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Bringing History to Light

A local church brimming with historical artifacts becomes a learning laboratory for graduate students in museum studies.

In a circa 1915 church in Syracuse’s Westcott neighborhood, a dusty old meeting room had become a veritable dumping ground for documents and files. This spring, six master’s students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts museum studies program had the chance to explore decades’ worth of these archives and interpret their significance. Their work has yielded discoveries that illuminate the church’s long history of cultural and social relevance in the community.

Portrait of Emily Stokes-Rees, Museum Studies Class
A century-old church in a Syracuse neighborhood served as a living laboratory for graduate students in Professor Emily Stokes-Rees’ historic and ethnographic curatorship course.

For at least one day each week, students in Professor Emily Stokes-Rees’ historic and ethnographic curatorship course pored over documents—from meeting minutes and newsletters to Sunday school lesson plans and records of baptism and marriage—to gain an overview of the information they’d found. Stokes-Rees guided their hands-on, collaborative effort to define the visual elements and stories, which will be the focus of an on-site exhibit at the church later this year.

“A major aspect of curatorship is determining the direction of the narrative—deciding which of many possible stories to include,” says Stokes-Rees, a material anthropologist who recently became the director of the University’s School of Design . Given the scope of the research—which also included oral histories and interviews with living congregants—the potential range of exhibit topics was vast.

This is exactly what we’ll be doing when we are out in the career field. And it’s why I chose Syracuse.

—Molly Wight ’22
Emily Stokes-Rees, Museum Studies Class at United Baptist Church
An exhibit including a historical timeline, documents and various items of interest will showcase the church’s long history of cultural and social relevance in the community.

A Legacy of Diverse Leadership

The group decided that the congregation’s history would form the basis of their narrative. Before being acquired by The Vineyard Church as one of its several community sites, the building was most recently known as United Baptist Church. The United church represented the 1969 merger of two Baptist congregations—one primarily Black, the other primarily white. With a complex history including a catastrophic fire that left one congregation without a home, the joining of churches formed what may have been the first fully racially integrated congregation in Syracuse history, according to Stokes-Rees.

Records also reveal a strong legacy of women’s leadership at the church. In fact, in the early 21st century, United Baptist welcomed a Black female pastor. Bishop Colette Matthews-Carter is currently president of the local NAACP chapter and will be highlighted in the exhibit for her continuing role in the Syracuse community. “This was especially interesting for us to find because often curators of church history don’t find a lot of diversity; historically it just wasn’t happening,” Stokes-Rees says.

Three students gather around church blueprints on a desk.
Museum studies M.A. students had the opportunity to organize and save important artifacts of the church’s history that would otherwise have been lost.

Architectural Ties to Campus

Although church history became the focus of the narrative, Stokes-Rees encouraged the students to pursue other topics, too. “They had a great deal of freedom to explore what interested them individually, while at the same time being part of a collaborative project effort,” she says.

In one highlight of their discovery, students found the original blueprints for the church at the back of a massive safe in its boiler room. The blueprints show the building was designed by Frederick W. Revels and Earl Hallenbeck, prominent local architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were also Syracuse University alumni (1895 and 1897, respectively) and professors. Revels served as chair of the architecture department from 1902 to 1934. Together, Revels and Hallenbeck proposed the “old oval” campus master plan of 1906 and designed University landmarks including Carnegie Library , Archbold Stadium , and Bowne and Lyman halls.

A class of students posts for a photo amongst pews in an old church.
Hands-on training, research, scholarship and design are integral to museum studies at Syracuse University, preparing students for a wide range of positions in all aspects of museums and cultural heritage.

A Window Into the Past, and Future

The students explored many individual objects of significance in the church, including items of furniture, historical portraits and the church organ. Expanding their research to holdings at the Onondaga Historical Association, the group also was able to examine original prototypes for the church’s stained glass windows, designed by Henry Keck. An early apprentice of the celebrated designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, Keck created works for prominent homes and was well known for the design and fabrication of church windows in the early 20th century. The “lighted window” and others by Keck remain in good condition at the Westcott church.

The windows will be featured in the upcoming exhibit, and the students’ documentation will further ensure that these artifacts are not lost to time. “The written record can assist with future grants for restoration or preservation,” says Stokes-Rees. “It’s a great side outcome of a project like this.” Another outcome is that the student curators are prepared for careers in a variety of settings.

They had a great deal of freedom to explore what interested them individually, while at the same time being part of a collaborative project effort.

—Professor Emily Stokes-Rees

Collaborating as a team of professionals—as they might do at a large museum or institutional setting—while also working as individual curators, made a trove of practical experience for the students. “The program at Syracuse takes hands-on experience to a new curricular level,” says Andrew Saluti, assistant professor and museum studies program coordinator. Students have the unique experience of working through all aspects of an exhibition, a permanent display or related educational outreach.

“These experiences are vital to building the professional practice necessary in an extremely competitive field,” Saluti says. The church project provided experience with the theoretical and practical challenges that professional curators of history and anthropology face, and the outcome is a benefit to the community. “This is exactly what we’ll be doing when we are out in the career field,” notes Molly Wight ’22. “And it’s why I chose Syracuse.”

Betsey A. Brairton

This story was published on .

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