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Salem Hyde students take a creative approach to studying history through postcards
Salem Hyde students take a creative approach to studying history through postcardsMay 20, 2009Jemeli Tanuijetanui@syr.edu
In a unique after-school activity, 30-plus elementary school students from Salem Hyde Elementary School became imaginary pen pals with dignitaries, leaders and innovators who lived in Syracuse 100 years ago.
This correspondence project-which included collecting old postcards featuring Syracuse images and writing between the students and local historians impersonating people from Syracuse’s past-was a collaborative effort of Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), the Arts Branch of the YMCA’s after-school program, the Onondaga Historical Association Museum & Research Center (OHA), and SU’s Office of Community Engagement and Economic Development.
The students’ efforts will be on display at an exhibition titled “Postcards to (and from!) the Past,” opening with a reception during this month’s Third Thursday (Th3) city-wide art open on Thursday, May 21, from 5-7 p.m. The exhibition will be at two venues: the Downtown Writer’s Center gallery, located on the second floor of the Downtown YMCA, 340 Montgomery St., and the OHA museum, 321 Montgomery St.
The project commenced with students writing to fictional characters and moved to the second phase, in which they corresponded with real figures of local and historical significance. The fictional character correspondence will be on display at the YMCA, while the historical figures correspondence will be exhibited at the OHA. The student experience was enhanced by visitors, including one of the SU students participating in the program and a local actor who showed up in period clothing with accompanying props.
“The interesting thing about postcards is that they are both visual and literary,” says Gail Hoffmann, assistant professor in the foundation department in VPA’s School of Art and Design, who worked with two SU students to organize the collaborative project with the YMCA and the OHA. “They immediately document a place and a time, and the message on the reverse side is like an old version of a text message or Facebook posting-relating what someone is doing at that particular moment in an abbreviated form-a way of connecting through space and time.”
Gregg A. Tripoli, executive director of the OHA, who helped select the characters the students would write to, says he picked people with whom he thought the young people would enjoy corresponding. Historical figures included Herman A. Ecker, a local innovator who built a flying boat that is on display today at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. “I thought it would be interesting to the students to write to a local man who built a flying boat using things he had in his garage or bought at the local hardware store,” Tripoli says. Other characters selected included Harvey Baldwin, Syracuse’s first mayor. “The questions we got from the students were all across the board: from asking if Herman Ecker was scared flying the plane, to what it was like being a woman in those days, to what people did for fun 100 years ago, what sports they played, what kind of clothes they wore, did they go to school-just the simple everyday things,” Tripoli says.
Organizers say the opening event will be a celebration of the collaborative project, as well as a way of interesting more students to participate in the arts.
“I think the project gave the kids a unique way to interact with history-through creative writing, and through correspondence, rather than by simply absorbing dates and names from a text book,” says Philip Memmer, director of the YMCA arts branch that includes the Downtown Writers Program. “The postcards, along with the efforts of the YMCA creative writing instructors and the OHA historians, made history come alive in a unique way for the students.”
The postcards featuring the student questions will also be on exhibit via the Urban Video Project-beaming onto the OHA wall starting Thursday and running intermittently along with other UVP exhibitions during the summer.
“The Urban Video Project is opening so many new doors for people and organizations invested in promoting a healthy, vibrant city to find one another and forge new collaborations that involve multiple parties,” says Marilyn Higgins, SU vice president for community engagement and economic development.
About Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)VPA is the creative center of Syracuse University. The college comprises five areas: the School of Art and Design; the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies; the Department of Drama; the Rose, Jules R. and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music; and the Department of Transmedia. Together, students, faculty and staff play a vital role in the academic and cultural life of the University and Syracuse communities. Learn more about the college at http://vpa.syr.edu.
About the Urban Video ProjectUVP is a public arts initiative of Syracuse University and Time Warner Cable that aims to bring art to the streets and buildings of Syracuse’s Connective Corridor-the signature strip of cutting-edge cultural development connecting University Hill with downtown Syracuse-by projecting artwork onto local buildings daily from dusk-11 p.m. The UVP currently projects at three locations: the Monroe Building at 333 E. Onondaga St., the Onondaga Historical Association Museum (OHA) at 321 Montgomery St. and an LED screen at the Syracuse Stage’s on 820 E. Genesee St.