Monday, October 22, 2012

Cabinet of Curiosities

By Erin Doane, Curator

The Cabinet of Curiosities was the early precursor to museums.  In 15th Century Renaissance Europe it became popular for wealthy individuals and institutions to collect rare and unique items of art, antiquity and natural history.  Collectors would fill a room with these treasures and call it their Cabinet of Curiosities.  Lucky friends and family were often the only ones to see these private displays.  Over time, the Cabinets actually became literal cabinets with custom-made shelves and drawers for the collections.  Even today this sort of display exists in many people’s living rooms as the curio cabinet. 

Fast-forward several hundred years from the Renaissance and cross the ocean to the United States and collectors were still filling cabinets with works of art, odd trinkets, souvenirs from exotic travels, fossils, religious relics and even biological specimens.  Victorians were particularly known for their collections of stuff.  Over time, it was not uncommon for an extensive private collection to be placed into the public trust as a museum.  Many world-renowned museums had their start this way.  The same is true for a lot of small, community museums that formed around one person’s collection.   

Those early museums served as showcases for the unusual and exotic.  People would gaze at the displays in wonder but learn very little about what they saw.  Today museums in general have developed into educational institutions that offer more in-depth interpretation of artifacts.  History museums, in particular, exhibit objects because of what they can tell about a certain place at a certain time, rather than displaying items just because they look nice.  Yet, even the educational mission of museums does not mean that the idea of the Cabinet of Curiosities has been entirely erased.  Ultimately, people come to museums to see artifacts.

I must admit that I am a stuff-loving curator.  Being able to work with wonderful, historic objects on a daily basis was why I got into the museum field in the first place.  Often times, when creating a new exhibit, it all begins with a big idea – like the Civil War or women’s roles in 19th Century America.  Other times, the exhibit develops from what the museum holds in its collections.  Our newest exhibit, Handmade, Homemade: Crafting in Chemung County, grew out of the museum’s collection of handcrafted items.  With Handmade, Homemade, my hope is to create an exhibit that is educational and, in a way, goes back to the tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities.  Visitors can appreciate the beauty of the objects on display and can also learn about the greater history of handcrafts. 

Chemung County has long been home to craftspeople.  In the days before mass production crafting was a necessity.  Today crafting is done more as a hobby.  Necessity or hobby, the purpose of crafting has always been the same: to make everyday objects beautiful.  Join us on Saturday, October 27th for the opening of the exhibit Handmade, Homemade: Crafting in Chemung County.  From 10:00 am until 5:00 pm that day the museum will be hosting a craft show and sale.  Items including jewelry, socks and holiday decorations made by local crafters will be available for sale. Gallery tours and crafting demonstrations will be held throughout the day.  The craft show and sale is free and open to the public.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Round the Old Graveyard

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

There are over 140 cemeteries in Chemung County and each are filled with stories.    Casualties of the Battle of Newtown are buried at Knoll Cemetery in Ashland.  Erin’s Scotchtown Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Talitha Botsford is buried in the Millport Cemetery and shares a marker with her older brother Hull, who was one of the 1512 victims on the Titanic.    I don’t mean to play favorites but I’m drawn to Woodlawn Cemetery.
Starting in 1802 the area alongside the First Baptist Church on Church Street served as the Baptist Church Cemetery.  By the late 1850s, however, little burial space remained in the cemetery so Woodlawn Cemetery was created in 1858 (by 1877 all remains from the Baptist Church Cemetery were re-buried at Woodlawn). 

Though it solved the space issue, Woodlawn Cemetery was actually part of the rural cemetery movement.  The movement basically had three concepts.  The first concept was that cemeteries should be created on the outskirts of cities and towns rather than alongside churches.  Secondly, burying and commemorating the dead was best done in a tranquil and beautiful natural setting.  Finally, cemeteries were places for the living.  In fact, rural cemeteries were designed and intended for public use. Monuments, statues, fountains, gardens and footpaths were used to create a park-like setting for walks, picnics and other outdoor activities.    The popularity of rural cemeteries eventually led to the establishment of public parks in the United States.  Woodlawn definitely has that park-like feel.


