by Susan Zehnder
Last year, someone accused us of collecting objects just to squirrel them away into drawers. A thought that if true, might explain the overflowing condition of the museum’s storage areas. Drawers, closets, and storage rooms around the building are full of artifacts and documents connected to life in Chemung County. The Historical Society doesn’t collect items just to accumulate them, we collect them to tell a more complete story of Chemung County’s history. That story is more fluid than many people think.
Items on display and in the archives come mostly from donations. Before being added to the collection, they are reviewed by a committee made up of members of the public, staff, and board members. Staff at the museum are trained to evaluate an item’s potential and the reasons why things are declined vary. Sometimes it’s because we already have an item, or the item has no connection to Chemung County. Other times, items are in poor condition, or we’re not able to care for them properly. Only when the committee feels an item helps tell a more complete story of the area, is it accepted. Our collection is constantly growing, and currently the number of items we hold is well into the hundreds of thousands.
No matter what anyone thinks, museums are not neutral spaces, and that might be different if humans weren’t involved. It’s also the reason your grandparents’ visit to the Chemung Valley History Museum does not look exactly the same as yours today. For instance, the Barbie lunchbox on display in the Bank Gallery often surprises people.
The museum’s mission:
“To deepen our understanding of history and to provide an appreciation of our community’s place in state and national history,” requires us to constantly refresh our understanding of what our community looks like in order to tell the stories.
A great example of this can be seen in our new exhibit, “Faces of Chemung County.” At first glance on display in the Howell Gallery, are nine framed portraits from our permanent collection. The portraits capture a likeness of each person and show off the artists’ skills. But, and here’s where art museums and history museums differ, the images are accompanied by artifacts, carefully chosen to tell more of each person’s story.
From the paintings and drawings, we learn about the person by noticing what is and isn’t included. Asking questions — what are they wearing, are there any objects included in the image, what is their posture, how are they wearing their hair, what hand gestures are they making, or even what color of clothes they have on — gives us information from the artists’ point of view. It is a visual story. The artists have left nothing to chance, no choice is random. Yet, the two-dimensional images tell only part of each person’s story. The artifacts nearby add depth to our understanding. Their physical presence reminds us the people were real.
The reason each artifact was included varies. Objects might have belonged to the person, or might be linked to them in some other way. For example, near the portrait of Colonel Liscom, who fought in the Civil War, there’s a saddle and blanket. The saddle is from the time period but he didn’t own this one. The saddle blanket was one he owned, but came from a slightly later time period. We’ve included objects that might be tools of their trade, evidence of their social class, bits from hobbies, or might even reference something about them now missing or unrecorded. And by the way, the object that the donor feared we were squirreling away is currently on display in this exhibit.
“Faces of Chemung County” is not about rewriting history, it’s about using what we know in the 21st century to step back and get a deeper understanding of particular people, events, and stories from our past. Here, we have the advantage of stepping into nine different pairs of shoes to better understand who these people were in society, what choices they made, and the pathways they followed. We can see how their lives might seem similar or different from our own.
Better understanding the past helps us make sense of our current events, society, and culture and can guide our future choices.
The Historical Society is continuing to add to our collection and we are currently searching for objects to include in an upcoming exhibit on Polish culture. This is the first of many ethnic groups planned for future exhibits, and we encourage you to think about donating items to help preserve our county’s history for generations to come.
Museum hours are 10 am – 5 pm Monday through Saturday.
Susan Zehnder is the Education Director at the Chemung County Historical Society. For more information about the museum and to see more of their blog, click here.