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.

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