Monday, August 17, 2020

What does the Historical Society do?

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Instead of taking the Trolley into Mark Twain County ride, our curator and her husband, accompanied by our trusty museum mascot Mark the Mammoth, recently walked all 21 trolley stops. 


Well done Erin & Malachi! Taking the trolley isn’t an option this summer because of health concerns, but plans are in place for tours to resume next summer.

Inspired, we’re offering a guided city walk called Strolling Stories. This is an easier and much shorter distance, measuring a half a mile on level city sidewalks, and taking about 45 minutes. We stop at 17 places to share some stories. The stories we’re telling are connected to what we see as we walk along, and range from somewhat scandalous to others about little known events we think you’ll find interesting. Tours take place at 11 am each Thursday in August, rain or shine, we're limiting tour size to adhere to safe guidelines, and masks are required. Our staff have microphones so you can hear them better. Because it’s first come first served, we suggest calling ahead to secure a place. Cost is $3 for members and $8 for nonmembers, which includes museum admission. 


Yes, the museum is open, and people are visiting. We’re offering this outdoor experience to further share local history.

Since 1923, The Chemung Historical Society has shared and preserved the county's history. It began with a proposal by the President of the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, Dr. Arthur Booth. He wanted to preserve historical documents and objects found throughout the area, and make them available for future generations. Creating a historical association or society would give the county a place to do that. Other founding men were Harry Hoffman, Chester Howell, Jabin Secor, Harrison Chapman, Joseph H. Pierce, H.H. Bickford and Edward Billings. The group began an archive and artifact collection and the Chemung County Historical Society came together with the help of many volunteers. In 1947, the organization was charted by the state. We continue to value the work our volunteers do. 

There are 61 other counties in New York State and most operate historical societies. What they offer varies in size and capability. One of the earliest historical societies is the New York Historical Society in New York City. It was also the city's first museum, established back in 1804 by eleven men determined to preserve history. Having lived through the American Revolution, they wanted to save objects and eyewitness accounts for future generations. They declared that "Without the aid of original records and authentic documents, history will be nothing more than a well-combined series of ingenious conjectures and amusing fables." No doubt our organization was similarly inspired by their work.

The definition of a Historical Society is an organization to preserve, collect, research, and interpret historical information and artifacts. The Chemung County Historical Society does that and more. We operate a History Museum - a physical place for visitors to come and see exhibits; a research library - where members and nonmembers can do local research; and programs and outreach to share the county's history. This can still be confusing for some people. We're often asked to remove or add historical building designations, something we don't have any power to do. Sometimes people want to donate artifacts and documents from outside of Chemung County, which we have to turn down. Others assume that we work for the county, which we don't.

The word society is an old-fashioned term. It has origins back to the 15th century, but became popular in the 19th century, particularly in the Progressive Era. This time of social reform inspired many organizations to adopt the title because it was thought to sound more democratic. This isn't to say that groups of people weren't still excluded. Think about who was 'acceptable' or valued as a member of society in the past, compared to today. For example, the past stories and lives of many women, people of color, and other marginalized groups have been harder to find. Today we try to tell more of those stories, but we still have a ways to go. There's a statement in the the museum profession that 'Museums are not neutral' to which I add, history isn't either.

History is not a once and done topic. Our understanding and relationship to history changes both as we as individuals and our community change. The Historical Society today looks different today than it did in the beginning. We continue to collect objects and documents about people and events in our county. A few we share on our walking tour - we hope you are able to join us and spread the word!

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