From Exclusion to Inclusion: Museums Band Together To Share Untold NYS History
Amy Chin was researching her family’s history when something she discovered did not match her records. As far as everyone knew, grandfather Chin had entered the U.S. through Seattle in 1911. But as she dug deeper, Amy found traces of her grandfather’s presence in the Adirondacks as early as 1903. Adding to this mystery was the fact that this evidence came from an obscure jail ledger owned by a small museum in Port Henry, NY, about one hour south from the Canadian border.
“The earliest picture I have seen of my grandfather turned out to be a mugshot!” says Chin, an arts administrator and former NYSCA panelist.
Searching for the story behind the photo, Amy uncovered artifacts of an important and too often neglected chapter in American history. In the process, she set in motion a collaboration among four cultural institutions. Raising critical questions of representation – whose stories get told in museums? – Amy’s journey became a lesson in how arts organizations can work together to connect with their communities.
The ledgers Amy discovered include photos and arrest records of nearly 800 Chinese men who were apprehended in the early 1900’s as they entered the US through Canada. “The entries include a 12 year-old. Also, there are men who are listed as deported and some as being ‘released’ by death, meaning they died in captivity awaiting their trials,” said Yue Ma, director of collections and research at the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) in NYC.
The ledgers tell the story of the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, which banned immigration of Chinese laborers from the U.S., and had effects that continued well into the 1960’s. “When Amy told us about her discovery, we were interested because it would help us fill gaps in our collection about the Exclusion era,” said Ma.
To move Amy’s search forward, NYSCA Museum Program staff connected her with Margaret Gibbs, a coordinator of professional development workshops in the North Country.
Gibbs helped broker access to the ledgers as Chin and Ma mounted a digitization effort, bringing volunteers, staff and equipment to the Adirondacks, all the way from Chinatown in Lower Manhattan.
Gibbs worked with Amy and Betty LaMoria, the director of the Iron Center Museum and Town of Moriah Historical Society, which owns the ledgers. LaMoria’s family goes way back in the area. The ledgers were given to her uncle, who saved them. But the ledgers were not yet digitized-- an important step in preserving the objects and in making collections accessible. The all-volunteer museum had no equipment nor staff to conduct the digitization.
Gibbs helped MoCA and La Moria reach an agreement whereby the original object remains in her museum’s custody while MoCA digitizes and makes accessible the records through their online catalog.
Not far from LaMoria’s museum lies the North Star Underground Railroad Museum (NSURM), just outside Ausable Chasm in Ausable, NY. Its curator, Don Papson, has one of the two existing ledgers on loan from LaMoria’s museum. He asked Chin to help him with a small exhibit that includes one of the ledgers. Papson believes that the concept of the underground railroad applies to what happened to men like Chin’s grandfather--people seeking freedom and opportunity through smuggling routes, risking much in hopes of a better life.
A memorable moment for LaMoria, Papson, Chin, Ma, and Gibbs was when during the flash digitization effort at NSURM, they received a visit from a school group. Professionals always at the ready, they were able to do an impromptu lesson about the ledgers. Ma estimated that some of the students may have been as young as 12 years old, so she showed them the entry where the 12-year-old detainee was included--it was a poignant moment. “This is proof that collaborations make collections more powerful,” said Gibbs.
“The digitization of the jail ledgers was a unique process for MoCA. The Town of Moriah Historical Society graciously allowed us to digitize and make them available through our online collections. Every person has been catalogued and the database is searchable. We hope that others may be able to find their relatives just as Amy did,” said Ma.
Chin has been instrumental in helping others find their grandfathers amongst the 800 photographed. Knowing where their ancestors traveled and imagining what they were experiencing may help connect with a personal history that intersects with American history. “It’s important that their stories are being told too,” said Chin.
Ma, Chin, Gibbs, LaMoria and Papson presented about their collaboration at this year’s NYSCA-supported Museum Association of New York Annual meeting in Cooperstown, NY. These deeply committed cultural workers have become close and the trust they have built is palpable.
“Local collections can have national significance. Our small communities have big stories to tell. Each has played a unique role in bringing meaning, research, documentation and preservation of a significant local, state and national story,” said Gibbs. “This experience will influence their approaches to exhibitions, collections interpretation and audience engagement for years to come.
Amy, who has tracked her grandfather through multiple States asks: “Whose stories get told? Whose stories get forgotten? I wonder if these [other] places have anything showing that he existed, that he had a life there,” she asked. Thanks to her work and that of other committed New Yorkers, we not only know that he indeed existed and had a life here--it is now included and preserved as part of our State’s heritage.
For us here at NYSCA, we commend these organizations’ ability to come together and respond quickly to this significant cultural mission. This collaboration is emblematic of NYSCA’s mission to support, connect, engage in NYS’ diverse culture and heritage in every corner of our State.