Rose Center to host  Smithsonian Institute exhibit

Fall is the perfect season for reflection on change. The natural rhythm of life prompts us to reap our harvests from the labors of summer, and take stock of those efforts by the appraisal of what has been lost and gained by them. We engage in this reflection both individually, and collectively, but unfortunately, we do not always share these reflections, appraisals, and the subsequent wisdom gained with each other. Just like the farmer taking stock of his harvest and planning for next year’s efforts and crops, we community members need to take a seat at the table or meet at the fence and talk to each other about what we as a community have gained, what still needs work, and what plans, if any, should be abandoned, changed, or sustained.

But, …life is busy. The daily tasks of living take up most of our time. We community members rarely create space and time to collectively engage in the appraisal of community change rooted in our past. And we, perhaps even less frequently, create space and time to collectively engage in envisioning a shared future for ourselves. However, Rose Center Council for the Arts, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and Humanities Tennessee, have joined together to create space, time, and support for just this kind of collective reflection, community engagement, and for the sharing ideas of the future.

Crossroads: Change in Rural America is part of the Museum on Main Street initiative by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service. According to the curators, the exhibit offers rural communities a chance “to look at their own paths to highlight the changes that affected their fortunes over the past century.” Currently in Lafollette, TN, the large format exhibit will be moved to Rose Center immediately following Mountain Makins. The exhibit crates will be carefully moved by AMPM Movers, who have generously donated this service.

The exhibit has several stated goals, presented in the format of a variety of questions about life in rural America. Explicitly, the exhibit asks guests to reflect on the current state of rural America with questions like, “Are small towns endangered? How do things like the ‘flight of the young and educated’, a general lack of economic opportunity, and access to resources like healthcare, education, and high-speed internet impact our community and future? How are communities adapting to changing demographics? What is our community doing to address these issues? How can rural communities leverage their unique culture, heritage, and history to create economic opportunity, retain young people and innovators, and build consensus around a vision for a shared future? How can rural communities utilize emerging technologies to enable folks to return without losing the economic opportunities offered by more urban environments?

According to Rose Center Executive Director, Beccy Hamm, “this is more than just a well- designed exhibition—this is a unique springboard to begin the kind of work that will enable us to sustain our rural communities. It is an effort to empower us with understanding of our place in the national fabric, and how to use that understanding to create a future that both honors the past and place, but allows for innovation, and ultimately our ability to survive and thrive”.

It may sound like heady intellectual stuff better left to academics, historians, and pundits. But, according to Rose Center staffer, Candy Durman, the exhibit has already inspired a wealth of imaginings, activities, and reflections. “I find myself thinking about all the changes our community endured when our local economy shifted from agriculture to manufacturing, and the subsequent changes we have witnessed with the decline of those same manufacturing jobs. We don’t talk about it much, but I remember as a child hearing neighbors discuss around the kitchen table the pain caused by the closure of companies like Berkline, Enka, and others. There are so many stories out there. I really hope that this project will enable us to collect all those personal stories about those changes—the good and the bad--and their respective impacts on each of us.”

When I ask Durman why the community should engage in all this reflecting on change, she answers this way, “We have a responsibility to each other to do the work of understanding ourselves. It’s no secret that I am the 5th great-granddaughter of Hezekiah Hamblen—I think I have told everyone that bit by now”. Durman laughs at herself briefly. (Hamblen County was named for Hezekiah Hamblen in 1870.) Of her 5th great-grandfather, Durman says, “Some changes are subtle, and some are big, but all have an impact on us—even now. Even the way we talk about our history has changed, and keeps on changing. Ten years ago, when we talked about Hezekiah’s history, my family didn’t really wrestle with the fact that he was a slave owner. Now, when we talk about it, we include that not-so-proud fact, and I think it is critically important that we talk about it. Ultimately, we can’t really engage in future-building together if we don’t acknowledge the full history that our shared past has had on each other. And, we have to keep right on assessing those changes, as our values change and evolve over time”.

There will be many opportunities for local residents to participate in the Crosssroads program. According to Beccy Hamm, Crossroads: Change in Rural America is more than just a one-time exhibit. Rather, the exhibit itself serves as a kick-off event for a much larger, more in-depth program of community engagement around our own unique history, culture, and future. To that end, Rose Center is planning a host of programs that will allow residents to take a much deeper dive into how we got here, and where we are going.

Describing elements of the companion programming, Hamm says, “This is really a year-long commitment. In 2020, we will celebrate 150 years of Hamblen County. This year and next, we will host a variety of concerts, art exhibits, and we will produce several community events that provide opportunities for participation. For example, Stories, YES is a program in which young people will be videotaping stories about the local community from residents and exhibit visitors.” The stories will be archived and shared with the national Stories from Main Street site.

Hamm continues, “In addition to the concerts and video interview projects, and we will host public forums complete with speakers who have expertise on change in rural communities and on how communities are working to creatively meet those changes.” In closing, Hamm explains, “With this program, we will celebrate our history together, learn from each other about how change has impacted each of us, and we will have this great opportunity to utilize the power of art and connection to articulate the collective story of who we are, and equally importantly, who we want to be”.

Crossroads: Change in Rural America opens at Rose Center Council for the Arts on November 2nd, with a reception from 4PM – 6 PM. The exhibit is free and open to the public. Throughout the run of the exhibit, Rose Center Council for the Arts will keep special hours each Saturday to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate. The public is invited to learn more about how to participate in the program by contacting Rose Center at 423-581-4330 or by visiting their website: Crossroads: Change in Rural America is generously supported Morristown Utility Systems, Commercial Bank, and Visit Morristown. Additional support provided by Kelley Hinsley and TVA Credit Union.

Crossroads: Change in Rural America has been made possible at Rose Center in Morristown, TN by Humanities Tennessee. Crossroads: Change in Rural America is part of Museum on Main Street, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and State Humanities Councils nationwide. Support for Museum on Main Street has been provided by the United States Congress.