By Melissa Swindell, Georgia Writers Museum, Eatonton, GA
This year’s theme, Right Here, Right Now: The Power of Place, is the reason I applied for the Small Museums Scholarship to attend my first AALSH conference. As a member of the small museum community, much of our museums’ content is hyper-local, and the “power of place” is an important raison d’être. At the conference, this was connected to the first peoples of the Buffalo region. In Eatonton, Georgia, where I serve as the Director of Georgia Writers Museum, our mission is to explore the writers and storytellers of the past, to champion contemporary writers, and to support future authors.
We jokingly say, “There must be something in the soil,” because why else would so many notable American writers come from rural, middle Georgia? I’ll answer this question with another question: Did you know that nine out of seventy writers in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame lived or wrote within thirty miles of Eatonton? These writers include Alice Walker, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize; Philip Lee Williams, a Georgia Governor’s Award winner for the Humanities; Sidney Lanier, who went on to help found Baltimore’s Peabody Symphony Orchestra, and other honorees of the Georgia Author and Writer of the Year Awards and Townsend Awards. Maybe there really is something in the soil. Maybe it’s the power of place.
The annual conference gave me the opportunity to take a hard look at the power of place. Not only from the perspective of a museum professional, but from a tourist’s perspective as well. The visitors that come through our doors—and yours—often see our history first-hand, for the first time. My phone (as well as yours, I’m sure) is full of photos from our trip to Buffalo. Standing under the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor archway, I looked down to find a plaque marking the Underground Railroad. A solemn reminder in the midst of a bustling city. It’s a moment of awe in the traditional sense: reverential respect combined with fear and wonder. How many people walked this place before me? How different the landscape must have been. How vast the divide between how we both came to be in the same place. Unfathomable. And yet, the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor volunteers fathom it every day as they take the time and courage to share their story in their place.
The power of place resounds throughout upstate New York. But it also resounds within each and every one of our small museums, across the country. As we approach the Semiquincentennial and commemorate the milestones that the United States has achieved in 250 years, let’s not forget what we learned at this year’s conference about the centuries and the peoples that led to this place and the power that it holds. With our stewardship, “Right here, right now,” the power of place can continue for centuries.