Ball State Students Debut Vonnegut Library Exhibit


Honestly, I didn’t pay that much attention while reading Slaughterhouse-Five in high-school English class. Even though it was short compared to other required books—I’m looking at you, Crime and Punishment—I didn’t fully understand the themes. So when assigned to check out a public media event for a new exhibit fashioned by Ball State University students for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, I was a bit apprehensive. My Vonnegut knowledge was slim. Yes, I knew that he was from Indiana and that I should be proud of that. I also knew that he had one heck of a mustache. And that’s about it. So when I walked into the KVML yesterday, I was a clean slate personified, although my soul felt dirty for the Slaughterhouse-Five crime.

So it goes.

As I stepped in from the rain to the colorful library, my ears filled with the excited chatter of young adults. Wearing bright red T-shirts that read “Goodbye Blue Monday,” the Ball State students lovingly lingered around the exhibits they had crafted. I wandered around, admiring the space’s positive vibe and then approached one of the red shirts.

“Can I answer any of your questions?” He asks, smiling.

Why yes, sir.

His name was Evan Backstrom, a recently graduated senior who worked on the traveling exhibit. He filled me in on the facts. Twelve students overall were divided into five teams. The traveling exhibit team put together an exhibit that the library can now send out to other museums worldwide. Large columns in the display hold important information about Vonnegut, replete with quotes injected from his works. What’s more, iPads show off the work of the project’s digital manuscripts team. Visitors scroll through digital reads of Vonnegut’s works, as well as multiple videos. The film team created an oral history involving Vonnegut’s family and friends that can be seen on a large touch-screen television in one corner of the exhibit.

A products team created new products for the KVML gift shop (the library’s main revenue source under its control), and a marketing team developed an expansive survey to discern who the library’s patrons are and what they want for it. The result is impressive and visually appealing.

Backstrom says that students were interviewed before being admitted to the class, part of the Immersive Learning Seminar at Ball State. They worked on the project for seven months—no wonder that they were excited when this day arrived.

“We read all of his books during the seven months and have become little Kurt Vonnegut experts,” Backstrom says. “So I’m a big fan now. I kind of wish that I could meet him, but since he’s passed away, that’s not going to happen. However, I feel like I’ve known Vonnegut through this. I feel like I’ve gotten to know him very well.”

Another student, Andrew Neylon, agrees. “He was a very complicated person with complex thoughts about different things, like social equality, the war, the environment …” His voice trails off before emphatically adding, “I learned a lot.”

As part of the film team, Neylon interviewed Vonnegut’s friends, family, and colleagues. He even traveled to New York City with faculty advisor Rai Peterson and a WFYI cameraman to interview comedian Lewis Black and others. Neylon says that talking to those connected to Vonnegut led him to discover more Indiana writers, like Susan Neville and Dan Carpenter.

That Indiana identity also appeals to Peterson, associate professor of English at Ball State. Her visit to the KVML with a class had given her the idea for the project. “When I left, I realized that this was an opportunity for Ball State,” she says. “As Hoosiers, I think we feel a bit of ownership over Kurt Vonnegut, and we’d love for that entity to stay here in Indianapolis.” Peterson and Russ Wahlers, associate professor of marketing at Ball State, wrote a proposal, approved by a panel as part of the Provost Initiative Immersive Learning Seminar.

The passion behind this project is striking. Everyone in the museum was smiling and celebrating in Vonnegut’s works and memory. A sense of pride loomed not just for Vonnegut,  but also for Indianapolis.

On my way out, I met Julia Whitehead, KVML’s executive director. “I was so thrilled because the ideas that they were putting forward were things that we had only dreamed of,” she says. “Peterson and Wahlers were able to get all of these partners involved.” Partners included WFYI, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Floyd Stanic Mueller Ginther, Creative Street, Hamilton Exhibits, Eye on Art-Jerry Parts, Seven Stories Press, Indiana University, and the Indiana Historical Society, providing $43,300 in funding, with the Provost Initiative Immersive Learning Grant of Ball State supplying $33,400 to bring the total to $76,700.

“It was really an emotional moment for me,” Whitehead says, “knowing that our community partners valued us enough to donate their time and resources and funds to make the Kurt Vonnegut Library a better place for visitors. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

I left the library under a dreary sky. The students’ success and Vonnegut love followed, and I vowed to give Slaughterhouse another try. Fast forward a couple hours: A few chapters into Cat’s Cradle, I’m hooked. I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more Vonnegut.

In reflecting on this event, I recall a small postcard in the KVML gift shop with a famous Vonnegut quote scrawled out: “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers. But wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.”


Photos by Emily Erotas