By the Elmira College students in the “Doing Public History” class
(notations in green added by co-teacher, Kelli Huggins)
During our time at the museum, we had some common experiences. All of us were creeped out by the mourning hair wreath, surprised by the realities of the Gilded Age, and amused by some of the stories behind our topics (those children’s games were really supposed to be fun?). At the start of our class, we examined other online exhibits and the practices of other institutions of public history. During our second week, we visited the Museum for the first time as a class. Touring CCHS, we used our newly acquired knowledge of public history to view the exhibits on display. We now understood that choosing the objects required time and forethought on the part of the staff. As a class, we began to recognize the influence that the staff had on the story being told by the objects they chose (so much power!!!).
|"Creepy" hair wreath|
Next, we began the long process of creating an online exhibit. Our first step was to identify a topic of interest to us that fit within our larger timeframe of “Elmira in the Gilded Age.” Each of us explored the archives and collections, which was a unique hands-on experience outside of the traditional lecture (read: not boring). Being behind-the-scenes of the museum allowed us to comprehend that what you see in the exhibit is just a very small fraction of the museum’s collection (we’ve got tens of thousands of objects and over 1 million documents and photos). Understanding the curator’s dilemma of selecting only a few pieces to project a larger story was both challenging, and a learning experience. Normally, learning history consists of reading a textbook, but at the Museum we were able to see the objects that were part of history and learn their story.
|So many historical items to choose from!|
After choosing our objects and researching our topics, it was time to start working on our actual exhibit. After writing our 7 page research paper, we had to condense it to three short labels. In groups, we worked on perfecting our exhibit labels so that we had the most information in the least possible number of words. This was a frustrating and daunting process, but we were rewarded in the end by the final product. There were debates and compromises over words and phrasing (conversations like, “I don’t like the word ‘breeding’ here, but I can’t think of anything better!”) and we saw that the process was not easy for those who have to do it professionally. The museum staff was very helpful and patient with us; guiding us to our eventual result, despite our inexperience and the ease with which we were side-tracked.
When the grueling editing process was complete (they’re being too nice here- this was about a 10+ hour experience), we had the chance to add our own personal touches. We chose 5-8 images to accompany our labels, further our research, and illustrate the points we made in our descriptions. Each of us spent the morning taking pictures and scanning documents, in order to show our audience the highlights of what we got to look through.
|The team at the end of the process: still smiling!|
After 6 weeks of hard work, we were all excited to wrap up the process and reveal our online exhibit. All of us are excited to be featured on the Museum’s website (add a line to that résumé!) and to have contributed to an online exhibit that will be published and available to many people. It is rewarding to know that the work we put in will serve a purpose beyond a grade in the classroom, and will reach out to the community and further their understanding of local history.
Check out their hard work here: