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Voices Spring-Summer 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “The Making of an Exhibition” by Amy Godine here.
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Volume 29

The Making of an Exhibition by Amy Godine

Every hardworking New York folklore scholar has surely tangled with material so dramatic, so rich with possibility, it seems to beg for a really great exhibition—but how to pull it off? How to put on a memorable show without professional curatorial experience, with no standing in the hothouse world of museums, with no legitimizing degree?

This is the story of a successful traveling exhibition, Dreaming of Timbuctoo, that went from a gleam in a social activist’s eye to a three-year tour of New York State and a four-column notice in the New York Times with nary a hardcore credentialed museum maven involved. I was part of this exhibition, and to my mind the story of its conception and production is as interesting as it is instructive. Are there lessons here that Voices readers can put to use? I’m no folklorist but so what — when it comes to getting a toehold in the rarefied world of exhibition production, we’re all interlopers.
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: Gerrit Smith
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: Gerrit Smith. Courtesy of Madison County Historical Society. Oneida, New York.
It started with a novel, a magazine article, and one keen reader. The novel was Russell Banks’s enthralling saga of the abolitionist John Brown, Cloudsplitter, and the magazine piece from Orion was titled, "They Called It Timbucto," by the African American Boston scholar Katherine Butler Jones. When social activist Martha Swan first encountered Banks’s novel and Jones’s moving account of her effort to locate her family’s roots in the Adirondack wilderness, she was astonished. She was working for an environmental agency at the time, living in the tiny Adirondack hamlet of Westport on Lake Champlain, only a few years out of a career as a grassroots organizer in New York City and the South. She loved the Adirondacks, but she had never thought to link the wilderness with a lost saga of political reform and racial justice.
This aspect of Adirondack history—enlivened not only by the family farm of the nation’s most renowned abolitionist but by a vanished antebellum black farm colony—was a heritage, she felt, aching to be honored. Working out of her spartan apartment, Martha Swan founded a community education project called John Brown Lives! and then set about dreaming up projects worthy of that galvanizing name...

The story was extraordinary. In 1846 the voters of New York State yet again denied free black New York males the right to vote unless they could meet a prohibitive $250 property requirement, which effectively barred them from the franchise. Gerrit Smith, a land speculator, passionate abolitionist and good friend to many black reformers, knew well the devastating impact of the antisuffrage vote on the black political elite. Giving black New Yorkers land enough to parlay into a vote was his answer to the 1846 referendum—a way of saying, OK, if land is what you need to vote, well, here it is. Let’s get started.

And so commenced the quiet, steady parceling out of one-fifth of a more than half-million-acre land fortune—a hundred and twenty thousand acres in forty- to sixty-acre lots—to three thousand African American residents of New York State. Most of the grantees, as they were called, were city dwellers, but in the end black men from almost every county in the state were represented in Smith’s 122-page inventory of grantees. Smith’s only requirements were that the grantees be black, poor, landless, sober, and between the ages of twenty-one and sixty. A heartfelt agrarian, Smith hoped fervently that his "scheme of justice and benevolence," as he called it, would enable New York African Americans to make a break from city slums, rum shops, immigrant mobs, and job discrimination for a safer, more spiritually sustaining and self-sufficient life on small farms of their own. If it helped them get a leg up on the vote, so much the better. I should add that Gerrit Smith was very happy to lose this land, some of which he’d tried and failed to unload before. Smith’s taxes were ruinous, his financial distress immense—and giving away unsalable land was as sensible an act as any. Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: Arguing the Point
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: Arguing the Point, A. F. Tait. Drawn on stone by Louis Maurer. Courtesy of The Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York.
... Long story short: the settlement effort failed. Some families moved north. A few even stuck around and tried to make a go of Adirondack life. But fifty families out of three thousand grantees isn’t much of a showing. Regional historians routinely blamed the settlement’s failure on the grantees (they were clueless, lazy, uneducable; they couldn’t hack the rigors of the Adirondack winters; their land was lousy; they were city folk at heart), or on Smith’s own craziness in thinking this could ever work. But mostly, regional historians didn’t deal with the settlement at all. Their interest was John Brown.
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit:  Black convention goers, around 1840.
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: Black convention goers, around 1840. Engraving courtesy of William Loren Katz.
...But Martha suspected there was more, and she was right. I’d never thought about the critical role of Gerrit Smith’s ten black apostles, for example—surely the most intellectually prominent, politically sophisticated group of land agents ever to attempt to settle homesteaders in northern New York. I’d never considered the suffrage angle: land for votes. I’d never seen the story framed in a wider political context. The idea that this Adirondack and giveaway project was hitched up to civil rights drew me in.

