Love of preservation leads student to fulfilling career

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A. Sue Weisler

Melissa Sagen, an RIT museum studies student, holds a 180-year-old cross-stitch sampler made by Susan B. Anthony at age 11.

History and science have always been Melissa Sagen’s favorite subjects. But rather than choosing between seemingly “dueling” disciplines, she has blended them to customize her museum studies degree.

As a child, the Rochester native was fascinated by museums and yearned to protect the beautiful artifacts that told stories of days past. She learned a lot about pride in work and quality of product from her father, who worked for Eastman Kodak’s once revered photography division. But it was the decline of Kodak’s film and photography divisions that ignited Sagen’s passion for saving history by using science and eventually led her to study museum studies at RIT.

“I’ve always felt that I needed to do something to help preserve this history that was so important to me as a child,” said Sagen, a fourth-year student. “Photography was such a big part of my life, and suddenly, you couldn’t buy Kodak products anymore. It was so disheartening to me and my father, and I became driven about learning how to help save the memory of Rochester’s past.”

To help fulfill her 200-hour internship requirement, twice weekly Sagen plays a role in helping to preserve the memory of local icon and women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Her work at Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony House involves digitizing and cataloguing precious artifacts of the collection for inclusion in digital archives—making history accessible to anyone seeking it. She also works in RIT’s Archive Collections in Wallace Library, where she gains further education in caring for archives and the history of our institution.

“You put in so much work when it comes to maintaining these unique pieces,” said Sagen. “You’re attached to what you’re working on and it becomes a personal adventure. I feel like I’m really making an impact on the house and museum. And it has always been important for me to help preserve the rich history within my local community.”

Sagen has individualized her education to enhance her competencies in film and photo preservation and has said that RIT’s technology focus will undoubtedly increase her marketability in the field—while satisfying her interest in science.

“One day I hope to become a motion picture film archivist or restorer,” she said. “And while I’ve taken history and photography classes, I’ve always been fascinated by the science behind preserving history. So I’ve been able to incorporate color science into my studies to learn more about how lighting impacts exhibits. Every day I’m amazed that I get to see and handle all of these awesome objects that average people will never get to touch.”

After graduation, Sagen hopes to attend graduate school and plans to continue volunteering at the Susan B. Anthony House. While she’s not sure where her path will lead, she knows the sky’s the limit.

“My RIT degree has given me such a broad range of knowledge,” she added. “I have so many ideas—and options. And that’s invaluable for a college graduate.”