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Updated 11:00 AM November 24, 2003



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Curator gets to the root of oral history

Within the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry's collection, there is an ornate set of handheld dental instruments carved out of mother of pearl and inlaid with colored stones, dating back to the 19th century.

(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The items in the set are among Tammy Szatkowski-Reeves's favorites in the collection because of their beauty. She also admires them because they embody what she loves about her job as curator of the museum: learning about and appreciating history through objects from the past.

"There was so much detail and ornamentation in something that was meant to be a dental tool," she says. "It is neat to think how different dentistry was in the 1800s compared to today."

Szatkowski-Reeves has been involved in museum work since her undergraduate days at U-M, where she earned her B.A. in anthropology and was a conservation assistant at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology.

"Working there, I became more interested in doing museum collections management," says Szatkowski-Reeves, who is finishing her dissertation for a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh.

One of Szatkowski-Reeves's main jobs as curator is working with people, primarily alumni, looking to donate items to the museum. The museum, located in the Sindecuse Atrium in the School of Dentistry, collects dental material and antiques dating from the late-18th century through the mid-20th century.

"We are really trying to build a representative collection of changes in dental technology," Szatkowski-Reeves says.

As a result of the dramatic growth the museum has experienced since alumnus Dr. Gordon Sindecuse provided the initial funds to found it in 1992, Szatkowski-Reeves has been forced to become more selective about accepting donations.

"We have 12,000 items in the collection right now," Szatkowski-Reeves says. "Because of space concerns, we only accept items that are not already represented in our collection."

This has brought an emphasis to another area of her job: active item acquisition, or purchasing items from collectors or museums to fill gaps in the Sindecuse collection.

Dental trade catalogues, which listed equipment for sale, are among the items for which Szatkowski-Reeves searches.

"They are almost never donated, either because people didn't save them or don't think they are useful," she says. "We actively search for them because they are the best source for identifying some of the more unusual, antiquated technology."

Most exhibits are made to look like a dentist's office from the time period being portrayed. These exhibits are permanent because of the extensive work that goes into creating them, but other, smaller displays change.

"On Memorial Day we installed an exhibit about dentistry in the military," she says. "We showcased how dentists were involved in the military from the Civil War through World War II."

Szatkowski-Reeves is involved with other projects within the dental school as well, including working to create the Hall of Honor project—a series of plaques that recognize the significant contributions to the field of dentistry made by people who were affiliated with the school.

Outside of work Szatkowski-Reeves loves doing genealogy research and traveling, especially to Mexico, where she can put her anthropological training to work.

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