exhibit,” says Cicimurri, who is herself a trained paleontologist. “Since then, we’ve been collaborating the Charleston Museum and have found a lot more information and items for our exhibit.”

McKissick holds the university’s first acquired collection — minerals and fossils once owned by Thomas Cooper, the institution’s second president and one of several individuals highlighted in the exhibit on natural historians. Digitizing those holdings, as well as other items from natural historians in the state’s past, makes them available online to a larger audience.

“By gathering and digitizing items not just from the archives but also from the herbarium and other repositories on campus and combining them into a searchable database, we’re giving visitors an opportunity to see things they’ve likely never seen before,” Cicimurri says.

That includes a collection of 26,000 butterflies and moths that McKissick plans to catalog and digitize with federal funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as minerals, fossils and other items from the collections of 19th and early 20th century collectors and natural historians.

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