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Pagentry Review – With an eye on history and ideals of beauty, Rowan students digitize Miss America archives

One hundred years of artifacts from the Miss America Organization—from jeweled crowns and velvet capes to programs, photographs, judges’ books, oil paintings, films and business records—tell more than the story of the competition.

They also provide a rich look at both American and New Jersey history and help illustrate how ideals surrounding beauty and women’s roles in society have changed over a century.

Now, through a unique partnership with the Miss America Organization, Rowan University students are sifting through the organization’s expansive archives and digitizing the artifacts. Their work, currently underway, will be the cornerstone of the new Rowan Digital Collections.

Scholars worldwide eventually will have access to the artifacts through the archive, hosted by Rowan Libraries.

Currently, the massive Miss America collection is housed in storage in South Jersey. The storage contains a treasure trove of floor-to-ceiling artifacts from the competition.

The Miss America Organization will continue to retain the physical artifacts. But the digitization, which began with program books and some oil paintings of former winners, will ensure the artifacts are categorized and documented–and available widely to future scholars.

“We’re excited Rowan is doing this and we’re thrilled the University sees value in this project,” says Shantel Krebs, chair of the board and interim president and CEO of the Miss America Organization.

“This is New Jersey history. The digitization project will help others learn more about the quintessential competition and its evolution from a ‘bather’s revue’ into a nationally recognized non-profit that offers scholarship assistance and helps thousands of young women from America to improve their communities through service.”

The project will be a crucial resource to scholars and students, notes College of Humanities & Social Sciences Dean Nawal Ammar.

“The Miss America competition has been an enduring feature of American culture, producing idealized images of female beauty and achievement,” says Ammar.

“However, the pageant also has been a space to challenge those images, both inside and outside the competition hall. This collection will be an invaluable source for the study of American history, culture, women’s history, business history, media studies, and many other topics.”

Project manager Katie Turner, a professor of history and American Studies, says students working on the digitization are gaining first-hand experience of the archival process.

“This is a great opportunity for our students to get their hands on history and to really see what goes into making a collection,” adds Turner. “Everything today is digitized for students. They often don’t get to see and touch historical documents. When you sift through paper and do research in an archive, there’s a real commitment to the work.”

Founded as a bather’s revue by businessmen in 1921 as a gimmick to lengthen the summer tourist season in Atlantic City by capitalizing on popular American ideals of female beauty, the competition in its early years was often a stepping stone for women who wanted to pursue show business careers.

By the 1950s, the competition had been transformed into a source of scholarships for contestants.

But the competition, a crown jewel for Atlantic City, has not been devoid of controversy. In 1968, it was the site of the first major women’s liberation protest in the United States, when the New York Radical Women, some 400 strong, protested on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. They maintained that the competition objectified women and upheld female stereotypes.

Protestors through the years also objected to the program’s exclusion of women of color. The first Black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned in 1983—more than 60 years after the competition’s founding.

That isn’t lost on senior English and writing arts major Destiny Hall, who is working on the digitization. She started with the 1984 Miss America magazine, where Williams is featured prominently. Hall, a women’s and gender studies minor, says work on the project has been eye opening as she explores her own views of feminism.

“Part of being a feminist is allowing women to be whatever they want to be. I have a complicated history with Miss America. In the beginning, I saw it as sexist. Now, I see it as a celebration of womanhood. Many of these women compete to further their careers,” says Hall, 22, who will attend graduate school at Columbia University in the fall as she pursues a career writing fiction for women.

“Through this project, I feel like I’m preserving history and I really appreciate that. It’s important to have this information and to have access to it.”

While programs, photos and other ephemera are being scanned, other artifacts, such as crowns, trophies, and a Waterford scepter carried by winners, will be photographed. Scores of oil paintings and sketches of winners will be digitized under the guidance of Rowan art historians.

Rowan’s Department of Radio/Television/Film may assist in digitizing hundreds of films and slides.

The Miss America Organization has established a campaign to help fund the digitization project and preserve the thousands of artifacts in the organization’s 100-year history.

SOURCE Rowan University

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