Providing students with hands-on experience in a way that impacts the local community may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of anthropology, but that’s exactly what Monty Roper’s Applied Anthropology course is all about. “Anthropology is applied across a huge range of different professions, in the business world, in the NGO world, in development and health,” says Roper, associate professor of anthropology and Donald Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership.

Sarah Henderson ’16 and Liz Nelson ’17 decided to tackle the project proposed by the Grinnell Historical Museum — increasing attendance, which has been decreasing in recent years. Museum board members asked Henderson and Nelson to research why people weren’t using the museum and what could be done to get more people in the door.

Understanding the Community

Henderson and Nelson conducted interviews with community members who have extensive knowledge of museums. They also conducted random interviews with townspeople and Grinnell students on the street and in the local coffee shop to find out what could be done to attract more people to the museum.

“The experience taught me a lot of practical skills about how to approach people I didn’t know, which I was nervous about at first,” Nelson says. “I feel more confident approaching someone about my research, and we ended up having some really great conversations and learning a lot.”

Henderson, who has been interested in museums for much of her time at Grinnell, relished the opportunity to learn to apply what she’s learned in class to an organization in the community.  “Actually getting to work on a real project for real people has been incredible. I care about it a lot because it feels like something meaningful and real is going to be done based on our work,” says Henderson

Solving the Problem

After a semester of research, Henderson and Nelson wrote a final report with recommendations for the museum, which they presented to the board of directors. “The board was extremely receptive and is moving forward with several of our suggestions,” says Henderson.

One of those suggestions was incorporating a student intern at the museum during the school year to establish a better connection between the museum and the College. The museum has hired several to begin work this summer.

Putting New Skills to Good Use

But the museum wasn’t the only party to benefit from this research experience. In an interview for a graduate school program in museum administration, Henderson was able to talk about the project and what it taught her about the possibility of starting a museum consulting business. “The director was thrilled, and I actually got accepted into that program later that week,” says Henderson.

Nelson adds, “This practicing anthropology class has been my favorite anthropology course, because you always read about theories and ethnographies, but actually getting to do something with that knowledge is so much fun!”

 “It all comes back to the same set of skills that anthropologists employ,” Roper says. “Learning that by doing a project of your own in the community really shows students how to apply those abilities creatively.”

Sarah Henderson ’16 is an anthropology/art history double major from Wilton, Iowa.

Liz Nelson ’17 is an anthropology major from Grinnell, Iowa.

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