Graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Delaware had a unique opportunity this spring to use one of Delaware’s most well-known historic sites as a classroom.
Just over a dozen students spent the semester studying the Cooch’s Bridge site in Newark, a historical landmark that is essentially a blank slate in need of a future plan for people to be able to engage with and interact with the history that happened there.
“The idea of the course was to give students a really rare opportunity to work with a historic site that’s not yet up and running,” said Kaitlyn Dykes, the first site manager for the Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site. “Many of these students are likely hoping to pursue careers where they get to revitalize projects and programs, but also have conversations with stakeholders about how to build something that doesn’t exist yet. This gives them that chance.”
The class was led by UD Associate Professor Kenneth Cohen, director of the university’s Museum Studies Program. During the class, students were introduced to what it takes to interpret and manage historic properties, including structures, monuments and landscapes.
Students interacted with all elements of the site, as well as the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs and various stakeholders from other museums, Native American representatives, members of descendent communities and more. Students had to rely on those first-hand sources, as well as primary sources like private papers from the Cooch family to learn more about the history of the site to develop a vision for its future.
At the end of the course, students presented their own innovative, interdisciplinary plans for how the site could be designed to best allow people to learn about its history. Presentations also considered accessibility of the site, considering what needs to be done to ensure that each and every visitor is able to interact with each and every part of the historical site.
“They offered inventive ways to look at the space with more modern ideas of what a museum can be,” Dykes said. “They’ve really opened the door.”
The Division will be preparing a master plan for Cooch’s Bridge, and Dykes said some of the students’ suggestions will likely be included. The groundwork they’ve already done with their research and stakeholder outreach will be immensely helpful with interpretive planning as the site moves forward. Two students will also intern at the site this summer, one through the Division and one through the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site.
“The excitement that they brought to this and their interest in being innovative was amazing,” Dykes said. “I think it gives us a nice place to start, with that enthusiasm, and hopefully we can keep carrying that through the process.”