Friday, May 29, 2015

The Students Tell All

by the Elmira College "Doing Public History" Class

Time flew over our six weeks taking the course and our four weeks here at the museum. At the beginning of this experience, many of us were uncertain of what “public history” would entail and how you would “do it”. Reading The Modern Temper by Lynn Dumenil before starting our exhibit gave us a good background on the 1920s but was dry and strained the brain. To also give us the tools to build the exhibit, we were assigned interpretive talks, where we picked an object and used it to tell a story.

These prior discussions helped prepare us for our time at the museum, but many of us did not have experience with primary source research. While some of us were able to stay with our original topics, others had trouble even finding one, due to the lack of resources and interest level of the students. Once we all found a topic that suited us, looking through the archives became an enjoyable objective. We found information by looking through old documents, pictures, and artifacts. Some interesting examples were playbills from theatres around Elmira, old police journals, Iszard’s blueprints, cooking recipes, and letters from the Federation Farm.

Writing our research paper based off our topics gave us a helpful guideline for creating the exhibit, although the Chicago citation style was difficult to learn. The most trying part of the entire class was attempting to organize ourselves into groups for the exhibit. Pairing the individual topics together was difficult to conceptualize since our topics varied so much. Once in groups though, it was easy to get our ideas down but challenging to refine them making sure it was at an 8th grade reading level. During this time, it was common to hear exasperated commentary such as “What do 8th graders even know?!”

When we had finished our section labels, we moved on to attempting to write our overall exhibit label. Here we struggled with finding an overall conceptual idea for our exhibit, which would bring everything together. We had many ideas but making them coherent on beautiful Friday morning proved almost impossible.

With that dark day behind us, we moved on to a very important part of exhibit planning: choosing objects. It was more difficult for the conceptual groups to find relevant materials for their image captions, than it was for other groups. But having the previous research experience helped us identify the objects we wanted to include.

This process has definitely been a journey, both in terms of history and learning the behind the scenes workings of a history museum. We created a learning experience that will last longer than the typical college term paper and will be seen more than just our professors.

We are excited to share our research and hard work with you!
See their finished product here:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Saving for the Future

by Erin Doane, curator

The building that now houses the Chemung County Historical Society was once the original Chemung Canal bank. It opened in 1833 as the first bank in Elmira. Amman Beardsley designed and built the two and a half story brick structure, combining elements of Greek Revival and Federal styles.  The brick construction was unusual because most buildings in Elmira were made of wood at that time.

Chemung Canal Trust Co., c. 1905
In 1868, a third floor was added.  The new windows and cornice were done in the Italianate style. The banking facilities were located on the first floor, business tenants occupied the second floor, and the new third floor had rental apartments for single young men. Noted architects Pierce and Bickford renovated the building in 1903. At that time, decorative features such as mahogany counters and terrazzo flooring were added as well as two more vaults. Visitors can see the large vaults in our main gallery.

Bank Vaults at the museum
The Chemung Canal Bank was originally chartered in the 1860s as publically owned company. The Arnot family took over ownership of the bank in 1857 and ran it as a private business until 1903 when it returned to public ownership. In 1920, the bank moved to new headquarters at the corner of State and Water Streets. For many years after that this building housed law offices and apartments. The Chemung County Historical Society purchased the building and it opened as a museum in 1982.

Many features of the banking floor remain 
in the museum gallery including the wood 
columns, terrazzo flooring, and tin ceiling.
People deposited their savings here when it was still an active bank. Money was kept safe in the formidable steel and concrete vaults. Many people also kept a stash of cash and change at home. The museum has a great collection of small savings banks ranging from the 1870s through the 1980s. We have wooden, metal, and plastic banks and even a couple mechanical banks. Here are a few examples:

The Tammany Bank of 1873 is a mechanical bank. 
When “Boss” Tweed is handed a coin he puts it into his pocket.

The Union Bank, made by Kenton Brand 
around 1905, has a combination lock.

Traditional piggy bank that is also a souvenir of Elmira, early 20th century

Cast iron camel, rabbit, and elephant banks, early 20th century

A generic Bank bank from the early 20th century

Wooden Presbyterian Church bank “used to 
House Money and to Pay Off Mortgage,” 1930s

The Uncle Sam’s Register bank from the 1930s 
records change as it is deposited and has an 
added security feature – the bank will lock 
when the first $.25 is added and it will stay 
locked until it reaches $10.00.

These banks from Mechanics Savings Bank of Elmira and Elmira Bank & 
Trust Co. from the 1940s record the amount of change as it is deposited.

The plastic Tarco Juke Bank, made around 1948, lights up when a coin is deposited.

Chemung Canal bank produced for its 150th anniversary in 1983.