...And we needed people, lots of them. We needed volunteer researchers to help us out all over—to comb census records in Madison County, to share findings on grantees from Queens, to check out candidates for the antislavery Liberty Party in Clinton County in 1845. This was a jigsaw with a thousand scattered pieces, some of them mired in the state archives or squirreled away in the Gerrit Smith Collection at Syracuse University or buried in The Black Abolitionist Papers...
Among the volunteer researchers who labored on this project were a labor lawyer from Albany who was a long-time Gerrit Smith admirer, a Parks and Recreation worker with a passion for Adirondack social history, a site manager for the John Brown Farm, a graduate student with a keen eye for the minutiae of the census, a self-taught scholar of the vernacular architecture of Saranac Lake, an African American historic sites photographer, a retired Radcliffe College librarian, and numberless local and lay historians who contributed information about grantees from counties as remote as Erie and Ontario. We journeyed, sometimes as a group, more often solo, to the state library, county archives, Syracuse, Peterboro, the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. We made tracks. And inevitably, of course, as the findings piled up, as the circle of our story widened to include not just the brief abortive tale of Timbuctoo but the savage political context that engendered it, our vision of the exhibition grew accordingly.
John Brown Farmstead
From Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: Black Farmers at North Elba, New York. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of The Adirondack Museum. Blue Mountain Lake, New York.

...It snagged the interest of exhibition designer Stephen Horne of Kevan Moss Designs, who agreed to work on it for less than his usual fee, not for any love of losing money but because he was himself an Adirondacker with an interest in Gerrit Smith and the dream of Timbuctoo spoke to his own heart. With Stephen on board and a few crucial grants rolling in, was it time to rethink the whole concept? What if we delayed the opening, expanded the narrative and visuals, and shot for a venue as professional and ambitious as our own expectations?

Which in the Adirondacks could only mean the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake.

The benefits of an Adirondack Museum opening were immense. A regional institution would lend our shoestring production a cachet and credibility that could catapult it into a dozen venues that might not otherwise consider it. Not to speak of the exposure! Ninety thousand people visit the fourteen-building museum annually...
Black Farmers at North Elba
From Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: John Brown Farmstead. Courtesy of West Virginia State Archives, Boyd B. Stutler Collection.
...In hosting Dreaming of Timbuctoo, the Adirondack Museum gained an opportunity to expand its audience and, perhaps, its agenda. African Americans might come to recognize a connection to the region and its cultural institutions as they hadn’t felt since the early decades of John Brown Day. And if this was as big a deal for the museum as the museum’s approbation was for us, we figured they would jump.

We figured right. Dreaming of Timbuctoo would be launched at the Adirondack Museum with the full support of its staff and all the fanfare of one of its own homemade productions.
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit:  African American farmer with team of oxen in upstate New York
Panel from Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit: African American farmer with team of oxen in upstate New York. Courtesy of DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, Ithaca, New York.
Then came the bad news. For every sentence in the exhibition narrative, I needed to come up with a compelling image...The story, really, was all text, a brilliant paper trail of letters, handbills, lists and ledgers, reams of vivid quotes from radical abolitionists, lush agrarian rhetoric in the black press, resolutions at black conventions, letters from John and Mary Brown, progress reports in Frederick Douglass’ Paper (yes, Douglass too was a Gerrit Smith grantee), survey maps, long lists of grantees—but no color, no art, no stuff...


Amy Godine lives in Saratoga Springs. She is available as a lecturer through the New York Council for the Humanities speakers program.Photo of Amy Godine
Photo: Emma Dodge Hanson.

...Everybody who eventually volunteered to help out with the project—with the research, the mapping, the design—was compelled by this angle, a view of the Adirondack region from a freshly politicized vantage, a perspective that yoked Adirondack history to the national scene...that the issues of racial justice that drove Gerrit Smith and the black abolitionists 150 years ago were no less pressing today.

The full article, that is excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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