Monday, July 10, 2023

Behind the Scenes

 By Monica Groth, Curator


This year, the Chemung County Historical Society celebrates its 100th anniversary. To kick off our commemorative year, we’ve opened the exhibit It’s About Time: Celebrating 100 Years of the Chemung County Historical Society.

This exhibit is truly special – it gives you, the viewer, a behind the scenes look into the sort of work the Historical Society does. What is it we’re up to all day? What’s the point of having us around? It also features some great objects, specifically a 1923 American LaFrance Brockway Torpedo Fire Engine, and photos and documents discovered in our institutional archives and displayed for the first time.

The gallery being prepared for installation

The exhibit endeavors to answer questions people might have about the purpose of a historical society:

How do we add new items to the collection?

·        Well, donated items are assigned special numbers, known as accession numbers, when they are accepted into our collection. In the exhibit, you can see examples of how we write that number on different materials – fabric, paper, earrings made of human hair…

How do we take care of the collection?

·        Keeping stuff in good shape for over a hundred years is no mean feat. In this section of the exhibit, we’ll explain how materials break down as they age. Temperature and humidity must be kept in check in all storage areas and galleries to prevent chemical reactions or mold growth from occurring. Check out the equipment we use to monitor the climate in our collections. Look through a microscope at an example of mold that can damage historic items. Check out the magnified verdigris forming on a 150-year-old mechanical pencil, and watch as light causes a modern newspaper to fade over time.

This case highlights how different materials, including wood, metal, glass, and cotton age.

A magnified view of the common mold of the genus Aspergillus seen through a microscope lens. Molds can cause great damage to museum collections if relative humidity (average moisture in the air) is not kept between 30-55%

How do we design exhibits?

·        It’s been a unique experience for me, the curator, to install an exhibit about exhibits. Exhibitions are planned months in advance and require the help of many collaborators. There are always engineering projects that I encounter when installing an exhibition. For example, the image below showcases a stained-glass window lit from behind by an array of lights constructed specifically for this display (many thanks to volunteer Kevin Wechtaluk for assisting me with its creation)!

These three objects simplify the exhibit process from research to completion

How do we recover from disaster?

·        Following the flood of 1972, nearly 60% of the Society’s library was damaged (or outright lost). Volunteers painstakingly worked to rescue items, freezing a lot of archival documents to slow their deterioration. Many items in our collection still bear signs of flood damage. Interestingly, a lot of our donation records were destroyed in the flood. When going through the institutional archives in researching this exhibit, we found far fewer records before that fateful year. On display, you can check out a severely waterlogged and muddy visitor register kept at the Museum (then located at 304 Williams St.) at the time of the flood.

 How do we help researchers?

·        As a society, we want to make our county’s history accessible to anyone interested in learning about it. Our Booth Library, named for our founder Arthur Booth (whose 1928 wool suit is also on display in the gallery), is open to researchers interested in looking through the maps, letters, books, and documents which comprise an archive of over 100,000 items.

Archivist Rachel Dworkin by the Library's shelf of Elmira City Directories

 How do we teach local history?

·        Since the society opened its first public museum in 1954, students have been welcomed into the Museum. Many county residents will recall their elementary school trips inside our doors to this day. Be sure to see our Educator Susan Zehnder’s June 12th blog featuring our most recent visitors. Beyond school programs, we’ve hosted excursions to historic sites around the country (including up the Mississippi River), created escape rooms, and organized antique shows. Of course, our ever-popular GhostWalk remains a favorite October event. This year, we’ve invited you all to our Birthday Party on August 26, 2023!

 How else do we share stories?

·        How do we reach out to people who can’t visit the Museum? Well…this blog is one example of our growing reach! Since our first Journal was published in 1955, we’ve created a lot of literature from which people can learn. The internet allows us to reach a worldwide audience today and we hope you continue to keep up with us here on our blog and across our social medias!

 Whose history do we tell?

·        As a society which preserves our county’s history, it’s important to ensure we are including the stories of all. For example, our Black Oral History Project highlights black voices in Chemung County, our new gallery guide pamphlet series leads visitors through the museum by focusing on different perspectives, and our Heritage Exhibit Series focuses on the history of a different immigrant community every 6 months.


We also include Native American perspectives; this pair of beaded moccasins on display was made by the Seneca

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