A Creighton University Arts and Sciences alumna’s work is on display at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and soon will be a traveling exhibition, touring along the railroad’s lines.
Rachel Slagle, BA’17, an American studies and history double major, created the project – now a museum exhibit titled “Move Over, Sir!: Women Working on the Railroad” – as part of her coursework within Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences.
The project depicts the critical roles women have served in the history of American railroads and traces the contributions they have made to the industry over the past 150 years.
Slagle researched the topic in the archives of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and the Reinhardt Alumni Memorial Library. She worked with Patricia LaBounty (shown), the museum’s manager, to curate the narrative and stories to display. Heather Fryer, PhD, associate professor of history, and Simon Appleford, PhD, assistant professor of history (both shown above with Slagle), helped guide Slagle along the way.
“For my Capstone project, I knew I wanted to do something related to women’s history and women in the workforce, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start,” Slagle says. “Dr. Fryer mentioned that Patricia was looking for an exhibit like this, so essentially my vague idea of a capstone was made very real because of that partnership.”
Because space is at such a premium with an exhibit of this nature, it took some serious summarization skills to pull it off.
“The challenge that Rachel and I talked about the most was how to tell a complicated story of personal and social experience in one small block of text,” Fryer says. “The process of determining what goes into that very short story and how it is presented is a rigorous application of critical thinking and advanced writing skills.”
“And such decisions have consequences,” Fryer continues. “They determine what museum visitors see and how they understand an important part of these women’s histories—and, though perhaps indirectly—their own.”
Appleford assisted with a digital component that could accompany the exhibit and expand, virtually, the space through which to share more women’s stories. He and Slagle collaborated on it as an independent research project, working to ensure it was formatted properly for an iPad and functioned with limited internet access, all at little to no cost.
“Rachel took the original narrative and used the digital format to expand the physical exhibit and supplement it with more detail and more visual storytelling,” Appleford says. “The software that we used lives on a web browser and can be downloaded so people could potentially access it away from the physical exhibit.”
The exhibit – which consists of large fabric panels with a structure that can be broken down into two large cases, along with a digital screen – was designed to be collapsible and easily transferred without damaging the artwork or artifacts. That’s important for exhibits, like this one, that are ticketed to travel to destinations beyond the museum, like historical societies and community centers.
The exhibit at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum will be open until late October and then will travel along the Union Pacific railroad lines as a popup exhibit in schools and community buildings.
It is one of the first in what the museum plans as a long line of traveling exhibits. LaBounty says such mobile displays “allow communities to have this history available to them.”
For Slagle, the capstone project-turned-exhibit is right in line with her penchant for the lesser-known players in history.
“My favorite part of history is the alternate voices, heroes that don’t make it into traditional history books, like women and minorities,” she says. “I think it’s important to recognize a side of history you don’t normally read about. You can find so many interesting historical narratives, in every field, every time, if only you take the time to search them out.”
“She did work that was really meaningful and powerful,” Fryer says, “and it represents the best of what American studies scholarship accomplishes: bringing communities together in creating and disseminating knowledge so we can better understand and appreciate the fullness of the American experience.”
As for Slagle’s future plans, she will continue her education by pursuing her master’s in public administration. She aspires to work for a government entity or a nonprofit one day.
The exhibit will be open through Oct. 28. Admission is free. To learn more about this exhibit and museum hours, please visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum website.