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:

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