Behind the Stanchions

Photography by Daniel Sarch | (Left) From the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center. Rochester, N.Y. (Middle) Collected from Rochester Municipal Archives. (Right) From the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center. Rochester, N.Y.

Rochester is the third most populous city in New York, right under New York City and Buffalo. The culture in the city is rich with historical roots, whether it be from Susan B. Anthony’s influence on the Women’s Rights movement or the Abolition movement with Fredrick Douglass.

However, there is a lot of Rochester’s rich history that goes untold from textbooks. Though these untold stories are kept alive by oral history in some families, museums can also aspace where you can explore and learn more about them.

From the Cracks

A lot of history classes in high school have a framework where it primarily focuses on the Western civilizations: Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, and the United States of America to highlight the main figures. If you’re lucky, some high schools might give world history courses that shed some light on cultures like China or Africa.

History is so much more than what is restricted into our textbooks, as described by Howard Eagle, a retired Rochester City School District high school teacher and adjunct professor for SUNY Brooklyn.

“There is only one history — the history of mankind,” Eagle said.

For the stories that fall from the cracks of textbooks, we have to go to people who experienced the events themselves. This is where museums become the epicenters for these stories to exist.

To preserve this history, the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) has worked tirelessly to collect first party evidence to share some light on the lives that didn’t make it onto the pages.

Preserving History

Kathryn Murano Santos is the senior director of collections and exhibitions at the RMSC.

“We can learn from the successes and failures of the past. [History]  is [often] told from a singular perspective ... but with museums, we can tell a story from multiple points of view — what actually happened versus the story [told only by] the people in power,” Murano Santos stated.

Currently, the RMSC is hosting several exhibits highlighting some of these stories. There is the "Flight to Freedom" exhibit, focusing on the paths freedom seekers utilized to build their new lives, and how they ultimately joined with Rochester activists in their fight to end slavery. 

Alice Mathis, an individual who donated her personal belongings to the museum in the 1990s, is featured in the "Changemakers" exhibit focusing on the global impacts of Rochester women. exhibit focusing on the global impacts of Rochester women.

“People have to learn to — whether they want to or not — live together and if this will help more people to understand better, it is fine whatever you decide to do with my things,” Mathis said.

Then there is the Take It Down! Organizing Against Racism exhibit which came about in the wake of the removal of a panel from the Dentzel Carousel from Ontario Beach Park in Rochester, N.Y. and opening a discussion on the ways to detect and to learn from internalized and structural racism. This was in collaboration with Eagle and many other activists who took part in getting the panel taken down.

“Rather than destroy it, we wanted to preserve history and use it as a teaching tool,” Eagle explained.

In addition to being an exhibit in the RMSC, the panel is mobile. Eagle and his colleagues take the panel around the community, and use it as a way to start discussions about racism and the pervasiveness of it. Things we see every day may come from prejudiced intentions.

Many of these exhibits condense the historical information for a younger audience to also join in on the conversation and learn with the adult audience.

On why the museum does this, Murano Santos said, “How can we create experiences in a way that’s meaningful? We create things for children to do, simultaneously as adults learn through reading in the exhibit.”

“How can we create experiences in a way that’s meaningful? ”

With the current news circulating the abuses and murders of innocent people of color, the museum is also hard at work documenting the current events right here in Rochester.

“Guest curator Rachel Deguzman created an installation called ‘ChangeNOW' that is telling the story of the women who are leading the Black Lives Matter Movement in Rochester as it’s unfolding,” Murano Santos explained.

It’s videographic in nature and constantly updating so that the museum is able to collect the history in real time and preserve it.

Modern History Unfolding

With the widespread organization from the protests coming from the deaths of Breonna Taylor and others, and even to the local death of Daniel Prude, many people of the younger generation have been joining in the discussion and physical activism against racism.

For many of the older generations of activists, their response is mixed.

“It’s bittersweet. We’re elated to see young people taking to the streets and literally putting their lives on the line,” Eagle noted, “but the political activity and consciousness seems to be wheeling down and moving back to the status quo.”

With social media, at the same time that people can get information at an incredibly fast pace, there are patterns of people becoming aware of injustices like trends. It can create an exhausting cycle where activism ends when nothing comes out from the protests. People are left burnt out from it all.

“Activism has to be sustained if it's going to leave an impact. Nothing has been changed fundamentally,” Eagle remarked.

The trend to becoming active in activism, and then receding back to the status quo, is not unique to this era. It can be found even in the civil rights movement. It brings many to question what exactly we need to ask ourselves — and to act upon — to create the change we want to see in the world.

“It’s not a question of what we can do, it’s what we will do,” Eagle stated.

“It’s not a question of what we can do, it’s what we will do.”