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Berndt follows heart, finds reward in 'study of things'

Sarah Berndt
Sarah Berndt used the Augustana Teaching Museum of Art's collection of more than 400 inkstands for a Senior Inquiry project in art history.

Sarah Berndt '15 has always known what she wants to study. She wants to study things, extraordinary things, from antiques to old stone churches. In fact, she wants to make a career out of it, and that's exactly what she's about to do.

Berndt has been awarded a fully-funded fellowship with the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, a highly selective two-year graduate program sponsored by the University of Delaware and the Winterthur Museum.

It revolves around the study of things, all the artifacts we create as part of our existence: art objects and decorations, buildings and landscapes, furniture, tableware and everything in between.

"Until a year or two at Augustana, I didn't even know what material culture was," Berndt said. "Augustana allowed me to study the different options and find the one that was really the best fit for me."

For Berndt, a double major in art history and anthropology, it's a classic case of how an interdisciplinary approach to education can offer the richest reward.

Winterthur's is the most prestigious program of its kind in the country, offering scholars 175 rooms and 90,000 objects in its collections. Graduates go on to careers that include the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as historic institutions such as Colonial Williamsburg.

"I discovered that material culture is an actual field, not just some idea that people throw around in academic literature," she said. "I think more than anything else I want people to know it's OK to study anthropology and art history. There are viable career tracks that you can pursue."

Born to antiques and stories

Sarah Berndt discusses her two significant field study projects during her time at Augustana.

Berndt can trace the source of her interest in things, or material culture, all the way back to her childhood. She is the fourth generation of a family that loves antiques. Her grandparents owned an antique store, and she has fond memories of summer afternoons in her grandmother's basement when she was only 7 or 8.

"It was almost like a treasure hunt, going through these different boxes and looking at all the antiques she had packed away. My favorite thing to do was to get out the box with the costume jewelry, which was glass and plastic from the middle of the 19th century. And we'd try on all this jewelry and vintage hats.

"I remember her telling me about the people who might have owned these things and I always found it fascinating. Where was this before it was sitting here in a basement? Who did it belong to and how was it part of their life?"

During high school in Westfield, Ind., Berndt spent her junior year as an exchange student in Germany. That fired her interest in other cultures, which led to a major in anthropology at Augustana. She added a second major in art history after a course in the Liberal Studies First-Year sequence. Then it boiled down to exploring the overlap between the two, and Augustana offered the necessary soul-searching.

The summer before her junior year, she returned to Germany for six weeks with a Freistat Center Grant from Augustana. The project involved the study of ancient fieldstone churches in the Fläming region of eastern Germany. Dating from the 11th to the early 14th century, they combined art, history and culture, and turned into the perfect object of her interest. Almost every village had a fieldstone church, and Berndt found that the significance of each church to its home village had changed over time. Some were preserved, others falling apart, and some re-purposed as museums.

"I've found that I'm interested in looking at older things in a contemporary context," she said. "I like to see how things change over time."

Senior Inquiry, stores and inkstands

She applied a similar paradigm to two Senior Inquiry projects. For anthropology, Berndt compiled a survey of more than 30 antique stores across the Quad Cities and LeClaire, Iowa. She conducted interviews with many of the dealers to find out how material objects change as they move through different networks of people; and indeed, depending on who owned them, the objects changed in terms of monetary, sentimental and usable value.

Then, diving into a second Senior Inquiry project for art history, Berndt took a fresh look at some obscure objects in the Augustana Teaching Museum of Art: a collection of more than 400 inkstands, one dating back to 1766, in every shape from the kind that dropped into a hole in a desk, to ornate free-standing designs for the dipping of a feathered quill.

The stands had gone mostly unnoticed within the larger scope of the museum's collections, and yet, Berndt found, "Every single major art movement is represented in some form in this collection. They're such a valuable resource for studying art, or art history, or history. I'm trying to make a case for these inkstands to get a little more attention."

A liberal arts student

One of her two faculty advisors, Dr. Margaret Morse, associate professor of art history, said Berndt's selection as a fellow at Winterthur is a reflection of her extraordinary work at Augustana and her desire to reach beyond conventional boundaries.

"Sarah has followed her passions here at Augustana, and that has paid off enormously for her," Dr. Morse said. "Sarah shows us that there are a variety of futures out there and the strong, broad skill set you gain from a full liberal arts education, paired with a depth of knowledge in particular disciplines, can lead one to less typical, but incredibly rewarding, careers."

Dr. Adam Kaul, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social welfare, is Berndt's anthropology advisor. He, too, sees in Berndt a perfect amalgam of the liberal arts tradition.

"She is, in other words, an ideal example of the kind of student we try to produce at a liberal arts college: someone who will be a life-long learner, who deeply knows herself and her values, and who is a critical thinker, instinctively curious about the world and her place in it."

For Berndt, it was all about finding the right opportunities.

"I've had such an amazing experience at Augustana," she said. "Resources were made available for me to do things that shaped my interest, and really shaped who I became. I don't think I could have done it anyplace else, to be honest. You have to put the legwork in, but the opportunities are here."

Her fellowship at Winterthur begins July 23. From there, says Dr. Morse, the possibilities are endless.

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