Learning about why we all do what we do

David Baker has faced his share of challenges in preparing for next summer’s opening of the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology. Acquiring material to either display in the museum or make available to researchers has not been one of those challenges, however.

“I’m fond of saying we’re content rich and resource poor,” says Baker, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron and the Margaret Clark Morgan Executive Director of the center.

“This is the largest collection of its kind in the world, but we run it with seven full-time staff. If you average it out, we get 15 to 20 banker’s boxes of material a week. Sometimes two or three envelopes show up; sometimes 100 boxes show up. But at every step of the way, we have a very prescribed process for arranging and describing materials.”

The center is the subject of this month’s Uniquely Akron/Canton and is expected to be a great place to learn more about what makes humans do what they do. The material that helps tell the story comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and conditions.

Team members review the materials that come in and record what it is, where it came from and what condition it’s in before it is given a locator number. Archivists then have a process to arrange and describe the material so that it can be made available for research.

Much of the material comes from the 19th century, but there are objects that are even older.

“We have a rare book collection and some of those books date back to the 16th century,” Baker says. “We allow people to look at those and hold them and flip through them. But the science of psychology is a latter 19th century development, so most of the archival material and apparatus starts in the mid-19th century.”

A growing field

The Cummings Center is a unique place and one that Baker hopes will lure those interested in the field of psychology, both professionally and casually.

“Early attempts to measure the mind were based on studies of reaction time or how fast you would react to a visual or auditory stimulus,” Baker says. “We have recreations of those and people can test their reaction time for various tasks and timing.”

Baker is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. He teaches the history of psychology at the undergraduate and graduate level and does research and writing on the rise of professional psychology in the U.S. during the 20th century.

Interest in the international history of psychology has led to a partnership with a university in Brazil.

“We have a doctoral student from Brazil with us just about all the time doing research,” Baker says. “We also travel down to Brazil and work with our colleagues there.”

Baker can’t wait for next summer when the new museum opens.

“If it all comes together like I hope and wish, it will be the real deal,” he says.

Mark Scott is senior associated editor at Smart Business. He manages content in the Northern California and Akron/Canton markets.