The Faces of Rural America
Faces of Rural America is a project facilitated by the Massillon Museum and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The exhibition is focused on two American portrait photographers, Belle Johnson (1863-1945) and Henry Clay Fleming (1845-1942), whose work is represented by over 2,000 images in the Museum’s permanent collection. These photographers operated studios in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in the rural cities of Monroe City, Missouri and Ravenswood, West Virginia, respectively. The Museum has worked in collaboration with libraries and historical societies in these towns to publicize and facilitate the project.
This two-year project was divided into phases, the first being an onsite visit phase, and the second being implementation of research material. During our visits to Monroe City, MO and Ravenswood, WV, the project team conducted oral histories, digitized photographs owned by residents, and asked residents to identify Belle Johnson and Henry Clay Fleming photographs from the Museum’s collection.
After returning to Massillon, OH, Museum interns transcribed the oral histories, and staff worked toward assembling the information gathered into an exhibition with a corresponding catalog as well as online educational components. A traveling version of this exhibition will be developed to be rented by institutions in Monroe City and Ravenswood—and possibly elsewhere—in 2012.
The timeliness of this project is crucial to preserving the historical narrative of these photographic collections. Several of the subjects in these photographs have, in the past two years, died. One great loss was missing the opportunity to interview a 106-year old man in Monroe City, Missouri, who was a friend of Belle Johnson. He passed away in March 2008, just weeks prior to the Museum’s contacting him for an interview. Not having the chance to document his stories of Belle Johnson was a great loss to preserving his history, Miss Johnson’s history, and those of her photographs.
The Massillon Museum had the unique opportunity to work with the residents of Monroe City and Ravenswood to help preserve the historical narratives of the cities and their residents as well as the legacies of these photographers. Making these images and their stories accessible has been a high priority. This effort depended upon the collaboration of the local libraries, historical societies, city organizations, and residents of Monroe City and Ravenswood.