Behind the Exhibit
Part of our two-year journey was driven by a responsibility to identify as many portrait subjects as we possibly could, before their names faded into anonymity forever. We were incredibly successful with this effort in Ravenswood, West Virginia, having identified 94 of our portrait subjects. Identifying individuals in Belle Johnson’s photographs from our own collection proved to be more challenging, as most of the images date to the late-nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century. Many of the people who could have helped to identify the portrait subjects are gone. However, we were able to see photographs from the latter part of Johnson’s career that Monroe City residents shared with us. Most of these were identified by their owners, and we therefore have a new body of information about Johnson’s work and the faces in her photographs to preserve from this point forward.
Digitizing photographs is important to preserving the history of a community; for this project, Museum staff digitized nearly 1,000 images belonging to residents of Monroe City and Ravenswood, in addition to over 2,000 of our own. We conducted 24 oral histories, each of which provided a unique perspective that helped us to better understand the lives and legacies of the photographers and the towns in which they worked.
Connecting to the communities of Monroe City and Ravenswood was essential. Assembling a project team to digitize photographs, record and transcribe oral histories, conduct research, and implement all the data was important to making this exhibition a reality. The Project Toolkit available here was compiled by Massillon Museum staff to help others initiate similar projects from start to finish, and inspire them to be proactive in preserving their community’s history for future generations.