Formed in 2016, The Rochester Area Suffrage Centennial Alliance (RASCA) is a network of institutions that are coordinating celebrations for the anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in New York State. The Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library received a Humanities New York (HNY) Vision Grant to support the RASCA planning process. They also received an Action Grant for the “Because of Women Like Her” exhibit, which is on display at the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County through October 14, 2017.
Interview of Juilee Decker & Michelle Finn conducted by Scarlett Rebman, Humanities New York
HNY: RASCA involves a large network of institutions in the Rochester area. What was the inspiration for forming this alliance, and how did that conversation get started?
Michelle: Going back to the summer of 2015, there was a meeting [about the upcoming women’s suffrage centennials] at the University of Rochester in the Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation department of their library. They invited me as a representative of the City Historian’s Office and the Rochester Public Library, also there were representatives from Rare Books, from the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, and the Rochester Museum & Science Center. We walked away with a bunch of energy and ideas, and then nothing happened. Or at least I wasn’t aware of any follow up to that specific meeting. The following February, I reached back out to that group and included some others and said, “This was a good idea, let’s not abandon it. Let’s expand it. Let’s get more players involved, more stakeholders at the table.” Our first official RASCA meeting was in February 2016. We had representatives from about twenty different organizations. Juilee, were you able to be at that meeting?
Juilee: I was. I think it’s important to point out that Michelle really took the initiative to get things going. That’s so different than the way academia often functions, which is we do our own thing, we work in our silos, and then we come together and report out. The RASCA collaboration is so different from the age-old academic model. This exhibition project worked much more like the way that museums, libraries, and archives function in the twenty-first century. It’s much more collaborative and kind of seeing who has something to offer and how they can contribute. Kudos to those who had the first meeting, but kudos to Michelle for saying, “OK, let’s follow up, let’s get this going.” I think it’s really important to note that just because one meeting didn’t result in something doesn’t mean that it can’t be picked up later.
Michelle: The point that you just made about the silos is key as well. This history was worth coming out of those silos for. We knew there would be various institutions and organizations that would be interested in celebrating this historic moment. Rochester played such an important role in New York State’s suffrage movement that it really warranted a monumental commemoration, above and beyond the usual. I think that idea of collaborating and pooling resources and ideas and audiences was really the impetus behind forming the group in the first place.
Juilee: My understanding of the way the suffrage movement occurred is that there were significant figures, these pillars, and then people who were doing grassroots work. That’s the way I also think of this project. We had significant institutions who were the anchors, what we called Tier 1, who met every two weeks and moved forward the exhibition planning and its related publicity and so on. Then we had other people who were contributing along the way. Everything is equally valued. Yes, some people worked really long and hard all along, and others popped in and popped out—but all of that contributed to the project and to the product. That to me, metaphorically, is the way that the networking and organizing and the structuring of the suffrage movement led to 1917 for New York State.
Michelle: At that first meeting, we weren’t really sure what the group was going to be. We just knew we wanted to be able to communicate with each other, help each other, and be supportive of each other’s efforts inasmuch as we could be. We realized funding is key to the success of getting something like this off the ground. At that meeting we decided we would apply for a Vision Grant from Humanities New York, which we received. The Vision Grant allowed us to hold a retreat in August 2016 where we really homed in on the idea of a community-wide exhibition, of bringing these institutional resources that we had at our various repositories together in a central place to tell the full story that no one organization would have been able to tell on its own.
HNY: Throughout the planning process, how did you balance the input from so many different partners?
Juilee: We had a “Tier 1” group of institutions, which included the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester Public Library, Rochester Historical Society, and the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. Tier 1 would meet every couple of weeks and someone would take minutes, someone would send them out, and then we would ask questions. We put everything on Google Drive, we would use Google Docs and email communications. It was important to value what people said they could do and hold them accountable to doing it. It was very much forward thinking and forward moving on the timeline. We kept to deadlines as best we could. I don’t mean to make it sound so Susie Sunshine, but it actually worked really well. People kind of carved out their spots and did what they were good at, and we valued that contribution.
Michelle: Exactly. Working with the group, you did learn each other’s strengths and how you could rely on, for example, Travis [Johansen, from UR Rare Books] to handle the design and so on. We have a basic respect for each other. When a leader was needed, someone would step up. When there were too many cooks, people knew to step back. That idea of forward motion really was key. We were on a pretty tight timeline, so we didn’t have much of an option of going backwards.
Juilee: Everyone on Tier 1 had previously worked together with another institution, but not all six of us had worked together on one project. There was that level of trust. So it’s like, oh, we’ve had interns who have worked at Rochester Public Library in the Local History & Genealogy division with Michelle and Christine [Ridarsky]. We value them as partners. They’ve lent things to our exhibits at RIT. We already had a relationship.