Though its true of other local cemeteries, Woodlawn’s residents are interwoven with the stories that make up Chemung County history.  The following are just samples of those stories.

Through the Network to Freedom, the National Park Service is trying to connection historical sites, museums and interpretive programs across the country that are associated with the Underground Railroad.  Since  freedom seekers (like Henry Washington, Lear Green, and Daniel Webster), abolitionists ( like Judge Ariel Thurston, John Robinson, Francis Hall and Simeon Benjamin) and Underground Railroad workers (like Jervis Langdon and John W. Jones) are buried at Woodlawn, the cemetery is part of the Network to Freedom.  In fact, four other sites in Chemung County are part of the Network as well.

Several Civil War veterans are buried at Woodlawn and originally Confederate Prisoners of War were also buried there.  Anticipating a certain number of deaths, the Federal Government paid the City of Elmira $300 to lease a half acre of land at Woodlawn (the area would later be expanded) and agreed to pay the caretaker of the cemetery, John W. Jones, to bury any Confederate dead (originally paid $40 dollars a month for his services, Jones later renegotiated his contract and was paid $2.50 per burial).    At the prison camp the dead were placed into prisoner-made coffins with their name, rank, regiment, and date of death inscribed on the lid.  That same information was written on a slip of paper, put into in a sealed jar and placed inside the coffin with the body.  From the prison camp, the coffins were transported nine at a time to Woodlawn for burial.  Each grave was assigned a number and Jones kept a careful record of where each soldier was buried. At each grave a wooden headboard was placed with the soldier’s information written in lead paint.   In 1877, the section where Confederate soldiers were buried was designated the Woodlawn National Cemetery.

Along with eleven United States Congressmen (John Arnot Jr., Gen. Alexander Diven, J. Sloat Fassett, Thomas Flood Judge Hiram Grey, Lewis Henry, William Irvine, Thomas Maxwell, Hosea Hunt Rockwell, Horace Boardman Smith and Asher Tyler) two governors are buried at Woodlawn.  Lucius Robinson was the governor of New York from 1877-1879. 

The other man was a governor of Wisconsin and not New York.  I know what you thinking how in the heck did we get a Wisconsin governor.  Though born in New York State, Alexander Randall rose to political prominence in Wisconsin.  After serving one term in the state assembly, he served 2 terms as governor from 1859 to 1861.   Perhaps as a reward for raising the most troops during the first few months of the Civil War (18 regiments, 10 artillery batteries and 3 Calvary units) Lincoln appointed Randall the United States Minister to the Vatican.  Randall soon discovered he disliked the post and returned to the United States after just 6 weeks.  Apparently Lincoln didn’t take offense and appointed Randall Assistant Postmaster General. Under President Andrew Johnson, Randall was promoted to Postmaster General. In 1869 Randall and his wife (who was from Elmira) settled in a home on the corner of West Water and Gunnip Avenue (the site of the former Congregation B’ Nai Israel). 

Other local writers joining Mark Twain at Woodlawn include  Anna Campbell Palmer, Ausburn Towner, Harriet Maxwell Converse, Clara Clemens and Joel and Esther Steele.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Teachable Moment

By  Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

On September 21, I headed to Horseheads High School to give students a lesson about archives, primary sources and their uses.  It went well, the students seemed to have fun, and it got me thinking.  Unless someone is a historian or a researcher, most people don’t know what makes an archive different from a library or what a primary sources is.  This, I thought, was a teachable moment especially since I had the lesson all written out already.
When I give tours of the archives, I usually like to start out by asking if my visitors know the difference between an archives and a library.  I usually get an assortment of answers.  A popular one is that libraries have books while archives have everything else.  This is a pretty good answer, but the best one is that archives have primary sources while libraries have secondary sources. 
So, what is a primary source?  What’s a secondary source?  A primary source is something created as part of or at the time of a historical event.  Some examples include, but are not limited to, letters, diaries, receipts, newspapers and ledgers.  A secondary source, on the other hand, is something about a historical event created long after the fact.  The key thing about secondary sources is that they are an interpretation of the facts as created by someone who wasn’t there to experience them.  Secondary sources include books, school papers, documentaries, scholarly articles and museum exhibits.
Here’s an example of the difference:
Primary Source - Gen. Sullivan’s orders to his men on the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. 

