Activist Agriculture: Farm Protest in Iowa, 1929-1969

Next Wednesday, our new exhibition, Activist Agriculture: Farm Protest in Iowa, 1929-1969, opens. From 10:45 – 12:15 July 18, our exhibition team will talk about the exhibit process for the physical and online exhibits. The exhibition team at the Iowa State University Library includes staff from Special Collections & University Archives, as well as members of the Preservation Department & Digital Initiatives. Don’t miss out on a perfect opportunity to learn what goes on behind the scenes!

I thought it would be fun to ask the curators some questions about this exhibit. This exhibition is curated by Amy, Olivia, & Kim. Amy is our rare books & manuscripts archivist, and Olivia is our reference coordinator. Kim is the digital initiatives archivist.

What do you hope visitors get out of the exhibit?

Amy: In this exhibit, we highlight the stories of activism on the part of both farm owners and migrant farm workers in Iowa. Previous to working on the exhibit, I knew very little about the stories of migrant farm workers in Iowa, and I suspect that my case is not unusual. So, I hope visitors spend some time examining both of those elements in the exhibit, comparing and contrasting the motivations and experiences of both farmers and farm workers.

Olivia: I hope that visitors get a sense of the variety of actions taken by farmers in order to influence policy and prices.  The farmers and various farming groups did not take a “one size fits all” approach to activism.

Kim: I would like visitors to think critically about agency and its relationship to activism. I think this exhibit will show both activism to secure economic and political agency, as well as activism facilitated by social and cultural agency. I would also like visitors to be more aware of the desperation and difficult lived experiences that led farmers and farm workers to take powerful and controversial action. I also hope that visitors just find the exhibit interesting and might be inspired to learn more about the topics presented here.

What was the most interesting thing you learned doing this exhibit (can be Farm Protest related or exhibit process related)?

Amy:  I spent the most time researching and selecting items to tell the story of the National Farmers Organization (NFO) holding actions, and I was struck by the whole development of the organization and its activism in the 1960s. It is a period of American history known for its general unrest and activism on many fronts–Civil Rights, the anti-war movement, Counterculture. It is interesting to look at the activism of NFO as a piece of this broader tapestry of activism, but it is an important story on its own and one that is not widely known.

Olivia: It was interesting to see the range of factors that can affect a farmer’s ability to make a living.  Of course, weather would usually be the first thing to come to mind.  However, there are so many other forces including legislation and who gets the money when farm commodity prices increase (is if the farmer or the grocery store?)  What I learned about the exhibit process is just how much work goes into making an exhibit.  Of course there’s the fun part of choosing artifacts, but there’s a lot of research to do ahead of time and thinking about how the different interesting artifacts fit together to tell a larger story.

Kim: I was surprised by the sheer numbers of people who turned out at the blockades and strikes. I also learned how to use some new software – QGIS for building the map (with KML encoding that I learned at a workshop last year), and building timelines from scratch in Adobe Illustrator.

What is your favorite item in the exhibit (online or physical)?

Amy: I particularly like all the NFO milk holding action photos because they are visually powerful. One in particular stands out. It shows a family walking through a field in which a lot of cars are parked, heading towards a gathering of people in the distance. Six children are walking with their father, and two kids at the front of the group are carrying a sign that reads, “We like farming but can’t do it for fun alone. Support NFO.” It evokes the sense of just how much entire families were involved in the protests–and how the whole families’ livelihoods were at stake.

Olivia: My favorite item is the political cartoon of the cow sitting on her tail so that the veterinarian can’t test her for tuberculosis.  It is lighthearted, but sends a strong message.  Oh yeah, and the cow is pretty cute, too!

Kim: This is an easy one – I’ve been enamored of the Al Loveland campaign comic book since we found it. It adds a splash of color to the exhibit and some of the panels work really well as tiny vignettes of depression-era and New Deal farm experiences. We’re displaying it open to a particular page in the physical exhibit, but visitors can read the entire comic book online.

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As exhibition coordinator, I keep track of deadlines and move the process forward. There are many moving parts to the exhibition process, and I coordinate them so that other parts of the exhibition team can complete the work they need to do in order for the exhibition to open on time. My favorite part of this process is the installation of the window display. Since our Pammel Court exhibition in 2017, we have partnered with ISU Printing Services to include our department windows in our exhibits. Curators select images and with the much appreciated assistance of Jody Kalvik , program coordinator in the Library’s Instruction department, develop graphics for the window. Then it is sent over to Printing Services and after each window is printed, they take 24 hours to dry. Then I schedule a time for the Printing Services team, managed by Lorraine Petersen, to install the windows. The installation of the windows is my favorite part because it marks the beginning of a new exhibition and also is a prominent piece of the exhibit. When it is done, I am able to breathe a sign of relief.

Please drop by Wednesday, July 18, and check out our new exhibition! The exhibition team will be on hand from 10:45–12:15 to answer questions & show off the digital exhibit also in 405 Parks.

One thought on “Activist Agriculture: Farm Protest in Iowa, 1929-1969

  1. Pingback: Activist Agriculture: Farm Protest in Iowa, 1929-1969 (digital version) – DSI Update

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