I don’t remember who was on the ballot the first time I voted, but I remember the challenge of finding my polling place – a community meeting room in the basement of an apartment building – on a rainy night in New York City.
The room was lit with flickering fluorescent bulbs and the floor was covered with gray linoleum tile. It took the poll volunteer who sat on a metal folding chair behind a metal folding table a long time to find me in a very large register.
I signed my name and waited behind a stanchion until a booth with a curtain opened up and someone walked out. Only then was I allowed to cross the room and enter the booth. I remember pushing all the little levers and then pulling the big lever that recorded my vote and opened the curtain.
Those machines are long gone. Now I vote using a black marker on a printed form scanned into an electronic reader. My polling place is the back room of a volunteer fire station located at the second of two traffic lights in my hamlet. My vote feels very meaningful in this purple district and I have been known to be among the first at the polling site. My faith in our nation’s democracy is tied to my commitment to vote.
The Museum Association of New York (MANY) wants to help museums draw connections from their communities to the history of Democracy in America and build their capacity to commemorate the Semiquincentennial by hosting Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, an exhibition produced by the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service program, Museum on Main Street.
The exhibition includes historical and contemporary photographs, archival and contemporary video, engaging multimedia interactives, games, and historical objects like campaign souvenirs, voter memorabilia, and protest materials. It is based on a major exhibition currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History called American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. It also includes a section where visitors can record stories about their first voting experience.
I believe this project has the potential to change the way we all tell the story of New York’s contribution to American Democracy. With this exhibition on view, New York’s museums can become places where people can participate in discussions about the history and future of our nation. Museums selected to host Voices and Votes will also produce a small, responsive exhibition drawn from their collections. It could tell the story of how someone in their community created positive change for our nation or re-contextualize an important event. Exhibitions may be installed in the museum together or separately in a partner space like a library or school.
2019 was the first time New York State participated in the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program. MANY traveled the Water/Ways exhibition almost 800 miles to six museums where 24,000 people saw the exhibition and learned about New York’s relationship with water. Participating museums saw a 40-60% increase in the number of visitors, equally divided between community members and tourists.
Participation is by application due March 17th. You can learn more about how to apply on our website. We do ask for a financial commitment to help us travel the exhibition professionally, but we are committed to raising funds to help offset expenses. We have also applied to the NEH for a Humanities Discussion grant titled “A New Agora for New York: Museums as Spaces for Democracy.” The project is connected to the NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” initiative and based on the concept of an ancient Greek Agora – both an assembly of people and the physical setting in which they gathered.
Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt voting in 1936.
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