At the end June 2019, MANY staff traveled to the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse along with a dozen museum staff and volunteers from around the state to kick off their participation in the NYS Tour of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) Program Traveling Exhibition Water/Ways. Carol Harsh, the Director of the Museum on Main Street Program joined us for the introductory training. Our goal was to help the Erie Canal Museum uncrate and install the Water/Ways exhibition for its New York State debut, the first time New York State has participated in the 25-year history of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program. As the exhibition ends its tour at the East Hampton Historical Society on Long Island, we reflect on its journey across the state.
Host museums traveled to the Erie Canal Museum in June 2019 to learn about how to install the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways exhibition
The Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions are designed for small-town museums, libraries and cultural organizations to serve as a gathering place and catalyst for conversations about American history, art, and culture. Six museums were chosen to host Water/Ways: the Erie Canal Museum, Aurora Masonic Center, Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, Chapman Historical Museum, Hudson River Maritime Museum, and the East Hampton Historical Society. While the exhibition, which featured interactive panels and kiosks exploring the endless motion of the water cycle, water’s effect on landscape, settlement and migration, and its impact on culture and spirituality, was installed similarly at each museum, museums added to the visitor experience by curating their own water-hemed exhibitions based on local histories and relevance to their communities.Grants from state agencies, industry partners, and private foundations helped MANY leverage program and material purchases for each site including frames from Gaylord Archival, an app developed by OnCell, and coloring books created by artist Carol Coogan.
Host museums leveraged the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways to invite local, state and federal representatives to attend the opening of the exhibition and accompanying programming. Pictured NY-19 Congressman Antonio Delgado (center) attended the Hudson River Maritime Museum Water/Ways opening. MANY Executive Director Erika Sanger (left) and Hudson River Maritime Museum Executive Director Lisa Cline (right)
Same Exhibit, Different Spaces
The Water/Ways exhibition is contained and transported in twenty large crates. The panels (manufactured by MANY Industry Partner Hadley Exhibits) are curved, mimicking the rippling movement of water. Each host site displayed the exhibition in a unique way that best fit their space. The Erie Canal Museum used their large rectangular room with high ceilings that was separate from the main museum exhibitions. The room overlooks Erie Boulevard where once, instead of asphalt, water that carried goods and people from Albany to Buffalo on the Erie Canal that helped to make New York State the Empire State. The Aurora Masonic Center partnered with Wells College where there was room for the exhibition in the college library that was easily accessible for students. The Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village (BNHV) utilized their exhibition space that provided additional room between the panels as well as their corresponding local exhibition. In contrast, the Chapman Historical Museum used a smaller space and the exhibition felt like a more intimate experience. The Hudson River Maritime Museum was able to place Water/Ways in the middle of its main exhibition space surrounded by its maritime collection that seemingly blended into the Smithsonian’s exhibition itself. The final host site, the East Hampton Historical Society had the Water/Ways exhibition opened to the public for two weeks until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the museum to close its physical doors and shift all programming online.
The Chapman Historical Museum
The exhibition took a new form in each space without altering physically. While the order of the panels and locations of the interactive kiosks remained the same, each space provided a different perspective of the exhibition itself.
Strengthening Community Participation and Partnerships
The Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions are designed for small town museums who are encouraged to develop partnerships within their community, such as libraries or other cultural organizations to create complementary exhibits, help host public programs, and facilitate educational discussions. Partnerships like between the Aurora Masonic Center, Aurora Historical Society, and Wells College strengthened community relationships and in Aurora’s case made the Water/Ways exhibition possible by providing a physical space.
Other host museums strengthened their partnerships with their local libraries like the Erie Canal Museum partnering with the Baldwinsville Public Library which hosted historic photos of Syracuse and the Erie Canal.
The Chapman Historical Museum partnered with the Crandell Library that hosted “Two Canoes: Water in Abenaki Stories,” “The Lake George on the Water” video project, and hosted a local exhibition on the story of the Champlain Canal and water quality in the Hudson River watershed.
