The Chemung Valley History Museum wanted to develop a new exhibition. We began the process by talking with several groups of local residents, including a high school history class. There was uniform agreement in all the groups that the sort of chronological presentation that characterizes most long-term local history exhibits was not interesting to most people (been there, done that, they said). But, said a student, "wouldn't it be cool if you could see how people our age lived? what their lives were like?" There have been some other great exhibits on teenagers (Chicago and New Jersey) but we wanted to see what it might be like here. We asked non-teenage groups about what they thought--and suddenly their faces lit up and they began discussing their own teenage years. Teenagers it would be.
Often, this kind of idea languishes until a museum staff finds funding to pursue the next step. But the team in Elmira decided all the resources needed were enthusiasm and a bit of time. They held community conversations with several local groups of seniors and set a booth asking for information at the county fair.
What themes did we see in our object post-its? Independence, gender, romance, big world issues. What themes did we not see? Cultural diversity, the role of religion, class, and neighborhoods. We know those themes exist in this community, but we now know we need to work a bit harder on collecting that information.