What I’ve Learned about Small Towns

We dove head first into the Be Here: Main Street  (BHMS) project with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program almost one year ago.

This story gathering initiative builds upon the Smithsonian’s groundbreaking work developing small-scale but highly informative traveling exhibitions and sending them to towns and rural communities across the United States and its territories. Local museums, libraries, and community centers install these ready-made exhibits with help from Smithsonian staff and then supplement the Smithsonian presentation with local scholarship and objects about that town and state. It’s a story-within-a-story model that works to tell both a national narrative and a hyper local one that reflect issues and concerns within communities.

To date, Museum on Main Street exhibitions have been to 48 states and thousands of small towns.

People gather around a crate filled with panels and photographs.
Stephanie McCoy Johnson from the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service helps with the installation of Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America in a Maryland community.

When talking about the work they do, MoMS staffers always take a few minutes to brag on their local partners, highlighting the tremendous effort that small museums and cultural organizations put into building complementary exhibits, hosting special events, and bringing in school groups to experience the exhibitions. Humble and gracious, they’re often quick to downplay the role that the Smithsonian itself plays in driving the cultural engine, but they can’t deny that it’s a powerful engine nonetheless, often ushering in a renaissance of interest and excitement about local history.

A focus on place goes beyond just objects, historic photos, and compelling architectural history. It also extends to local people and the stories they have about living in their respective towns. In 2011, the Smithsonian team began collecting local stories about topics that related to the overarching themes of their traveling exhibitions–the American workforce, food culture, migration stories, the importance of hometown sports teams, American waterways, and small-town life. People across the U.S. recorded 90-second snapshots of life in their communities–from what people did for fun, to what living in a small town had taught them, how local sports brought people together, and what recipes and food traditions were prevalant in their regions. It was, and still is, essentially a reversal of what museums–particularly large museums–have considered “valuable” content and pans the traditional museological notion that only curators, professors, historians, and scientists are “qualified” to talk about history, the natural world or culture in general.

A husband and wife stand outside in the snow on their family farm.
Gayle and Mike Dretch of Minnesota recorded stories for the project about their family farm and their interest in water conservation.

As such, this project’s mantra is “Everybody has a story.”

It’s not just a trite phrase. We all have a cache of bizarre, extraordinary, or just mundane stories to tell about the places we live and the experiences we’ve had, and these stories can ONLY be shared by you or someone very close to you–not by a curator or professor.

In essence, the BHMS project is a massive, democratizing oral history project that seeks to amplify the voices of people who have often been left out of common narratives–the approximately 60+ million Americans who live in rural communities and whose voices can sometimes be eclipsed by those emanating from residents of large metropolitan areas.

The overall goal for the project is as big as the project’s potential geographic reach. The long-term hope is that BHMS will help change people’s opinions about small-town America–from misconceptions about wealth and poverty to judgments about education and exclusivity.

With that ever present goal in mind, the project director at Museum on Main Street called me the other day to check in about the work that I’d been doing–documenting, listening to, and archiving stories that are submitted to the project using the Be Here Stories recording app (iOS).  As the digital curator for the initiative, I have a fairly deep understanding of what kinds of stories have been told, and so he logically posed the question, “Has listening to these stories changed your opinions about small towns?”

That, after all, IS the goal of the project, and as a urban denizen, I am actually the perfect person to consider what I have heard in more than 800 stories from Alaska to Alabama. Without hesitation my answer was “Yes!”

At the risk of exposing my own prejudices, I have heard things that truly surprised me–like stories about small towns with diverse, welcoming communities, stories about unique events and attractions, stories about teens who actually like living in their small towns, stories from well-educated people with amazing backgrounds who actively choose to live in rural towns, stories about people who have invested their lives, their hearts and souls into saving natural places. And, the list of surprises (at least for flawed city dwellers like me) continues to grow as I hear more and more tales from the real world.

Of course, some of my preconceived notions of what it’s like to live in a small town were confirmed–that they are often tight-knit communities where people look out for each. (I loved one story about how you couldn’t get away with anything as a teen because the police knew your parents!) And, that the food in small communities is utterly delicious and made with help from grandparents, parents, and children. You should hear about the pecan pies!

A crispy edge of a pie crust in a glass dish.
There’s no doubt that people–from everywhere–like to talk about food!

One thing the BHMS project has encouraged me to do is to think about these uncomfortable, often unconscious notions I’ve carried about people and places which are far away. The very act of pausing to consider your prejudices is one way of opening yourself to letting them go. We fear what and whom we don’t know. In that way, BHMS opens a window onto America, even if just slightly, helping people realize that we’re all looking for just about the same things–safety, security, community, and a real sense of place.

For a list of stories associated with this project, visit our Be Here: Main Street SoundCloud channel, the Museum on Main Street storytelling website, or submit your story using the Be Here Stories app.

This project is a part of the overall Be Here initiative in towns and cities like Baltimore, Maryland, where local participants are actively engaged in telling real-life stories about the places, people, and experiences that define their lives.

From Phone Booth to Storytelling Kiosk

The Be Here: Main Street pilot project began in Minnesota in 2016, and it’s there that this story of creative reuse originates.