Despite having a limited physical opening, the East Hampton Historical Society shifted their community partnerships and collaborative programming online. They partnered with the American Lore Theatre to present a dramatic reading of the play Salt Water People. The reading happened over Zoom and felt like a classic radio broadcast of a story based on the real folklore of East Hampton Society. Over 80 people joined.
An upcoming presentation by Daniel Rinn (who presented in Aurora, Syracuse, Kingston, and Albany) “What is a Waterway, Anyway?” will also present his lecture virtually for the East Hampton Historical Society. Rinn’s research focuses on the history of the American environmental movement.
The other large partnership throughout the Water/Ways exhibition was with the NY Folklore who helped forge partnerships with folklorists to develop programming.
NY Folklore helped coordinate two Water/Ways programs for the Erie Canal Museum Adrian John of the Seneca Nation Hawk Clan demonstrated making a traditional Haudenosaunee water drum and Chris Thomas and His Smoke Dancers performed Haudenosaunee Song and Social Dance.
BNHV hosted an Indigenous Peoples Weekend. Folklorist Christine Zinni helped connect BNHV to the Tonawanda and Tuscororan Nations who helped plan various programs including a wampum belt demonstration, significance of the water drum and horn rattles, and a beadwork workshop. The weekend-long event was the highest attended Water/Ways program for BNHV.
The Niagara River Dancers at theBuffalo Niagara Heritage Village’s Indignenous Peoples Weekend
NY Folklore also led an instructive video production workshops under the Smithsonian’s Stories: YES initiative to help students connect to local history and understand its significance by building skills in interviewing, research, and creating non-fiction narratives that are shared with the community through exhibitions, social media, and digital video exhibition kiosks. Students from the Amsterdam Environmental Study Team Program were instructed by NY Folklore Executive Director Dr. Ellen McHale on how to conduct an interview, and Media Consultant and Communications Lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Dr. Lillian Spina-Caza provided helpful resources for the students. The students created several videos about Water/Ways in their own communities which you can see on our YouTube Channel here.
The Arts Center of the Capital Region hosted a Water/Ways camp that created a digital lab for students to also create their own Water/Ways videos for Stories: YES! The week long camp included local site visits with the NYS Canal Corporation that provided filming site locations. The camp taught students skills and techniques of digital filmmaking and editing, how to conduct an interview, and how to tell a visual story of their local water way systems.
Water/Ways traveled almost 800 miles, engaged 24,000 people and nearly 1,000 students throughout its NYS tour. Beyond the numbers, it created new community partnerships and strengthened existing ones, helped the museums reach new audiences with new programs, and brought a national Smithsonian exhibition to a community that otherwise might not have had the opportunity.
“Visitors repeatedly said the Water/Ways exhibit was great, but what they often mentioned was the supplemental local exhibits about the history of the Champlain canal and the regional environmental political cartoons of Mark Wilson,” said Timothy Weidner, Executive Director of the Chapman Historical Museum in his closeout report. “Connecting the broad themes of Water/Ways to local content really helped engage our audience.”
“This was the first time that our three organizations had worked together on something this size,” wrote Tiffany Raymond, Reference, Outreach, and Special Collections Librarian at Wells College in her closeout report. “It was great to access parts of the community that we hadn’t served before.”
The New York tour of the Water/Ways exhibition was made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, Hadley Exhibits, Inc., the New York State Canal Corporation, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Folk Art programming was sponsored by NY Folklore, and supported by the New York State Regional Economic Development Initiative, a program of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
MANY is excited to announce that we will be bringing the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program back to New York State in 2023 and 2024 with Voice and Votes: Democracy in America. Voices and Votes is based on a major exhibition that is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The MoMS adaptation will have many of the same dynamic features (historical and contemporary photos, educational and archival videos, engaging multimedia interactives with short games and additional footage, photos, and historical objects like campaign souvenirs, voter memorabilia, and protest material. This exhibition will travel to twelve host sites across New York State and will culminate in a New York State specific traveling exhibition with contributions from New York State museums.
Learn more about the next MoMS Traveling Exhibition here: Voices and Votes: American Democracy