“Greetings from (Your City Here)”: Parlaying Vintage Postcards into Your Next Great Exhibit

By Steve Wieberg, public affairs writer-editor, Kansas City Public Library

Editor's note: Kansas City Public Library is the winner of ALA's 2014 Excellence in Library Programming Award.

Here’s something most any metropolitan area library can do.

It may not win you an award (sorry, we already got it), but it almost certainly will win you praise, draw healthy audiences, and make use of special collections holdings. It might even enhance those holdings.

For years, the Kansas City Public Library had tucked away in its Missouri Valley Special Collections an array of more than 16,000 vintage postcards that Public Affairs Director Henry Fortunato saw as both overlooked and underutilized. That changed in 2013, when he, Special Collections Manager Eli Paul, and their respective staffs fashioned some 200 of the cards into one of the most popular and praised exhibits in the library’s history.

A curated selection of postcards dating to the early- to mid-1900s — reproduced on large exhibit panels — was displayed for nearly five months in the Genevieve Guldner Gallery in KCPL’s downtown Central Library. Complemented by presentations that took place at four of the library’s culturally diverse neighborhood branches, the “Greetings from Kansas City” exhibit and related programming attracted more than 9,200 visitors.

“People responded to it, as I knew they would,” Fortunato says. “They’ll come to something like this if it’s colorful, if it’s inventive, if it relates to local heritage.”

“Greetings from Kansas City: Postcard Views of a Midwestern Metropolis, 1900-1950” hit each of those marks. Playing to the uncommon pride that residents take in the city’s history, it featured images and accompanying descriptions of the commercial bustle of downtown’s old Petticoat Lane, of crowded cattle pens in the iconic stockyards, of a stately Union Station teeming with travelers, of horses going through their paces at the annual American Royal exposition.

It was a peek into a largely vanished era.

Every city has those kinds of historical snapshots. Likely as not, they were captured on postcards that have found their way into a library’s special collections. Or they’re part of someone’s personal trove.

Fortunato had multiple motivations for orchestrating the curation of images that best told the city’s early 20th-century story and incorporating them into a display and series of public events that ultimately earned the ALA’s 2014 Excellence in Library Programming Award. Over the past eight years, KCPL has assumed a lead role in providing local historical programming. This would be its latest offering.

It also served several library purposes:

• Giving gallery-wall exposure to a heretofore hidden library treasure (those thousands of postcards)

• Introducing the Central Library and other select branches to people who might not have visited them previously

• Drawing new attention, in particular, to the overall offerings of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, which is housed in the Central Library

Beyond that, Fortunato says, “I like to think that most of the things we do can become models. This type of exhibit is very replicable, and there are any number of different ways to do it. You can make it thematic, and package an exhibit and programming that focuses on hotels, restaurants, manufacturing. It could be chronological, broken into decades or recognized periods in a city’s history. Or it could be built around neighborhoods and districts.”

Adds Paul, who took charge of the library’s special collections in 2011, “The best exhibits always come from strong collections. I’ve done a gazillion of them. If you have great content to start with, you can craft interesting stories.”

Your Collection, Your Own Exhibit

Postcards were the “instant messages” of their day, a means for a city’s residents and visitors to express opinions of hometown pride, civic identity and outsider curiosity. But where today’s electronic missives are fleeting, deleted with a click, the images and hand-scribbled notes on vintage postcards are enduring and offer visual evidence of a vibrant, captivating past. They’re invaluable as historical records, as doorways to lost worlds.

They lend themselves to any library interested in engaging both broad and niche audiences through relatively inexpensive exhibitions and public programming.

Needs and resources might vary, but the Kansas City Public Library format can easily be followed.

Survey your collection. The first key to a viewer-friendly exhibit is a sharp focus. Only a fraction of the Kansas City Public Library’s collection represents Kansas City, itself, but that was Fortunato’s focus from the beginning. He wanted to tell the city’s story. Another library may prefer a broader, more regional concentration, or perhaps a focus on a particular topic.

Develop the story. What do the cards tell about the history of your community? About the people who made the cards? About those who bought them, sent them, saved them? Postcards have particular resonance in Kansas City, where a teenaged J.C. Hall started selling them in the early 1900s, moved soon afterward into greeting cards, and ultimately saw his business evolve into corporate pillar Hallmark Cards. Fortunato, Paul and special collections librarian Jeremy Drouin spent some three months sorting through their postcards. They settled on 200 images, taking into account their relevance and impact and, in some cases, the personal inscriptions accompanying them — for what’s written on the cards can be as illuminating and interesting as their pictures.