HNY: It sounds like you had the climate among the cultural organizations where the groundwork was laid for a collaboration such as this. The suffrage centennial created the perfect moment to tap into all these great partnerships, so now all those Tier 1 institutions have all worked together.
Michelle: I would agree with that. It wasn’t that hard to bring these partners to the same table and get them on board with this project.
HNY: Some members of RASCA were based at academic institutions and others were not. I’m curious, what role did undergraduate students play in developing the exhibit?
Juilee: Starting in the fall of 2016, I thought of a couple of things my students could be involved in. Most of the work that I do at RIT with the program of Museum Studies and Public History is the idea of theory and practice. Everything is applied. I want the students to have a sense of how museums and other institutions operate in the real world. One of the contributions my students made was interviewing peers about voting and voting rights. My students went out and each interviewed five people, mainly younger people. Ultimately some of those interviews appear along with the interviews that Dan Cody [of the Rochester Historical Society] and I did at nursing homes in the area. This idea of what voting is and what it means was compiled into a video of about six minutes. That’s on view in the exhibit. Students were working on something way far in advance, not necessarily knowing how that will end up in the final project, and that’s the reality of museum work and collections work. In the spring, students conducted several surveys about the exhibit plans. Some of the revelations were that people were excited, people were encouraged. Other responses expressed thoughts about maybe we don’t need to celebrate this, maybe there’s too much celebration, or that someone anticipated going to see a “Yay, woman!” kind of thing. That was startling for me to read, but it was also a reality that this is our public. The public is not monolithic. It’s multivocal. That was really helpful to remind us that this exhibit is for a public that has a multiplicity of viewpoints.
HNY: Michelle, what was your experience of working with students, and what did they bring to the project?
Michelle: I worked with two interns over the course of developing the exhibit. They were both instrumental in moving us toward our goals. Both were from SUNY Brockport. The first, Stephanie, who was hired as a result of our receiving the Vision Grant, was able to help us identify objects within each of the various institutions’ collections. She helped us compile a master list, an inventory of what is out there that we could pull from in curating the content of the exhibit. That was necessary. She had the energy and the ability to work independently and get on board with what we were trying to accomplish. She really had to do a lot of decision-making and interpretation and apply her knowledge of history to her work. Stephanie was a valuable partner in her time with us and contributed to essential aspects of the project.
The second intern was Jennifer, our social media guru. Jennifer helped us to market what we were doing. For example, the Rochester Regional Library Council created a WordPress site for us [http://rocsuffrage.org] and on it there is a calendar of events that anyone offering suffrage-related programs in and around Rochester can post to. Jenn took those events and created notifications about them on social media. She posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter using our #RocSuffrage hashtag, keeping our local suffrage-related activity in the public eye. I don’t think any of the rest of us had time to focus on doing it properly. I’m not totally inept at social media, but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert. I’m not on it that regularly. Having input from someone younger who really gets social media and knows how to use it effectively was invaluable in helping us to promote the project.
Juilee: Part of the benefit is that students take ownership of this. There is a connection to something that is bigger than an assignment, or bigger than a classroom experience. To me, that’s really gratifying.
HNY: The exhibit opened in early June. Do you have a sense of what the response has been so far and what aspects of the exhibit are resonating the most?
Michelle: We have a guest book that we hope people sign. Every day I go and I look at it and I get this boost of encouragement from the public, which really seems to be responding very positively to the exhibit as a whole. We also have an exit interactive component where we ask people: If you could send a postcard to one of the figures that you met in the exhibit, what would you want to tell that person? People leave notes like “Thank you,” and “Because of you we now have all these rights,” and “I’m so proud to be a feminist,” and “You laid the groundwork.” All the inspirational stuff you would hope to see. Visitors make connections to the world today. The message resonates. That’s the takeaway: people see this history and find relevance in what they’ve learned here. They see how it influenced and has led to where we are today and find inspiration for how to move forward to where we still want to get. I feel very satisfied in seeing people make that connection.
Content wise, I’m seeing a lot of positive reactions to the scope that the exhibit covers. It’s not just about winning the right to vote, per se, but all of the other issues that went along with it. Suffragists had many different reform agendas, like temperance, abolition, co-education, workers’ rights and labor issues. The exhibit ties all of those social justice and inequality issues together and shows how they related to the suffrage movement. Women saw the vote as a tool to help them accomplish these other goals that they had, as well as a goal in and of itself. People are often impressed by that scope of the women’s rights movement writ large, beyond suffrage.
They are also getting a kick out of learning about these historical figures. Everybody knows who Susan B. Anthony is, and that’s great. She was a leader, and she deserves recognition, but she didn’t do it by herself. People appreciate learning about some of the lesser known historical figures that really contributed to this effort. I have a friend who got a new dog and named her “Tillie” after Martha Matilda Harper [a successful entrepreneur and pioneer of the hair salon business]. She found a new hero from our exhibit. That’s great. If we can bring this history to people in a way that inspires them, I think we’ve done our job.
