In 2027, University of Houston will celebrate its centennial. As this auspicious milestone nears, students, alumni, faculty, staff, and supporters are working together to honor the University’s rich history as a mission-driven institution shaped by forward-thinking stakeholders. An exhibit at MD Anderson Library, opening in September 2023, will feature pivotal points from 100 years of distinction.
Agents of Change: Celebrating Innovation at the UH Centennial is part of a three-year storytelling collaboration between UH Center for Public History, UH Libraries, and Houston Public Media. The 100 Years of Stories project was made possible through a gift from Carey C. Shuart, a Houstonian and supporter of art, education, and women’s causes throughout the region.
The exhibit is the culmination of a partnership aiming to engage UH students in collecting, sharing, and preserving notable narratives of UH and its people.
In 1927, Houstonians were eager for higher education that fit the lifestyle of working adults and served the needs of a growing city. Emboldened by a spirit of innovation, students, faculty, and members of the community shaped University of Houston into the trailblazing institution it is today. Over almost 100 years, these agents of change have led UH on its journey from a junior college to a major, urban research university. Along the way, they expanded access to higher education and increased diversity, brought innovative approaches to learning, and created an institution that has had a strong impact on both local and global communities.
Jesus Sanchez, a graduate student in history, was one of the scholars to work on the 100 Years project which included exhibit planning and design, archival research and selection, and metadata writing. In organizing and cataloging historical documents, photos, and artifacts that connected with Agents of Change, Sanchez discovered prevailing themes in the primary source materials.
“University of Houston is a college for the people of Houston, regardless of race, gender, wealth, or religion,” Sanchez noted. “I saw how students impacted UH, and how they became influential figures, like Maria Jimenez, who worked tirelessly to help vulnerable communities decades after her years as an activist at UH during the 1970s.”
The project gave Sanchez, who wants to become a historian, practical insights. “I had no experience, and learning more about the field and seeking guidance from experts in archival work was very helpful,” he said.
Cady Hammer also worked on the project as a student curator during her first semester at UH.
“I was excited when I got the syllabus and saw that we would be formulating the concept and major elements of the 100 Years of Stories exhibit,” Hammer said. “This was the first direct interaction I had with exhibit development, which is something I would love to do in my career.”
The overarching concept that guided the exhibit, the “big idea,” was categorized into three UH eras: its founding, expansion, and contemporary community impact.
“My classmates and I found that this concept worked best for incorporating key stories that the Center for Public History wanted to represent in the exhibit,” Hammer noted. Class members selected items that would fit with the focus of each era and wrote descriptions. The impact of activism and advocacy at UH was a significant theme that emerged from the archives. “So many of the biggest changes at UH were student-driven,” Hammer said. These improvements “signified the power of young people banding together to accomplish an important goal.”
Archives curation offers interesting contextual lines of inquiry. Hammer offers this advice to other students: “Learn how to read between the lines. No matter what you’re researching, there are at least two stories to every document. The first one is the story on the page. You can pull facts, people, and events from it easily. The second is the story hidden in the details of the document and how they connect to other materials. Some of the most important points of a document are the voices that have been left out of the narrative.”
Alec Story noted that talking to librarians and archivists who curate the collections at UH Special Collections is a good first step when working with primary source materials. “Going into your research with a strong line of inquiry and a curious mind will help uncover truly incredible documents,” he said. “As we worked on this project it became clear that University of Houston has an unpretentious and humble legacy. UH challenges the notion of what a university is supposed to look like.”
Agents of Change will be on display at MD Anderson Library from September 2023 through May 2024. The opening will accompany the launch of the fall 2023 issue of Houston History, published by the Center for Public History. The exhibit is being produced collaboratively between UH Libraries Special Collections, UH Libraries Preservation and Reformatting, and UH Center for Public History.