Refine the story. Organize the display into manageable, digestible portions. KCPL divided its postcards into three broad thematic categories: business and industry (factories, the stockyards, trains and trolleys); history and heritage (monuments, cityscapes and the city’s signature American Royal livestock show and rodeo); and entertainment, arts, and culture (museums, theaters, parks and Kansas City’s famed boulevards). “We were thinking in terms of: What sorts of topics or scenes or subjects would people be sending with pride or sort of amazement?” Paul says. “The topics just sort of fell into line right then.”

Work out the design. Anne Ducey, an accomplished graphic artist on KCPL’s public affairs staff, executed the design and installation of the exhibit. An exhibit specialist, she designs and/or coordinates roughly 10 displays a year. Other libraries, lacking such staff know-how, may wish to contract with a designer. “High-quality graphic design is essential to making these things work,” Fortunato says. “That’s why KCPL’s department of public affairs has always emphasized serious design capabilities.”

Develop related programming. Two days after “Greetings from Kansas City” opened at the Kansas City Public Library, Paul delivered a program on the postcards and the stories behind them. Subsequent programs at four KCPL branches — “Greetings from Independence,” “Greetings from Eastside Kansas City,” “Greetings from Brookside and Waldo,” and “Greetings from Historic Northeast” — tailored postcard selections to their respective neighborhoods. Those presentations were complemented by speaking appearances by a local collector, Michael Bushnell, publisher of a weekly newspaper serving the city’s historic Northeast area.

In the wake of the ALA programming award, the Kansas City Public Library is reprising the “Greetings from Kansas City” exhibit this April. It figures to remain on display for at least two months. There are discussions, as well, about mounting a similar exhibit that revolves around a remarkable library-held collection of photographs taken in 1940, which captured every taxable building in the city and surrounding county.

The payoff

The original postcard exhibit ran at KCPL from January to the middle of June 2013. Assessing the impact on the library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections, in particular, Paul says, “It might have been the most effective push that we’ve had.”

In-person visits to the MVSC rose modestly, by 1.5 percent, in 2013. But visits to special collections’ digital gallery spiked sharply, by nearly 1,300 a month, or 8.5 percent, over 2012.
And the library’s 16,000-plus collection of postcards is growing as a direct result of the project. Two modest private collections were offered to the Missouri Valley Special Collections while the “Greetings from Kansas City” exhibit was open. Negotiations with the holders of two larger collections, comprising hundreds of Kansas City-related postcards, are underway.

The community, itself, reaped residual benefits.

“Greetings from Kansas City” elicited written comments from 191 patrons, many expressing new or rekindled pride in their hometown. “GREAT exhibit. Makes you proud to be from KC!” said one. Another thanked the library for the experience of “traveling back in time to catch a glimpse of the history of the past of this beautiful place we call home.”

Says Fortunato, “These postcards depict a Kansas City that doesn’t exist anymore. But it did exist. For those who lived there, this was flashback to the days of their youth. For those who didn’t, it was a window to the past.”

The exhibition became, in essence, a cultural complement to Kansas City’s ongoing downtown revitalization, which has revolved around a new dining and entertaining district and heightened public confidence and pride in the urban core. In many ways, the Central Library helped spark that renewal with its move in 2004 into the marble-columned, extensively remodeled former First National Bank Building, and it remains a downtown cornerstone.

One of the more touching responses to “Greetings from Kansas City” came in the form of a letter to Fortunato from a longtime patron of the library’s L.H. Bluford Branch on the city’s east side.
“My love for vintage postcards began the summer following my grandma’s death,” Emily Horak began. She went on to describe the alternately tender and tearful process of clearing out the home that the older woman left behind.

“We spent long weekends sorting through fifty years of life to prepare her house for sale, during which I uncovered what I thought at the time to be an impressive collection of old postcards,” Horak wrote. “I dug deep into the shoebox, time traveling to landmarks from Arkansas all the way to the Pacific Ocean as if I was on the road trip my grandparents took fifty years before, when most of the cards were collected.”

She said she’d hoped to find a few that depicted landmarks in her hometown of Kansas City. But there wasn’t a one.

“I wouldn’t get the opportunity to see vintage Kansas City images in person until I visited the Central Library’s exhibit a decade later,” Horak said in the letter. “Bravo to Kansas City Public Library for providing access to these amazing treasures and for preserving them for future generations to enjoy.”

Now, it’s your turn.

For more information, contact KCPL public affairs Director Henry Fortunato at henryfortunato@kclibrary.org.

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