Student poets find inspiration in historical objects from Luther College collections

"Objectworlds" exhibit on display in Olin Building on campus
Luther College students, staff and faculty collaborated on an intriguing exhibit of artifacts and creative writing this spring that is now on display in the Olin Building on campus. The exhibit, "Objectworlds: Imagined Lives and Curated Knowledge," includes about a dozen items from Luther's archives and anthropology collections. Each item is accompanied by a brief factual explanation and a student-composed poem inspired by the artifact. Students studying and working in Luther’s art, anthropology, museum studies and history departments helped with research and writing of object labels, graphic design and mounting of the objects and written pieces.

The exhibit will continue into the fall 2017 semester and is open to the public with no charge for admission.

Amy Weldon, associate professor of English, called the interdisciplinary effort "wonderfully characteristic of learning at Luther." The collaboration was inspired during Luther's 2016 Faculty Research Symposium, when Hayley Jackson, college archivist, and Destiny Crider, manager of the anthropology lab and collections, presented research on objects from Luther's collections. Weldon saw a way to employ one of her favorite writing exercises and asked students in her Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing classes to base a poem on one of the objects curated by Jackson and Crider.

Objects in the display come from around the world and include four-inch-long silk shoes from early 19th-century China that required the wearer to have undergone foot-binding, three miniature Bibles published in Scotland between 1895 and 1901, and an animal horn engraved and decorated to look like a fish in 1920s Mexico. Weldon asked students to complete three exercises before writing their poem. First they detailed the sensory experience of their chosen object, how it looked, felt, smelled, sounded. Second, they wrote about the cultural role or meanings that the piece had when it was made and first used. Third, they described associations from their own life that arose when they encountered the object. Drawing on those categories, they wrote poems.

For instance, junior Fiona Edberg chose to write about a Chinese map, a photograph of which is included in the Olin display. The map, which dates to before 1913, is drawn on a wisp of paper so fragile that it could not be exposed. Nikolai Astrup Larsen, son of Luther's first president, Laur Larsen, brought the map to Luther after he did missionary work in China between 1913 and 1927. Hongmei Yu, associate professor of Chinese, consulted on a translation of the map so students could understand its historic and cultural roles. The poem that resulted from Edberg's writing exercises is called "Lines through China":

I've been there.

I've been where borders and rivers branch out like veins
red and blue
heady with oxygen and grasping for air.

I've been there
where mountain ranges
inked like delicate fern leaves
do not suggest the immovable nature of mountains.

See where the neat black lines cross?
To the left?
I've been there, in the corner of that perfect square.
I'll make a dot — see? That’s where.

I’ll tell you how the river branches blue.
(Of course that’s what rivers tend to do.)

And you can guess how I balked
when I saw a wriggling red border
and said, "Better not cross here,
better not cross."

I’ll just stay in the corner of my perfect square.
(It’s quite safe there.)

I meant to go to the sea, you know.
It was nearby there.
(The perfect square.)

But as I walked along the beach I found
like blood across the ground
a dribbled red border
and said "Better not cross here,
better not cross."

It’s not safe there.


A national liberal arts college with an enrollment of 2,150, Luther offers an academic curriculum that leads to the bachelor of arts degree in more than 60 majors and pre-professional programs. For more information about Luther visit the college's website:

“Objectworlds: Imagined Lives and Curated Knowledge,” on display in the Olin Building on the Luther College campus.
Pre-1913 Chinese map, ink and watercolor on paper. Part of the exhibit “Objectworlds: Imagined Lives and Curated Knowledge,” on display in the Olin Building on the Luther College campus.