With the world expecting the holiday shopping season to set new precedents, we’d like to distract or disrupt those popular consumptive tendencies and offer a look at the Sterling College course, The Meaning of Things.

Faculty member, Carol Dickson, guides students through topics of objectification in connection with the natural and cultural worlds, asking questions like: What are the implications of taking something out of its natural existence and reclassifying these things as commodities and fetishes? How are museums and exhibitions deeply rooted in cultural displays and colonialism? The seminar explores how individuals and cultures give meaning to material objects, presently and historically, focusing on how these ideas play out through museums (how things are displayed, what meaning is given to them, how choices are made about what to display, etc.) as well as the cultural and ecological impacts of the ways in which museums construct and value meanings.

Each student curated an exhibition of their own design on campus as a final project. Let’s explore!

A Snapshot of Natural History at Sterling by John McKay

natural historyWorldwide there are two to four billion dead, wild animals sitting in cabinets and drawers. These specimens and the natural history museums that contain them play a huge role in what we now know about the historical distribution of species and global biodiversity as a whole. For hundreds of years these collections have both been works of wonder and art; but more importantly, natural history collections provide vast amounts of significant data that informs not only what we know about a species but can impact how we live our lives. Each collection is different and variable. Some framed walls of colorful birds may have been a great symbol of wealth and sophistication, in the Victorian era, while a closed drawer of small rodents in a back corner of a university today may serve a very different role. From population biology, to genetics, to evolution, to new viruses and diseases, natural history collections are highly useful both in the past and today for a myriad of different and changing questions. In this exhibit I strive to explore some of the richness of the Sterling College Zoological Collection, and showcase its history and worth through a handful of the objects and specimens that make it what it is.

Second Skin by Jamie Perlstein

leather jacket


I wanted to showcase students favorite articles of clothing, and the why. “Second Skin” hopes to invite the viewer to ponder their perception of themselves when wearing their favorite item. Is this a warm, fuzzy jacket from a family member? A knitted scarf made by yourself? A secondhand skirt from the local thrift store? Our choices in how we dress ourselves has evolved from purely protection and modesty to fashions, style, and messages we wish to put out into the world.



I Wanna Rock by Stephen Breitman

rockAll rocks are beautiful in some way, but what makes a rock worthy of display? What is the balance of price, condition, rarity, and personal meaning that makes a rock special? Almost everyone has picked up a rock from the side of the road, but what drives people to collect?


Plant Preservation by Colin Klute

Beyond their scientific applications, herbariums offer an accessible platform for viewing plants outside their natural habitat. There are many things that have the potential to stop a person from observing a plant where it grows, such as seasonality, handicap accessibility, or urban confinement. In contrast, an herbarium can be viewed by nearly anyone anywhere. This means someone wanting to sculpt, paint, or draw can easily reference a plant in stasis.

plant preservation


Trash: Stories of Past, Present, and Future by Robb Milks

trashIt is only until the breadth of industry and globalization that we have begun to hide from our waste. With changes in socio-cultural conditions come complementary expressions of trash. Trash is the great equalizer in its narrative. Its stories present unbiased interpretations and assessments of one’s quotidian lifeway. What other medium can provide such unbiased accounts of one’s life? It is the discarded that has nothing left to lose. 

Having observed the placement of trash, in the ditches of north Craftsbury road, I have determined the most frequently appearing items are discarded from the car. These objects tell the story of individuals who were last associated with an item before they were discarded and the intersection between vehicle culture and trash placement.


Hearts of Stone by Julien Wilder

What gives a rock value? Why do so many of us keep them, lug them around when we move, and give them to each other? People love rocks, from shiny to dull, from small smooth worry stones to large crystalline geodes. We don’t love them because they’re aggregates of minerals, we love them because of what they mean to us.


Though it’s true that some rocks are kept unintentionally, like the one that inevitably finds its way into your shoe, or the one you picked up at a beach sometime but can’t remember where so you’ve been meaning to huck it out the window but just haven’t yet… But that doesn’t explain just how many rocks some of us find ourselves with. In an article written by Jennie Morgan, Sharon Macdonald, and Harold Fredheim which focuses on the persistence of profusion, the factors and values that influence what is kept and what is let go are delineated. Most frequently identified as a reason for keeping, was that of memory extension. Some objects act as tokens to hold memories of places, events, or people. The second most common reason to keep something was a sense of obligation. Often this obligation is in response to the item having been received as a gift. There’s a feeling of betrayal for most people when considering the disposal of a gift. The third most common reason to keep something is a bit less sentimental. It’s simply the materialities of an object. Is something too big or fragile to move, or too small to notice during decluttering raids. Then the article listed a few notable, but less common, reasons to keep things. Use value is a rather obvious reason. Then there’s rarity or age value. Next, beauty or aesthetic factors were identified. Lastly, the least often, but still relevant factor determining the fate of our objects, the financial component. What might it cost to keep something, or how much could be made from the sale of something.


These Are a Few of My Favorite Things… by Zenaide McCarthy

mugsI wanted to dive deeper into meaningful objects that we use often but may not always think about. When I think of necessities or the things we feel we can’t live without I typically think first of food and then caffeine, a mug can be of service with both of these needs! I wanted an object that was very close to us that we tend to take for granted yet feel very strong ties to. A mug is the perfect example of an everyday item that we place significant value in its function but often also in the sentimental value of the mug itself. While talking to Heather Sterns, our pottery teacher from the other half of this course, she told us that no one ever seems to email if they broke a bowl, pitcher, or platter but if they break a mug she gets heartbroken emails telling the tragedy of its destruction. She taught us to take into consideration the smallest details, the rim of the mug, how smooth is it, is it rounded or curved out, how does the handle feel, what is the weight of the mug like, does it match how heavy it looks? There are so many small considerations that go into these pieces of art that are made to personalize the simple act of drinking. Most people I know have a favorite mug or one they are particularly drawn to. I want to dive deeper into why we form such a special attachment to one thing over another, such as mugs over bowls. Why are these mugs so important and what gives them that special meaning. Each statement is from the mug owner and details the means of how they obtained their favorite mug and why it holds value to them. Through this we will explore the different ways people perceive value and how personal attachment plays into an object’s worth.

Mask Up by Paige Harris

It’s a few decades into a new millennium, and a pandemic is burning its way through the world. The virus is a terrifying combination of deadly and airborne. It attacks the lungs, spreading in the droplets that the victims cough out. A key part of the containment procedures is the wearing of a mask.

Healthcare officials and essential workers comply with new masking regulations, but the general public is divided. Some even ridicule the mask mandates, calling them inconvenient and ineffective. Others begin making their own, supplying friends and family with much-needed protection. The year is…wait for it…1918. The virus is H1N1, also known as the Spanish Flu. Looking back, it’s alternately alarming and heart-warming to realize how little has changed in terms of the public response to a pandemic. Sure, there are naysayers and science deniers, and likely there always will be, but there are also people whose first instinct is to help. The makers of masks were there in 1918, and they are here in 2020, although the shortage of PPE wasn’t as bad back then.






Filed Under: Blog Environmental Humanities

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