Hearing Corwin Hall: First Response

Stacey Camp
Received March 7 2021
Citation: Camp, Stacey. 2021. “Hearing Corwin Hall: First Response” Epoiesen http://dx.doi.org/10.22215/epoiesen/2021.3

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Stacey Camp is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director, MSU Campus Archaeology Program, Michigan State University (campstac@msu.edu) ORCID ID:0000-0003-2216-0913

This piece is a response to Caraher et al.’s’ Hearing Corwin Hall: The Archaeology of Anxiety on an American University Campus


It may be that in some circumstances a state of gradual decay provides more opportunities for memory making, and more potential points of engagement and interpretation, than the alternative (DeSilvey 2017:14-15)

Caraher, Wittgraf, and Atchely’s “Hearing Corwin Hall: The Archaeology of Anxiety on an American University Campus” documents the archaeological sound- and visual-scapes of destruction and change fueled by the neoliberalization of US campuses. The authors examine two intertwined processes involving the destruction of adjoining historic buildings, collectively referred to as Corwin Hall, on the University of North Dakota’s campus. The first examines how futurist thinking propels a university to destroy its heritage and past. The second is an archaeological impulse, which involves documenting that which was destroyed by a university fraught with anxiety, fear, and tension about its present and future.

The authors frame the destruction of Corwin Hall as an extractive, subtractive process. Its ruination is a reflection of the University of North Dakota’s precarious economic position: a product of the continued defunding of the university and public education by the federal government and North Dakota’s State Board of Education. Corwin Hall’s neglect and subsequent removal from campus is seen as a result of the university’s elimination of some programs as the authors have personally experienced. This displacement and removal of people, places, and departments from campus is mirrored in the authors’ media. In one of the final scenes in a video shared by the authors, Corwin Hall’s landscape is a slate wiped clean of its history, transformed into a barren, grassless slab of dirt and mud. We hear this process in the form of noisy, audibly disruptive construction equipment tearing down and ripping apart the innards of Corwin Hall, its rubble splayed out before construction workers and a few curious spectators.

When is destruction productive?

In the authors’ article, Corwin Hall becomes a symbol of all that is lost when a university gambles on its future by eliminating its past. As a stand-in for the precarity of the neoliberal university and the accompanying grief and loss, I wonder if Corwin Hall is imbued with more importance and historical significance than it deserves. Here I turn to Caitlin DeSilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, which asks those of us in the heritage industry to see decay as a creative and potentially productive force. This leads me to ponder the possibilities that arise from destruction if not done in the name of downsizing.

Pragmatically speaking, many historic buildings are inaccessible, even with renovation. Hallways are too narrow. Elevators, if they exist, are too small. Asbestos tiles and insulation require abatement, which can threaten the health of people working in the building and the people who abate it. Plastic chairs, such as the ones depicted in the authors’ photographs, are confining and stiff, not conducive to learning or inclusive of all bodies. Obsolete technology, too dated to be sold at the university’s surplus store, lacks the latest software to make higher education accessible to students with disabilities.

Historically speaking, these buildings were spaces of exclusion. Campuses have not been welcoming places for women and racialized groups. Thus, when we commemorate and musealize (Meskell 2002:560; Huyssen 2003:11) these pasts, what are we actually preserving? Are we inadvertently bolstering nostalgic depictions of the past commonly found on signage and brochures that market the campus as a product to be sold to alumni, donors, and potential students and their families? What stories might we tell instead? What discussions are foreclosed if we choose to wax nostalgic over historic buildings? Our universities are on Indigenous land. What about the people who have been forcibly removed, displaced, or forbidden from campus?

While I certainly do not promote destruction for destruction’s sake or to advance a neoliberal university that seems directionless, I am struck by the opportunities for remembrance that arose due to Corwin Hall’s destruction. The demolition of one building, Sayre Hall, resulted in the public recognition of the building’s namesake. A ceremony was held in honor of a donor’s son, Harold Sayre, who was killed during World War I. One could argue that this building’s erasure on the landscape drew more attention to its history and the young man’s story than it had since it was first constructed in 1908.

Who do we serve, and who do we underserve?

Relatedly, I frequently think about who we are serving as curators of a university’s past. As the authors observe, universities are liminal spaces, not just for students, but also for the administrators who lead them. Are students aware of their campus’ history, and do they care about it? Deans and administrators tend to have the final say on what will stay and what will go, yet, like students, they are tourists on campus, prone to moving from one university to the next in search of higher pay and more prestige. Faculty and staff are less transitory, sometimes spending their entire professional lives on campus. For whom are we producing this heritage? Who are our publics and stakeholder communities? In relationship to this piece, I wonder who will listen to the audio recordings captured for this piece. Is this performance art meant to draw attention to the continual state and federal disinvestment in higher education? If so, how do we ensure it is seen and heard by the target audiences?

What heritage is simply irretrievable?

Lastly, this piece made me consider irretrievable, intangible heritage. One of the sounds that caught my attention was the grating, repetitive noise of bus traffic captured by the authors. The advent of the automobile on my campus (Michigan State University) dramatically changed how people interacted with space. The epicenter of campus, known as the “Sacred Space,” was once a lush green space where faculty, students, horses, and staff commingled. It was eventually encircled by a one-way street now heavily trafficked by our local bus system. What sounds were less audible or altogether muted due to the presence of vehicles in the Sacred Space? Was the Red Cedar River’s lapping water once audible from the Sacred Space? Did birds, their calls drowned out by honking cars and grinding bus brakes, migrate elsewhere on campus?

1900 Horse Fountain by MSU Campus Archaeology Program on Sketchfab

This piece made me think critically about the pasts we preserve and recall on my campus, and how these recollections can serve a neoliberal agenda that cares little about the past unless it can be converted into a commodity.


DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2017. Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Huyssen, Andreas. 2003. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Meskell, Lynn. 2002. Negative Heritage and Past Mastering in Archaeology. Anthropological Quarterly 75(3), 557-574.

Cover Image “Digitised image from page 856 of ‘History of the City of Denver, Arapahoe County, and Colorado. Containing a history of the State of Colorado’” British Library

Masthead Image Still from video, Hearing Corwin Hall by Michael Wittgraf.