Monday, June 2, 2014

So That’s How They Do That!

By Charlie Mitchell, Professor at Elmira College and “Doing Public History” co-teacher

Check out the online exhibit here:

I have been an exhibit junkie for years, which I suppose is better than being either an exhibitionist or another kind of junkie.  Whenever I am travelling, near or far, the two things I spend the most time thinking about are what I will eat and drink and what exhibits I will visit.  Those are my guilty pleasures, my indulgences.  But while I know a good deal about how the various meals I have enjoyed have been prepared, how they made the journey from raw material to finished product, I know very little about what it takes to transform a selection of artifacts, documents, and paintings into a compelling story, a story that informs, challenges, unsettles and nourishes the viewer.  Let me put it this way: I have cooked my own meals, brewed my own beer, mixed my own cocktails; I have never constructed an exhibit.  Until now.

For the better part of six weeks in April and May I had the great good fortune to work with Kelli Huggins, Erin Doane and Rachel Dworkin as we led a group of Elmira College students in creating the online exhibit, Elmira in the Gilded Age.  I can admit now that I had no idea how, or even if, this experiment would work.  As a loyal patron of museums I have always marveled at how so much information could be distilled into a handful of labels, captions and wall panels.  Brevity is not my strong suit.  I could spend an hour talking about the background, significance, and variety of interpretations of a single object or illustration, all of that information, in my bloated view, essential to a full understanding of the topic.  Yet here we were attempting to tell the story of prison reform or temperance or mourning rituals in a series of one hundred word blurbs and a few pictures.  Impossible! 

Not only possible, as it turned out, but elegant. I learned more in the six weeks I spent “teaching” this course than I have in years, not only about the marvelous mechanics of researching, designing and mounting an exhibit but about the extraordinary richness of the history of Elmira and its environs.  I have been teaching and lecturing about the history of Central Park for years yet it was only during this course that I discovered how closely that story parallels the history of Eldridge Park, from the statuary and promenade and carriage drive to the tension between elite and lowbrow forms of recreation.  And all of that was right here, in my own backyard!

I am already scheming my next project, though the staff at the CCHS may run and hide when they hear me say that.  Not only am I very pleased with (and proud of) the work my students did on this exhibit, I am very grateful to Kelli, Erin, Rachel and Bruce for sharing their time and talents, and the museum’s resources, with us.  And since, at the beginning, this whole project was Kelli’s idea, please be sure to direct any complaints her way!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, to all the co-teachers, and especially to the students, for this engaging and informative exhibit.