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Making History

Written by Casey Lewis '08

Casey Lewis '08 at the Chemung Valley Museum in Elmira, NY.

When I started at Ithaca as a journalism major, I was certain that I wanted to be a reporter for some famous news outlet. But I also loved history, so I decided to add it as a second major. Come to think of it, the two aren’t so different—both are about telling stories. During my junior year, a semester in Washington, D.C., and an internship at the Smithsonian opened my eyes to a way of telling stories I hadn’t considered before: the world of museums.

Back at Ithaca, I looked for local opportunities in the museum field. My adviser suggested the History Center of Tompkins County, and soon I was working as their archives intern. Did you know that metal paper clips and staples are quite damaging to paper because they rust over time? Or that light and acidity gradually fade and destroy paper artifacts? While working on collections new to the museum, I spent many hours pulling out metal staples and paper clips and replacing them with plastic ones, then storing the artifacts in acid-free folders within acid-free boxes.

One of the more interesting parts of processing a new collection is evaluating what the original owner wanted to convey by leaving it behind. I looked at how documents were arranged to see if that yielded any clues. I took careful stock of the files, folders, and boxes in case they provided a missing piece of the puzzle. Often it was what I couldn’t easily see that allowed me to make sense of a story. I discovered this while scrutinizing romantic letters from the Victorian era. Back then, the man was supposed to do the courting, while the woman gently encouraged him with her words or gestures—and it would’ve been improper for her to do any more than that. The correspondence between two lovers rarely states outright the feelings of attraction and tension in a courtship, but reading between the lines tells a completely different story.

My internship wasn’t all about handling artifacts. I also helped History Center patrons with their research. I learned to use the online database and cross-reference it with the paper database, which was more complete. People would come in looking for information on their ancestors; others wanted to know about the city’s street system; some were interested in local Native American connections. The more I helped people, the more I learned about Tompkins County. Independent of my classes, I even did my own research project on the founders of Ithaca College which resulted in an article in the Ithaca Journal, the local newspaper.

Digging through musty old piles of papers, journals, diaries, and ledgers is not for everyone, but I loved it. Everyone has a story. I once got to delve into the diaries of a man who lived in Ithaca in the late 1800s to find snippets about the winter weather in Ithaca. I found that it was cold and snowy back then too, but he describes getting around in an open sleigh. Even if we’ve seen pictures of this, it becomes easier to imagine when we can read about it in the diaries of someone who lived it.

Places like the History Center ensure that those stories are passed to the next generation, and it is critical to have such a repository, along with knowledgeable staff and people willing to help out. After graduation I worked as the curator for the Chemung Valley History Museum in Elmira, New York, and am currently working on my master’s degree in history museum studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. With my IC education, internships, work experience, and graduate studies, I’m heading toward my ultimate career goal—to go back to the Smithsonian, this time as a curator. 



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