A museum curator, in contrast to a historian, or an archivist, looks to objects to tell a story.
An archivist might collect newspaper clippings, photographs or transcripts of television reports. A historian will gather information and compare and contrast events in the past and draw conclusions about how the past relates to the present. But a curator looks at objects and sees their historical importance. A curator uses objects to tell a story. Right now there is a lot of discussion in the museum field about what objects need to be collected and preserved to tell the story of 2020.
Since I am the curator of a museum in the small rural upstate town of Le Roy, I am wondering what I will preserve to tell the story of this most unusual year. What objects will tell the story of how the people in Le Roy spent the last 12 months dealing with local as well as national and global issues. Some of the objects are pretty obvious: a roll of toilet paper, homemade cloth face masks, political signs and flags. But there are some other objects that would be placed in a box for an exhibit 10 or 20 years from now.
Perhaps there should be some empty fireworks shells from the 2019 New Year’s Eve celebration held in Le Roy on the banks of the Oatka. That night gave no clue of what was to happen within a few weeks. In January there were hints in the television reports — a deadly virus in China. One case on the west coast in a nursing home. But the virus exploded and in New York state, on March 20, the governor closed everything. Schools closed. Restaurants closed. Only essential businesses were allowed to stay open.
Women started sewing face masks. There was a run on toilet paper. And this was only the response to the COVID virus. Events were canceled. Organizations gave up essential fundraising projects. Distance learning became necessary. High school sports programs were canceled and graduation took place in a completely different format. National events took another turn and in their own way, the people of Le Roy reacted. The horrendous events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. It seemed as if summer vacation was canceled. The pool closed. The Genesee County Fair was canceled. The Halloween parade was canceled. The contentious presidential election was held on Nov. 3 and by the end of November, everyone knew Thanksgiving wasn’t going to be the same, much less Christmas. And although 2020 started with the jubilant display of fireworks, it would not end that way.
So what does the curator save? What tells the story?
Carry-out food from local restaurants. Fresh delivered flowers. Cardboard boxes of delivered food supplies. Amazon boxes. Fed Ex boxes. Toilet paper. There has to be a roll of toilet paper. Face masks, including those made and designed by local companies and a selection of homemade masks, and ones with local logos — Le Roy Knights and Jell-O.
Also preserved for posterity will be plastic Easter Eggs from the canceled Rotary Easter Egg hunt. Sports equipment from the canceled school sports events. A Little League uniform, because they were able to hold a late summer program. Take-out cartons from the American Legion, Methodist Church and Historical Society BBQs that were sold out during the summer. Sign — “A Le Roy High School Senior Lives here.” Education kits for 1st and 4th grades that replaced student classes at Le Roy House. Playbook from “Into the Woods” from the canceled high school musical. Sign from Crocker’s Ace Hardware listing rules for entering the store. Sign from L.B. Grand Restaurant about permanent closing. “Igloo” from Creekside Restaurant for outdoor dining — obviously will have to have a photo. “Books Along the Sidewalk” at the Woodward Library. Birdfeeders on a pole from the project at the Le Roy Village Green. Signs from the Black Lives Matter vigil. Historic Landmark sign from the Presbyterian Church for Abolition. Leaves, rakes, American flags, flower planter from Machpelah Cemetery because of the pandemic, volunteers were in short supply to do volunteer work. Church pew with “social distancing” spaces. Political election signs and flags. Trick or Treat bags. “Heroes Work Here” sign from the Village Green. Buffalo Bills t-shirt because the fans from Le Roy will be watching from afar.
Le Roy, like so many other communities has given up so much in the year 2020, but it has also gained a lot. Compassion and concern for one another, a stronger sense of community, a better understanding of its history, a pride in being from Le Roy; I’m not sure how these intangible objects can be saved in a box. Perhaps they can only be saved in the memories and hearts of the people who lived through 2020.
Lynne Belluscio is director of the Le Roy Historical Society and historian for the Town and Village of Le Roy.