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Building a Community Exhibition and Archive: The Fenton History Center

April 28, 2021 12:29 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Upon receiving a request for historical LGBTQ+ artifacts from a local Pride group, the Fenton History Center discovered that they did not have much in their collection. The Center then committed to build a community archive by crowdsourcing materials for the exhibition Protest and Pride: The LGBTQ+ Community in Chautauqua County. The exhibition, which opened on March 31, 2021, features stories and artifacts that document the lives of the LGBTQ+ community in Chautauqua County. 

The Fenton History Center, photo courtesy of Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau

Initiative to Document the LGBTQ+ Community in Chautauqua County

In 2019, Fenton History Center Executive Director Noah Goodling was approached by Jamestown Pride who were looking to include a historical connection for their June Pride Celebration in 2020. “So I said sure, of course and went to the Fenton History Center to see what I could find on the LGBTQ+ community and found nothing,” said Goodling. “It was shocking. It was more than a simple gap, it was a complete absence.” Goodling decided that the Fenton History Center would build a community archive and exhibition dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community in Chautauqua County.

Goodling began by attending Pride meetings. “I had to tell them that we [Fenton History Center] didn’t have anything in our archives but we wanted to start by documenting the planning and implementation of Pride 2020.” 

He wrote two grants to support the project, a Humanities New York Action Grant and a Greater Hudson Heritage Network Creativity Incubator Grant (a grant partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts). “I wanted to have an exhibit that would help promote that we were seeking donations to our archives for LGBTQ+ stories and artifacts,” said Goodling. 

Community Support

The Fenton History Center received in-kind support and volunteer help from a number of local organizations including Jamestown Pride, the local PFLAG chapter, the Mental Health Association, Preservation Works/HOPE Chautauqua, the Jamestown public Market, the Robert H. Jackson Center, Jamestown City Historian, local news stations, individual professors from SUNY Jamestown Community College and SUNY Fredonia, and more. “Many of these organizations came to us to ask how they could help before we even thought to get them involved. It was one of the things that made this project special, and helped me feel that we were on the right track in serving our community.” Fenton History Center’s Curator Victoria Parker also played a key role in executing the creative and technical aspects of the exhibition. 

Crowdsourcing the Exhibition

“In the beginning, we were focusing on documenting the planning process for Pride 2020 but because of the pandemic, we had to shift,” said Goodling. After Pride 2020 was canceled, the exhibition shifted to focus on all of the interviews Goodling conducted throughout 2020 and into 2021.

“Our goal was that we wanted to be sure that we represented as many people as possible from the LGBTQ+ community and allies,” said Goodling. “We wanted to have a mosaic of different voices and by talking to a number of different people, we‘ve put together a chronology of experiences from the early 20th century to present day about what it has been like to experience being part of the LGBTQ+ community in Jamestown.” 

The Fenton History Center continues to receive donations for the collections and the exhibition.  Goodling hopes that with the opening of the exhibition, more people will donate and share their stories. “We’re starting to get some more supplemental things and we’re hoping that it’ll continue to grow,” said Goodling. Donations include written stories, audio recordings, videos, photos of places and events, and physical items. One person donated their wedding dress. Another Jamestown resident wrote a poem based on her experiences in the LGBTQ+ community. A professor at SUNY Fredonia offered to create an interpretive dance to reflect on his own experiences. 

“Part of what I wanted to do with this project was to open it up, maybe further than we usually would, with what we were collecting. There’s all sorts of ways that people connect with being LGBTQ+, so we wanted people to contribute something that is representative of how they have connected with their identity.”

Reaching and Engaging New Audiences

Since the start of this initiative, the Center has reached new audiences. “We have stronger partnerships with LGBTQ+ groups and we have new school groups visiting us to see the exhibition,” said Goodling. The other week a class from Jamestown Community College that is studying the intersection of identity and gender identity visited the exhibition. “There is a whole new group of people that we are reaching; before, they just didn’t have a reason to associate with the museum.”

Goodling wants this exhibition and archive to educate people and help strike down prejudice. “I want to get a community dialogue going and get people thinking in new ways by introducing them to different aspects of their community that they might not have thought about before or even encountered.”

Protest and Pride exhibition entryway

Identifying Priorities

“We’re a small museum with a small staff and limited resources,” said Goodling. “Some people might be intimidated by a project like this or choose not to do a project like this because they think that it’s going to take up too much time or that it might not give them a return on investment.” In terms of taking up a significant amount of time, Goodling says yes, but this project became a priority for the Center. “It’s something that we chose to focus on and I would encourage other museum professionals like us to ask themselves; are we doing work that is just supporting a narrative that is already in place and reaching the same people? Or are we doing work that is pushing our organization forward by asking our community to consider new perspectives?”

Learn more about the Fenton History Center: https://fentonhistorycenter.org/

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