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Changes and Shifts at the Athenaeum

November 11, 2010

Mike Whatley
Changes and Shifts at the Athenaeum

The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum is one of the most publicized and well-liked aspects of CMC. Changes have and will occur at the Athenaeum in the future that will affect every student, whether you attend once a semester or every single night.  These changes range from a possible change in the makeup of the speaker series to the modified return of a CMC tradition to an overall renovation of the physical structure.

A Diversity of Speakers at the Athenaeum Over the past three years, the Athenaeum has hosted an incredible line up of speakers including Bill Clinton, Antonin Scalia, Mitt Romney, Bono, Anderson Cooper, Karl Rove, Michael Chertoff, and Jesse Jackson. This semester the Athenaeum has hosted many interesting speakers, but the lineup does not include a headline speaker on the level of previous semesters possibly indicating that the Athenaeum budget had been cut.

Athenaeum Director Bonnie Snortum explained that the Athenaeum budget has in fact remained fairly stable over the past five years despite the recession. She pointed out that compared to other colleges and universities during the recession, the Athenaeum has maintained an impressive schedule of speakers, including headliners such as Michael Eisner and Andrew Ross Sorkin.

She highlighted speakers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Frank Deford, and Matthew Crawford who have appeared at the Athenaeum this semester, who while they may not be famous in politics or the news media, are leading figures in their fields. Diversity in subjects of speakers is key.

“My philosophy in using Athenaeum resources is that departments ought to each get their fair share. We can’t focus on one department to the exclusion of others,” Snortum said.

Diversity in subjects and departments will continue next semester at the Athenaeum. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzhad, poet Louise Gluck, paleontologist Louise Leakey, historian Gary Wills, and author Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation) are sure to be some of the highlights.

Clearly the Athenaeum has maintained a complete schedule this semester and has brought interesting speakers. Yet, a look at the Athenaeum “Wall of Fame” over the past several years indicates a clear emphasis on bringing very big names in the political arena. Even though the Athenaeum maintains that its budget and mission have not changed, the lack of a headline political speaker either this semester or seemingly next semester raises questions about if the Athenaeum is changing its emphasis away from politics.

A Revised Madrigal Returns Only current seniors and juniors can still remember any version of Madrigal at the Athenaeum, one of the few traditions at CMC. For over twenty years, the Athenaeum would host the “Madrigal Feast” in December where students would gather at the Athenaeum for a special medieval feast accompanied by a holiday concert. While the specifics of the event varied somewhat each year, Madrigal included a several course meal served to students by Athenaeum workers in medieval outfits while the students enjoyed a concert by the Scripps Choir (more recently the Claremont Shades). The entire Athenaeum was decorated specially for the event with an elaborate stage up front, medieval banners on the walls, and candles and poinsettias on every table. Festive holiday drinks such as wassailin commemorative glasses for students to take home accompanied the meal. Every year groups of students would rush to reserve a table at the highly popular event. Unfortunately, over time the event began to get out of hand due to a few unruly students, and it was canceled by the Athenaeum.

Determined not to allow one of the only CMC traditions to die, this year ASCMC is bringing back the holiday event at the Athenaeum, only under a new format and new name. On Tuesday, December 7th and Wednesday, December 8th, ASCMC, the Athenaeum, and Under the Lights will jointly host “Not so Silent Night,” a murder mystery play and dinner. The event will feature several of the features of Madrigal, such as a special four course feast, holiday decorations, and festive drinks. The name of the event had to be changed as the term “Madrigal” refers to a specific type of music and the event will not feature a choir or music. Instead, Under the Lights—the Claremont drama group—will perform a murder mystery play that will involve a high level of audience interaction. People in the audience will use the clues provided by the actors to catch the murderer in the play.

ASCMC and the Athenaeum are working closely together to ensure a successful event that can be repeated in the future. When asked about the canceling of Madrigal, Athenaeum Director Bonnie Snortum stated that she did not regret canceling Madrigal as it was “inevitable” because it “could not stay true to its original form.” She expressed, however, a high level of confidence in ASCMC to make the new event a success on all fronts.

A Needed Renovation Project While physically the Athenaeum currently serves its purpose, almost no one would deny that it is somewhat dated and in need of a renovation. Fortunately, there is one slated to begin this summer. While currently still in the planning stages, the renovation is not intended to include any major construction but instead to modernize and retrofit the current interior of Athenaeum.

The largest changes will include improving the sound, lighting, and camera equipment in the main speaker room. The Athenaeum will get new furniture and lighting to give it a more modern look. The exterior doors of the main room facing the North (towards the Hub) will open onto a small patio. Practical maintenance such as fixing the roof, updating the kitchen, and replacing the doors are also part of the plan.

Overall the goal is not to change the atmosphere or purpose of the Athenaeum but simply to make it more comfortable and modern.

Everyone will clearly enjoy the renovations at the Athenaeum and "Not So Silent Night" that, if successful, will hopefully become an annual tradition.  However, the lack of a major political speaker in the Athenaeum lineup, if it continues over the next few semesters, could change the overall direction of the Athenaeum and frustrate students who have come to expect a major political speaker almost every semester.

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