Student Spotlight: Experiencing “Questioning Things” by Sarah Egan

Experiencing “Questioning Things” on my first day back as a gallery assistant in the Center for Design and Material Culture was daunting. Having been gone for the summer, the exhibit was a surprise to me, and as I made my initial rounds I was struck by how much stuff was arranged in this space. Flipping through the gallery guide I was both overwhelmed and excited by the immense variety of objects on display, from Victorian hair wreaths to the giant paper mache bug. Being able to open the drawers of the cabinets satisfied my childlike urge to see inside of something. At this point the Polaroid wall was almost entirely blank. 

Reflecting now after the past few months, the “Questioning Things” exhibit has facilitated my own interest in Material Culture studies, and proved rewarding as I’ve interacted with visitors. 

Questioning Things: A Quarter Century of Material Culture Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery, August 24-November 20, 2022. Photographs by Sarah Maughn.

As an English and Art History major, I have spent the past few years of college doing my own questioning of texts and materials. I had not actually encountered Material Culture as a discipline until I started working for the CDMC last spring. The idea that all objects could be interrogated as closely as I read books or analyze paintings has been completely new and exciting to me. Having hands-on experience as a collections assistant in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and getting to hear the stories behind the objects we pull out for classes has been equally exciting. Looking forward, I am hopeful to continue my education and professional experiences within the field of Material Culture studies. 

Within the “Questioning Things” exhibit itself I’ve been inspired by the sheer variety of objects. The different disciplines the objects could be viewed through has pushed me to think more creatively about what an object is made of, its potential uses, and its meaning. For instance, the paper mache bug was made for scientific learning, but at the same time demonstrates artistic craft through its accuracy and how the bug wings can be lifted up. Simultaneously it is made out of paper: could it be a book? Attending the Collections Panel talk on October 21 introduced me to the many different collections on campus, and new ways of thinking about interactions between disciplines as a student. 

University Collections Panel with Curator of Special Collections and History of Science Senior Lecturer Robin E. Rider, Chazen Museum of Art Chief Curator Katherine D. Alcauskas, Kohler Art Library Director Anna Simon, UW Zoological Museum Associate Director and Curator of Osteology Laura Monahan moderated by Sarah Anne Carter, Executive Director of the Center for Design and Material Culture and Associate Professor of Design Studies, October 21, 2022

During my Friday shift in the galleries, interacting with the variety of guests has been especially dynamic. One visitor asked if he could take a picture of the Globe Garden Chair to send to his friend who makes custom cat scratching posts. I had someone come in very quickly to look at the phonograph; they had heard from someone else that they needed to see it. Sometimes groups of students will come just to hang out in the chairs. My grandma visited this fall from South Carolina and I loved seeing what interested her in the exhibit. Naturally she had to take pictures to send to her friends. Watching the Polaroid wall fill up has been satisfying. Even just by refilling the film in the cameras, I’m glad to be a part of visitor experiences in this exhibit.

Chair park and Polaroid wall. Photographs by Sarah Maughan.

While I didn’t get to take a class with Professor Ann Smart Martin, working in “Questioning Things” has been inspiring, and I’m glad to experience her legacy, even just from the visitors desk in the corner of the gallery.


Sarah Egan is a senior at UW-Madison studying English Literature and Art History. She works at the Center for Design and Material Culture as a Gallery and Collections Assistant and is on the editorial staff for The Madison Review. Following graduation Sarah is hopeful to pursue careers in museum work or cultural heritage, and is planning on graduate studies in Art History further down the line.