Undergraduate Research Award

April 25, 2023

Each year the UW-Madison Libraries offer an Undergraduate Research Award to support and celebrate excellence in undergraduate, library-based research. Undergraduate students who intend to make creative and intensive use of library resources as part of a semester or year-long research project (capstone, independent study, thesis, performance, exhibit, etc.) are encouraged to apply. Members of the committee, including Raina Bloom (chair) and Kelli Hughes of College Library, along with Jessica Newman and Angel Tang of Steenbock Library, are pleased to announce that Shelby Len is the recipient of this year’s award. She will present on her project Precious Moments: A Study of Commercialism in American Devotional Images at the first-ever Archives Student Historian and Libraries Undergraduate Research Award joint reception on Friday, May 5, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in the Memorial Library Commons, Room 460.

The reception will include introductions and an overview of the Undergraduate Research Award and Student Historian Program, followed by presentations from this year’s Student Historians and Undergraduate Research Award winner. In addition to Shelby’s presentation, Chloe Foor will present on her oral history project which gathered information on the experiences of current and past students who have had to reconcile a religious identity with their own LGBTQ+ identity. Also, Elisa Miller will share her research into the Asian Theater Program at UW-Madison and Professor David Furumoto’s impact on the theater community.

As an art history major, Shelby’s honors project was overseen by her advisor, Dr. Daniel Spaulding, an assistant professor of modern and contemporary art. She was assisted in her efforts by several campus librarians including Anna Simon, Tom Durkin, and Cynthia Bachhuber, who provided guidance on research methods, conducting a literature review, and building a bibliography.

image of URA recipient Shelby Len
URA recipient Shelby Len

Shelby’s project explored the iconography of Precious Moments figurines. A giftware franchise founded in 1979 by artist/entrepreneur Sam Butcher, the company’s trademark bisque porcelain statuettes combine Christian subtext, infantile imagery, and secular applications. For instance, the inaugural Precious Moments figurine pictures a boy and girl seated on a tree stump onto which is carved “love one another,” a phrase broad enough for everyday application but still linked to Christian doctrine. She notes, “The question driving my research of this curious franchise is how can we account for Precious Moments’ monumental success when considering its historical situation and its placement in the larger genealogy of mass-produced images and objects?” She concludes that the franchise’s emergence in Reagan-era America, a time when Evangelical values such as purity and loving thy neighbor were en vogue, helps explain its popularity. Furthermore, the brand’s kitschy iconography, such as the trademark teardrop shaped eyes of the figurines, propelled its mass appeal. In her research, Shelby took a three-pronged approach to tease out characteristics of Precious Moments which add or subtract from their value in the Marxian sense. Each prong uses a different academic discipline: art history, sociology and material culture, respectively.

Precious Moments figurine

There will be time for questions after the presentation. Light refreshments will also be served. Please join us as we celebrate these students’ impressive accomplishments! 

Shelby's presentation on May 5, 2023
Shelby presenting on her work in Memorial Commons on Friday, May 5. Photo by Sarah Logsdon