The old phone booth outside the museum in Lanesboro, Minnesota
The old phone booth outside the museum in Lanesboro, Minnesota

Lanesboro, Minn. – An Open House and Story Celebration for the newly repurposed Historic Lanesboro Phone Booth is taking place at the Lanesboro Museum on Saturday, October 28th from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.  Participants will be able to use the handset to listen to the local stories installed in the phone booth while enjoying refreshments and having their photo taken inside the phone booth by a photographer. There will also be an opportunity inside the museum for the community to record their own place-based yarns, anecdotes, and memories for the museum’s records and future use in the Phone Booth’s storytelling playback device. Community members can also share their own stories by calling 507-881-0051 and leaving a message on a dedicated voicemail box set -up for the project or by using the hashtag #LanesboroMN on social media.

Decommissioned by Acentek, Inc. and donated to the Lanesboro Museum in December 2016, the Phone Booth has been a beloved landmark in downtown Lanesboro for many years, appreciated by locals and visitors alike across cultural lines. Repurposing the Phone Booth is a way for the Lanesboro Museum to give back to the community by preserving and bringing new life to a local icon in a way that incorporates their ideas and stories.

The repurposing of the Phone Booth as an interactive storytelling and story collecting exhibit is a continuation of the Lanesboro Museum’s recent story collection efforts, which includes the story circles conducted in partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center for the Smithsonian Water/Ways exhibition in 2016 and the story circles held in 2017 for the Be Here: Main Street initiative, a pilot project developed through a partnership between the MuseWeb Foundation and the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum on Main Street program.

Sandy Webb listens to a story in the phone booth.
Sandy Webb listens to a story in the phone booth.

The initial nine stories installed in the Phone Booth for the Open House and Story Celebration on October 28 were collected in 2016 and 2017 by the Lanesboro Museum as part of those aforementioned story telling projects. Stories featured in the Phone Booth include Glen Nyenhuis’s experience hunting and riding the caboose in Lanesboro, Bonita Underbakke’s memories fishing as a child at Watson Creek, Ann Madland’s reflections on living and working as an artist in Lanesboro, LaVonne Draper’s recollection of a trick played while tending bar, an e-mail message David Hennessey wrote in the aftermath of the 2002 Lanesboro fire, Blake Coleman’s memory of visiting Lanesboro for the first time, Betty Michaud’s tale of being surprised while swimming alone, Yvonne Nyenhuis’s anecdotes about the White Front Café, and Duane & Melissa Benson’s adventure swimming with horses.

Hardware, equipment and interpretive signage for the project was funded through a grant from the Salzburg Global Seminar in Salzburg, Austria.  Adam Wiltgen, Program Director at Lanesboro Arts, attended a global forum in Salzburg for Young Cultural Innovators in October 2016 and was eligible for a follow-on grant for a new project that had a cross-sector approach and gave back to the community in some way. “I immediately thought of the Lanesboro Phone Booth when this opportunity arose.” Wiltgen said. “It is such a charming historical asset and repurposing it as a storytelling exhibit is a great way to amplify the amazing work the museum has been doing preserving our history and collecting stories from all walks of life.”

The Phone Booth Open House and Story Celebration on October 28 is free and open to the public. The Lanesboro Museum is located at 105 Parkway Ave S in Lanesboro and can be reached at 507-467-2177. The Lanesboro Museum is dedicated to telling Lanesboro’s story by collecting, preserving, organizing, and displaying our historical and genealogical artifacts.

Story Celebration happening Sat., October 28, 2017 at 3 p.m.

CONTACT: Adam Wiltgen, 507-467-2446 | adam@lanesboroarts.org

Update on MuseWeb’s Be Here project in Red Wing

Alexander Gaya stands in a shop in Minnesota amidst merchandise.
Fair Trade Books will be hosting the open mic on Thursday.

Guest blogger: Shanai Matteson, Water Bar & Public Studio

“This week presents a couple of opportunities to reflect on the role of cultural storytelling while learning more about the Be Here project in Minnesota, and specifically, the town of Red Wing.

On Wednesday, I will be joining Be Here Local Project Coordinator Casey Mathern for an afternoon workshop at Red Wing Ignite. This workshop is really a follow-up to an earlier gathering (read the blog) where a group of local educators and cultural organizers shared their thoughts on ways that they could integrate cultural storytelling into their existing community development work.

At this first gathering, there was some talk about the need to brush-up on tools and platforms, so this Wednesday’s workshop will focus on the technical side of storytelling using everyday digital devices to record and share stories. Red Wing Ignite is a fitting place for a workshop like this, since the space – and the organization behind it – fuels economic development by working to support entrepreneurs, businesses and students in the community.

On Thursday, it happens that Ben Weaver – who has been working with Be Here as a Statewide Storytelling Ambassador – will be making his way through Red Wing while on a 1,700 mile bicycle trip. Ben has been riding and sharing stories and music in nontraditional venues, his way of touring a new record he has just released called Sees Like A River. You can learn more and read about some of Ben’s experiences here.

On Thursday night, Ben will be joining the regular Open Mic Night at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing – a bookstore and community hub with a unique tradition that I was fortunate to experience on a visit earlier this year! A reminder to never be shy about telling someone it’s your first time visiting a place.

Ben will share some stories and songs from his trip, alongside other local storytellers, and we’ll have a chance to talk a bit about the Be Here project, encouraging others to connect. If you happen to be in Red Wing, we would love to see you there! Things start at 7:30PM, check here for more details.”