by Allie Smith
The world’s largest museum has come to Georgia, thanks in part to a University of West Georgia professor and her students.
“Crossroads: Change in Rural America” is a traveling exhibition the Smithsonian Institution is helping bring to life across the United States. It is part of Museum on Main Street,
a collaboration between the Smithsonian and state humanities councils nationwide.
The purpose of the exhibit is to bring awareness to the connection that we all have to rural America as a valuable piece of society. It is currently on view at the Thomaston Mills Building in Thomaston, Georgia, through Oct. 4.
Dr. Ann McCleary, UWG professor and director of the Center for Public History, co-curated this exhibit through the Smithsonian Exhibition Traveling Service. McCleary has been a key player in the development and production from the very beginning when it was just an idea to it being displayed in communities across the country.
“You get to see it through its first year tour, then you get to see it come to your state, and then you get to be involved with it all the way to the community level,” reflected McCleary. “It’s a pretty incredible experience.”
The exhibit is designed to enlighten and inspire its attendees on the impact rural America has on each of their lives.
The Smithsonian Institution reports that in 1900, about 40 percent of Americans lived
in rural areas; by 2010, that estimate had shrunk to less than 18 percent of the U.S.
population. However, only 10 percent of the U.S. landmass is considered urban.
McCleary explained that while the exhibit’s audience is mainly small towns, city-dwellers can also benefit by visiting these pop-up displays.
“Rural and urban America are intertwined – one can’t live without the other,” she said. “A lot of us have roots in rural America. Many people like to hike and experience nature. And on the economic side, rural America is growing the food we all eat.”
Throughout this experience, McCleary explored the limitless opportunities beyond her classroom. Working closely with Smithsonian staff, she was able to strengthen and grow her knowledge regarding public history, which she incorporates into her teaching.
UWG students were also involved in the curation process. Over the course of two years, McCleary recruited several graduate students to contribute key elements of the exhibit.
“We are all about student-centered learning,” said McCleary. “We try to involve students in all of our projects because it is a tremendous experience.”
Davis Winkie is one of the students who worked closely with McCleary on the project. He helped coordinate with the towns that will host or have hosted the exhibit; assisted with assembly and breakdown of displays; and managed shipments of the materials.
“I’m learning the importance of community in Georgia’s rural towns along with the amazing effect public history work can have in these communities,” said Winkie.
The exhibition contains five freestanding units with photographs, text panels, objects, and interactive touchscreen kiosks featuring video and audio content. The exhibit itself, however, is really only a small piece of the project.
With each location, the communities are encouraged to incorporate their own stories and make the exhibit unique to them.
“They do whatever makes sense to their community, so every site tells a different story,” McCleary concluded. “The exhibit comes to the communities, but the final product depends on what the community does with it.”