‘Hope in Hard Times’: Building onto a Traveling Exhibit

By Ellen Peters, librarian, Spokane County Library District

Traveling exhibitions are a great way to bring programming into libraries — and if they’re grant-funded, it can be accomplished at low cost. And if you’re willing to invest some time, building a series of programs around an exhibit is a great way to expand its reach.

After two years of hard work by a team of librarians, a Spokane County Library District (SCLD) exhibit about the Great Depression grew to include local 1930s artifacts on display, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, over 45 individual events throughout Spokane County, and, of course, the Humanities Washington traveling exhibit that started it all.

In support of SCLD’s service priority to be a community hub and offer our members opportunities to explore and discover, I wrote a grant on behalf of the district for an exhibit hosted by Humanities Washington and curated by the Washington State Historical Society called Hope in Hard Times: Washington during the Great Depression. The traveling exhibit is a colorful set of panels with historical narrative and paintings by Depression-era artist Ronald Debs Ginther.

Writing a grant can be daunting, but it sure is exciting when it pays off! I first gathered commitments from organizations and individuals in order to supplement the exhibit with their 1930s-themed programs. In the grant narrative, I also mapped out our costs and plans and made sure to show our excitement for the project and how it would benefit our community. Fortunately, SCLD’s management encouraged the grant and exhibit 100 percent.

We decided to supplement the traveling exhibit with several complementary programs, including a museum-like display of local artifacts from the Great Depression era. As far as how to gather items for the display, Vanessa Strange, the librarian in charge of the physical exhibit (our own personal curator), made a plan to borrow from staff, friends and family, as well as community members, a local museum and antique stores who were generous enough to loan their artifacts. We rented display cases with locks so that Vanessa could assure everyone that their treasures would be safe. Kelsey Hudson also procured image files from various archives and found quality large-format printing on the cheap.

Live programs are another key part of the Hope in Hard Times. Program partners include storytellers, authors, musicians, an antiques appraiser, folk singers, a distiller and more. Another focus was on do-it-yourself programs, such as “Basic Food Preservation,” which are very popular with our community members and an example of how people “made do” during the Depression. Our series starts and ends with two highly respected authors who wrote on Depression-era topics, Timothy Egan and Michael Hiltzik.

In addition, we have recorded oral histories of local residents who lived through the 1930s, and we have a chalk board and guest book inviting people to “tell their Great Depression stories.” This has started amazing conversations, and the library is filled with daily exclamations of “This brings back memories!”

For anyone planning a similar project, two things are vital. First, community partnerships. For instance, to arrange for Timothy Egan to speak, we partnered with Whitworth University, both to help fund the event and to use their space. Spokane Valley Heritage Museum donated 1930s artifacts to put in the lobbies of all 10 libraries. Many local experts were excited to be part of the project, presenting on a variety of topics.

Next, teamwork is important. Though I coordinated the team, every librarian in our district contributed to the exhibit and programs. For instance, Amber Williams contacted local high schools asking for art students to create pieces depicting what “hope and hard times” means to them. The art, displayed with the exhibit, is incredible. Christie Onzay had elementary school kids build a “Hooverville,” or shanty town, and then the kids spent the day playing games from the era, such as cat’s cradle and hopscotch. Others worked on programming.

All told, Hope in Hard Times was two years in the making— but incredible as it may seem, Vanessa arranged and displayed the local artifacts she collected in one day! Several of us hung images, assembled the travelling exhibit panels, and prepared for our opening night reception, where attendees could see a Monarch stove kitchen vignette, a Bing Crosby display from his 1930s radio days, antique toys, local school memorabilia, a glamour and movie display, and everyday items found in 1930s homes.

This was a labor of love for the staff as well as a wonderful collaboration with Humanities Washington. We’ve had fantastic feedback from our community about both the programs and the exhibit. This has also resulted in some valued community partnerships, which alone makes the two years of planning worth it. All in all, a fabulous programming experience!

The exhibit is at North Spokane Library from April 12 – June 30.

Read a Spokane Review article about Hope in Hard Times.

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