As my internship with Museum on Main Street (MoMS) comes to a close, I have reflected on how lucky I am to have seen all the nuts and bolts, or rather the heart and soul, that go into this operation in D.C. and around the nation. In my months at MoMS, I’ve logged over 30 close out reports—summaries from each venue—for nearly every exhibition currently on the road. Over and over, I’ve been astounded by the dedication of each host site. I witnessed both large and small teams rallying together to impact their communities positively.
While there is something remarkable to say about every report that makes its way back to the D.C. office, there is one story I will never forget. While hosting Journey Stories, Buchanan Center for the Arts (BCA) in Monmouth, Illinois, decided to tell the local story of Mexican Boxcar Camps—communities of immigrants in the early 20th century who were recruited to work on the railroad and lived in the same boxcars that transported them.
While flipping through the pages of BCA’s report, I was struck first by the beautiful photography; all images were collected from local families, and each conveyed a unique American experience. As I continued through the report, I was further taken by the way the exhibition transcended simple historical interpretation and created connections to the present.
“I saw people living parallel lives in the community without much crossover,” said Susan Twomey, director of BCA. “I thought it would be a good idea for people in my […] community to meet their neighbors and see what it took for them to come here and what it takes for them to stay.” In doing so, BCA helped blur long-established lines dividing two cultures by allowing many Mexican families an opportunity to tell their stories as a part of the cultural fabric of the community. “As I watched the Mexican families explain their stories or describe the people in the photographs, you could just see their shoulders rise,” Twomey said. “You could hear the pride in their voices.”
For Twomey the most moving moment was when Jeff Libman, an Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar, came to speak about the emotional, physical, and psychological challenges immigrants face today. At the end of the talk, Twomey said one woman raised her arm to speak. The woman thanked Libman for opening her eyes and apologized for the way she had treated these same people in the past. Twomey said the courage to admit that in front of a room of peers brought Twomey to tears.
The story of BCA is only one example of the immense impact that cultural centers can have on their communities. For me, it was also an example of MoMS’ ability to inspire and encourage every community to explore who they are. As my internship ends, I am grateful to the MoMS team and all their partners who have inspired me to move forward with the same dedication, courage, hard work, and spirit.
-- Jenny Wiley, Museum on Main Street intern, Washington, DC