Secondary Source - Book about Gen. Sullivan and the  Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. 

So, why do we care about primary sources?   What can they tell us?  Firstly, they can tell us discrete facts.   This marriage certificate, for example, tells us that Sam Clemens married Olivia Langdon on February 2, 1870.   It provides us both with a date for an event, but also as proof that the event occurred, in many cases the only proof. 

Primary sources can also tell us how conditions changed over time.  What kinds of conditions change over time?  Some of the big ones are demographics, economics and environmental.  In our archives, for example, we have a series of ledgers which record daily weather patterns in Elmira from 1871 to 1876.  Some other common records tracking changing conditions include census data, vital statistics, business ledgers and stock price indexes.  
Primary sources can also tell us how people felt about a certain topic. In some cases, it can be how a specific individual felt about something, like you would find in a letter or a diary.  In other cases it’s more about how society as a whole felt about something, like advertisements, plays, literature and other cultural artifacts. 

Lastly, primary sources, especially photographs, film and audio recordings, can show us what something looked or sounded like.  Look at  this view of Hanover Square.  Would you have believed it ever looked like that if we didn’t have the picture?

So, if primary sources are so great, why bother with secondary sources at all?  Because primary sources can’t tell the whole story.  For one, they’re too specific and thus lack context.  Think back to the marriage certificate.  It told us when Samuel Clemens and Olivia Langdon were married, but didn’t tell us anything else about the couple, like the groom was actually Mark Twain. 
Primary sources often tend to be incomplete.  Because they were made for a specific purpose and not expected to survive, people didn’t always include information they thought was irrelevant.  Dates, for example.  I can’t tell you how many theater programs we have in our collections with no years because the theatres didn’t think it was important.  Not to mention photographs.  No one puts last names on family photos because everyone knows exactly who Aunt Peggy is. 
By their nature, secondary sources bring the information in primary sources together to give us a bigger picture than we can get from a single thing.  They also help to provide context into which we can place the information from our primary sources.  A biography of Mark Twain helps us understand why his marriage was significant.  An article in a local history magazine about area theatres stars helps us narrow down the date of the program and a family tree tells us Aunt Peggy’s last name. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Elmira Compact

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

In preparation for  my program Vote for Me, I’ve probably gathered enough information for several lectures and blog posts.  For example, there’s political families, Woodlawn Cemetery’s place in political history and presidential sightings.  One event that caught my attention was the Elmira Compact.

At the turn of the 20th century, vote buying was a common practice not only in Chemung County but across the country.  Men were given money, jobs and other rewards for voting a particular way or in some cases for not voting.  By 1905 vote buying was a drain on the local parties’ bank accounts.  That year Republican chairman J. Sloat Fassett wrote and published a letter in The Elmira Advertiser to the Democratic chairman William H. Lovell.  In the letter, Fassett proposed the “Elmira Compact,” which outlawed vote buying, limited campaign expenditures (no more than $40 dollars) and sought to prosecute anyone involved in bribing voters.  Both parties accepted the compact and Lovell and Daniel Sheehan signed it for the Democrats and Fassett and Seymour Lowman for the Republicans.

The wave of good feeling led to both parties nominating the same candidate for mayor in 1906.   That candidate was 78 year old Zebulon Brockway.    Best known as the first superintendent of the Elmira Reformatory, Brockway only served one term as mayor.  His primary focus was to improve city government.  During his term of office, Brockway tackled financial spending by reorganizing the city’s business structure and paid off debts instead of refunding them, revised the city’s charter and made extensive improvements throughout the city. 

(Now for the shameless plug.)  To learn more learn more about Chemung County’s political history, join us Thursday night at 7 pm for the kickoff to our  Fall Lecture Series.