Hands-On Exhibit-Building by Jessica Armstrong
This semester in History 627--Museum and Historic Site Interpretation: Principles and Practice--my class is working on an exhibit about the Baldwin Chapel School, a small private church school for African American children in High Point. Rosetta Baldwin started the school in her living room and ran it for nearly 50 years! With this project, our goal has been to capture voices that have not previously been recognized in the historical record of High Point and to tell these people's stories. The exhibit will open at the High Point Museum this May and run through the summer. Afterwards, we will offer it to the Baldwin School for long-term installation in its new school building.
We began our research with a black and white photograph of 42 children who attended the school in 1963 and an incomplete list of names. At first, I thought this was going to be an insurmountable task. How were we possibly going to identify these people and tell their stories? We started our research by digging around in the public records, looking at vital statistics and city directories. But we were only coming up with a few scraps of details on these people's lives. When it seemed like we were never going to get anywhere, a few people from class attended a Saturday church service at the Baldwin's Chapel Seventh-Day Adventist Church in High Point. That afternoon we finally broke through, and began getting names and contacts within the community. In about one month's time, we went from having a picture of unidentified faces and some scraps of documentary evidence about these children, to having almost 2/3 of the people in the photograph identified along with interviews with several of the students in the picture.
With this project, we have a rare opportunity to be out there in the field gathering primary source material and creating oral histories. There is nothing more exciting than actually making history with our own hands. Instead of sitting in a classroom reading and theorizing about what other museum professionals have done, we are out in the field meeting community members and doing first-hand research. We are learning by experience about all of the challenges and rewards of building an exhibit from scratch. Most importantly, there is a sense of accomplishment looking at where we are now, and a sense of pride in having come this far in such a short period of time. What started as a photograph has now turned into a full fledged exhibit. We have built something from the ground up and have learned lessons that we could not have learned by just sitting in a classroom.