Juilee: A friend of mine at RIT, Sharrita Gross-Smith, who works in the Multicultural Center for Academic Success, participated in recording the suffrage speeches for the exhibit. She took on the personality of Fannie Barrier Williams, who gave a speech in 1893 at the Columbian World’s Fair about the place and status of women of color. She had selected this speech, had read through it, and recorded it. I made a point to accompany her to the exhibit after it opened. As we were going down the timeline hall, she saw a picture of Fannie Barrier Williams. She said, “Oh, well that’s me!” She saw the picture and the name and literally identified with this person. We went down to the section where you can hear the recording of Fannie’s words, and Sharitta heard herself. When she heard the final product, she was really moved. She realized that that hour’s worth of work was lasting. Not only is it in the exhibit, not only is she personally connecting with this history, but she also knows that they’re on Soundcloud and people are liking them and favoriting them. People all over are responding to these speeches. It’s awesome the way in which an onsite exhibit has this digital life and these tentacles that have spread out. People are connecting to this content beyond Rochester and the public library.
HNY: The exhibit really impacts people at a personal level, and in general the suffrage centennial in New York State is helping people connect with their own local history. How will you measure this impact? What are you tracking for evaluation?
Michelle: This again is where the power of partnership comes into play. I personally would not know how to go about that in an official, meaningful way. Our museum partners do. Rochester Museum & Science Center has someone on staff whose job it is to evaluate exhibits. They have students that they work with. They are taking the lead to do some on-site monitoring. They have people come and observe visitors’ interaction with the exhibit and take various measurements like dwell time, how long someone stands in front of a case, whether or not they’re engaging with the content. We believe we can get analytics from the interactive stations to tell how many times people have come up and used it and accessed the information. Both the observation and data collection will inform our post-exhibit assessment. Also the feedback we’re getting from the exit interactive piece with the postcard responses and the guest book that people are signing gives us more of that qualitative experience. Those are the tools that we’re planning on relying on to help us assess how successful the exhibit was.
HNY: What is an exciting or surprising outcome of the RASCA alliance?
Juilee: One of the outcomes has been friendship and admiration for colleagues in the field. I want to say that with such emphasis. We worked well together. We were able to keep our eyes on the prize, that being the exhibit, and have forged friendships through this. We even participated in some bar trivia together. We’re already thinking towards 2020 and other ancillaries. At RIT in this coming fall we’re going to be doing a variation on a theme of this exhibit. It will be a very small version of what’s at the library. That’s a benefit of having done the partnership and this exhibit. We have content that we can use and shape and mold, maybe to make it more RIT-focused. That’s something we can benefit from as a result of this. I find both the friendships and further collaborations rewarding.
HNY: Well, the conversation started in 2015 and you persisted in helping to put together the collaboration the following year. I know it’s been a long journey to get to this exhibit. Seeing so many celebrations come to fruition this summer has been very exciting, and it must be very gratifying for you.
Michelle: Even in Rochester it’s not just the exhibit. There’s so much else going on. There are the banners at the public market, the VoteTilla festivities. It’s been great to feel connected throughout the state. Humanities New York has been instrumental in helping foster that connection. This isn’t just about Rochester. We want to emphasize our accomplishments and our statewide role, but it does help you feel connected to people throughout the state when you see all the stuff that’s going on. We’re all in it together. Inasmuch as it’s brought members from our community together, I think it’s brought people statewide together. It’s been an exciting year!
- Follow RASCA on their website, on Twitter @RocSuffrage, and on Facebook@RocSuffrage
- Go here to listen to the #RocSuffrage speeches
- For more information about VoteTilla see their website
- For #NY4Suffrage Stories and more visit our Suffrage Centennial page
Juilee Decker, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Museum Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology. Since 2008, Decker has served as editor of Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals. Her most recent publication, a revision of Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, was published in February 2017 by AASLH. Decker serves as a juror for the Education Committee of the American Alliance of Museums. She earned her Ph.D. in 2003 from the joint program in Art History and Museum Studies at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art. She joined the faculty of RIT in 2014 and has enjoyed learning about her new city through collaborations such as the suffrage exhibition planning.
Michelle Finn, Ph.D. is the Deputy Historian for the City of Rochester and Historical Researcher for the Rochester Public Library. She heads the library’s local history exhibits team, manages the development of the Rochester Voices digital humanities project, and sits on the editorial board for the Rochester History journal. She is also a member of the Association of Public Historians of New York State and the New York Library Association. Finn earned her Ph.D. in American History and a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Rochester in 2012 and she teaches a course in U.S. Women’s History at Monroe Community College. A native Rochesterian, Finn finds her career as a public historian in her hometown extremely rewarding.