Carts of books, scrap paper notes-to-self and manilla folders outlined the perimeter of Micaela Sullivan-Fowler’s office. In charge of Ebling Library’s historical services department, Fowler has been collecting materials since May for today’s opening reception of the exhibit Fallout: The Mixed Blessing of Radiation & the Public Health. Fowler curated what is now Ebling Library’s third exhibition, inspired by the University of Wisconsin’s Go Big Read reading program. Now on display in Ebling’s third floor reading room, the exhibition provides a historical elaboration to this year’s book selection, Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss.

Redniss’ illustrated biography chronicles the scientific and emotional worlds of Marie and Pierre Currie, whose isolation and study of the element radium illuminated the ‘magic’ of theretofore invisible auras of x-rays, radiation and radioactivity. Fallout takes the Currie’s story and places it within a broad social context, displaying artifacts, books and illustrations, looking at the ways radiation has been commercialized, weaponized and medicalized throughout the 20th century.

A public historian and librarian by trade, Fowler has curated exhibits for the university’s health sciences library during years predating the Go Big Read program. She recalled putting together one of her first exhibits in the William S. Middleton Building (formerly home to the library) on the historical use of tissues, as well as the common cold. At that time, Fowler had access to a single glass case to display materials.

“Originally, the rationale behind doing exhibits was to highlight and illustrate the amazing things that we have in the collection,” Fowler said. After the library’s 2004 relocation to the west side of campus, Fowler acquired the use of the Historical Reading Room, a space with 13 glass cases dedicated to exhibitions. She says this allowed her to create displays in greater detail, highlighting not only Ebling Library’s special collections, but those of other libraries on campus as well. Since Go Big Read started in 2009, Fowler says the subject material has often lent itself to the creation of displays thematically relevant to that year’s book, in three out of four years so far.

“It’s been nice doing the Go Big Read connections, because in each of the three that they’ve had – Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and then Radioactive, there were logical connections between health sciences,” Fowler said.

Hanging coats

Fowler’s construction of exhibits requires months of scrupulous planning and research. Paradoxically, she begins her work by writing out the show’s title – the theme that links the then-empty displays – before researching the topic. 

“I think a lot of people do the title after they’ve done their homework to see if, indeed, they have enough to support the title,” Fowler said. “If I have a coatrack of a title, which then has lots of different subjects that go under it, those are like little coats that I can hang on that rack. It helps me arrange and stay on task.”

Corresponding with Fowler’s metaphor are the display cases. They are the “coats” to fit on her “racks.” Fowler said their purpose is actually twofold. 

“You have an overall developing theme of what you want, but then you also have those individual chapters or stories that you’re telling,” she says. In order to tell one chapter from another, Fowler creates a visual aid to organize her research. “I have a big whiteboard that has the 13 cases schematically put on it, like a storyboard in a comic book,” she said.

Fowler said her biggest struggle in creating Fallout wasn’t digging for ideas that were in short supply, but exactly the opposite. “There is so much to this subject that there is much I’m not going to be able to do.” 

Although she found stacks of comic books filled with radiation-inspired superpowers and actual advertisements for radioactive pills and home products, Fowler regrets not being able to include these topics in the show. She said this is one of the greatest challenges and frustrations of limiting oneself to 13 displays. “I don’t have room,” she said.

For the public

An additional consideration with which Fowler must contend is provoking her audience’s interest.
In the design of any exhibition, Fowler must not only create a historical narrative, but also convince her audience that engaging with the material is worth their time.

“When you’re doing exhibit work, it’s a different animal than it is doing any other kind of research for the most part,” she said. Assembling materials that can appeal to a general audience is a form of public history, a history that can be appreciated by anyone in the public. Fowler said that public historians, like herself, always keep this at the forefront when they plan exhibitions. “They know the value of finding the evidence and making it interesting; telling a story with it; purveying it to an audience who might not be academic,” she said.

Fowler meets this end by considering the aesthetics of displays. “Something that is illustrated is much more interesting than something that isn’t,” she said. “A 3D artifact like a Crookes tube, which we’re using for the radiation exhibit, that’s more interesting than a flat journal article on the history of X-rays.”

“I add one Crookes tube, a form from Madame Currie’s Institut du Radium from 1920, artifacts and newspaper clippings and things like Life magazine and they just pop! It completely brings them to life that print doesn’t in an exhibit.”

The public’s response to Fallout is a major way Fowler will judge the success of the exhibit. She has a clear vision of the response she hopes the show will inspire. “If you only have five minutes and you quick pop into the reading room and you see the case on shoe-fitting fluoroscopes from the 1940s? … Will you learn something? Will it entertain you? Do you want to come back for more”? Fowler asks. “But if you’re never able to come back to more, do you retain the knowledge that you got in that one case”?

Accomplishing this is something that Fowler has been perfecting throughout her career, motivated by a desire to share with the public the awesomeness of storytelling and the past.

“All of these … little coatrack pieces of culturally iconic notions of x-rays, radium and radioactivity – it is so incredible what this subject has wrought upon health sciences, culture, physics, science, nuclear energy, warfare, the public psyche, fallout shelters,” Fowler says.

“It changed everything, arguably. We could never see ‘inside’ before – that’s the x-ray piece – and then we never had really the capacity to heal in the way that radium and radiation have done … We never had the power to destroy as much as we ever had, and yet, arguably not destroy because of the fear of destruction.

“And I’m trying to tell that in 13 four-by-four cases. It’s been humbling, trying to lasso this enormous subject.”

Fallout: The Mixed Blessing of Radiation & the Public Health is on display in the Ebling Library Historical Reading Room from Nov. 1, 2012 through April 1, 2013. The opening reception takes place Thursday, Nov. 1 from 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM. Contact Micaela Sullivan-Fowler for more information at [email protected] or 262-2402.