When the six Indiana hosts of the Smithsonian exhibition Crossroads: Change in Rural America first came together nearly two years ago, little did they know what the coming years had in store or how the conversation about rural America would evolve. Over the past year, Crossroads has toured the Hoosier state, bringing communities together to talk about the past, present and future of Indiana’s small towns. In total, more than 5,100 people visited the exhibit in five different Indiana communities—Dillsboro, Salem, North Vernon, Bristol and North Manchester.
In addition to the conversations and learning sparked by the exhibit, all the hosts saw increased attendance due to the exhibition’s visit. The Dillsboro Public Library welcomed 1,650 visitors to the exhibit (more than the population of the entire town) while the Washington County Museum saw a 467% increase in visitation! In some cases, the exhibit allowed the community to re-envision community gathering spaces, as was the case with the Stellar Building in North Vernon. While it took much hard work and dedication from these remarkable Indiana institutions to host the exhibit, new partnerships were created and volunteers were recruited. In total, dozens of volunteers dedicated more than 750 hours to make the exhibit’s visit a success in their communities.
For 25 years Museum on Main Street, the division of the Smithsonian organizing the Crossroads exhibit, has worked to provide high-quality Smithsonian exhibits to America’s small towns. Crossroads: Change in Rural America uses engaging text and photos to explore the themes of identity, land, community, persistence and managing change. Indiana Humanities selected six communities to host the exhibit, each charged with creating their own local exhibit telling their story of change and providing a series of programs to engage and educate the public.
The exhibit kicked off in September of 2019 in Dillsboro, a small town in southeastern Indiana. As it traveled through the Hoosier state, hosts told local stories of demographic shifts, outmigration, transportation developments, school consolidations, agricultural innovations, factory closings and rural revitalization initiatives. Attendees discussed their tight-knit communities and the benefits of a small-town life, as well as the losses experienced in rural communities during the past several decades. Hosts encouraged attendees to have conversations about the future of their communities, their hopes for their town and how they could get involved in creating change.
Each Crossroads site put a local spin on the national story told by the Smithsonian exhibit. Hosts at the Aurora Public Library’s Dillsboro branch collected responses to a student essay prompt, “If you were Mayor for a day, what change would you make in your community?” As a result, Dillsboro selected a “Mayor of the Day” to fulfill some of the suggestions from the students, with the hope of fostering a sense of agency and civic engagement in their young residents. In Salem, the Washington County Historical Society highlighted stories of rural resilience, telling the stories of floods, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the effects of transportation on this Indiana town. The conclusion of the exhibit was a concert, a celebration of rural America’s unique cultural contributions. The Jennings County Historical Society worked closely with local schools to develop a unique, hands-on traveling exhibition. Visitors reflected on the loss of connections within their community, saying, “We’ve lost the ability to have conversations and talk to people we don’t know.” However, the local hosts reflected, “The exhibition gave us insight in American history and culture by reminding us that all small communities experienced many of the same changes over the past 100 years.”
At the beginning on 2020, the exhibit traveled north, stopping in Bristol at the Elkhart County Historical Museum. The exhibit, installed in a former school gymnasium, gave visitors the chance to reflect on the economic changes to their community. Through a series of banners installed around the gym with quotes and stories from residents, the hosts demonstrated the tension in the transition from farming to manufacturing. “Our hearts really value our agricultural heritage, but our pocketbooks value manufacturing,” said Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder.
The exhibit made its final stop at the North Manchester Center for History, where the local hosts worked to make it as safe as possible for small groups to visit the exhibit in the midst of the pandemic. Together, residents and visitors discussed the role of small farms in a world of large-scale operations, and how this debate has impacted northeastern Indiana and beyond. In addition to the indoor local exhibition, the Center for History installed a series of outdoor banners along its main street highlighting local changemakers, past and present, allowing residents to take in a piece of the exhibition while maintaining social distance.
While the pandemic prevented the exhibit from moving to its final scheduled stop, New Harmony, hosts from Historic New Harmony are still planning a robust program series that anyone can attend via its virtual format. Topics discussed include agriculture, placemaking, the urban/rural political divide, and even astronaut Gus Grissom, who hails from Mitchell, Ind. You can see a full list of programs with details on how to attend here.
Thanks to all whose dedication, hard work and vision made Crossroads: Change in Rural America a success in Indiana. While the conversation about rural change will continue, Indiana Humanities is setting its sights on the next Smithsonian exhibit we will host, Water/Ways, which will arrive in Indiana in June of 2021. For information on this upcoming opportunity, including how to apply to host the exhibition visit www.indianahumanities.org/waterways.