A national exhibit at Durango’s Animas Museum spotlights Americans’ historical journeys
Tales of voyages across tumultuous seas and journeys over ominous mountains are the stuff of legends; consider Homer’s Odyssey for example and the line, “We leave home to find ourselves…” While many do not start out with that objective in mind, a journey often ends in discovery of oneself.
For reasons of sustenance, curiosity, fear, or freedom, humans have been on the move for tens of thousands of years and have chronicled their adventures since they were first able to make cave paintings. The accounts of people’s travails and their reasons for such arduous journeys provide fascinating insight into the human spirit.
Fittingly, the venerable Smithsonian Institution has created a travelling exhibition that is currently touring small towns across the country. Titled “Journey Stories,” it focuses on migration and the motivation behind America’s mobility. It has recently arrived at the Animas Museum in Durango.
According to Animas Museum Director Carolyn Bowers, “Journey Stories” is a complete, self-contained exhibit with images, text, interactive displays and artifacts.
It is part of the Smithsonian’s “Museum on Main Street” program, which was created to bring the Smithsonian to smaller towns. “Journey Stories” first arrived in Colorado last June in Aspen, thanks to funding from Congress and the efforts of the State Humanities Council, and has been to every corner of the state. Having made stops in Hayden, Trinidad, and Platteville before coming to Durango, it will be moving on to Sterling on March 19.
Describing how Durango was chosen as a locale, Bowers smiled and said, “Colorado Humanities was looking for a museum in Southwest Colorado to host ‘Journey Stories.’ We had space available at the appropriate time and were thrilled to be able to participate.”
The reasons behind people’s decisions to uproot are myriad. Relocating sometimes involved forcible movement and resettlement, or flight from persecution or slavery; many sought a chance to own their own land. Others pursued riches or were just looking for work, particularly during the Dust Bowl and Depression era.
“Journey Stories” explores accounts of immigrants’ search for the promise of a new life in a new country; stories of individuals and families relocating in search of a fresh start and a hope-filled future. It touches upon the harrowing voyages of African slaves and Native Americans forced to move away from their sacred land by malicious opportunists.
Conversely, the exhibit also touches upon the joys of the open road and how the newfound freedom expanded the American lifestyle and embraced advances in modes of travel.
In light of the Animas Museum’s cramped space, the exhibit takes on an intimacy that engulfs the visitor. The colorful, life-size displays invite viewers to read every last word, to engage the audio portions, and to explore the details contained within archival photos and reproductions of art. Multiple images depict the history of individual adventurers and families huddled together in covered wagons or 1950s station wagons.
There are implements and maps, diary notations and artifacts, along with replicas of posters advertising runaway slaves, and in a coincidental reflection of the Oscar nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” there is a posted notice warning about slave kidnappers. There is also a tribute panel describing Harriet Tubman and the “underground railway” that helped slaves escape to freedom. America’s collective past is filled with stories of people leaving everything behind – loved ones and possessions – to reach a new life in another state, across the continent, or even across an ocean.
“A web of seaborne trade fueled the growth of the American colonies,” states one of the exhibit’s descriptive panels. “Ships loaded with textiles and manufactured goods left European ports for America or Africa’s west coast. There, some of the captains reloaded their ships with enslaved Africans for the horrific ‘Middle Passage’ to the West Indies or America…”
With commentary such as this, “Journey Stories” doesn’t avoid the unseemly, nor is it judgmental; it reports and shares information in a clear and concise manner. The exhibition is a reminder to us all from whence we came.
The Animas Museum has put together an additional, complementary exhibit titled, “Wish You Were Here.” It is located in the lower level of the museum and, considering the museum is a housed in a restored 1904 school building, it is in an appropriate venue indeed. “Wish You Were Here” tells the local version of “Journey Stories,” from native trails and the earliest travelers to La Plata County to tourists arriving by jet.
The accompanying displays are from the museum’s permanent collection and illustrate life in the Four Corners region, from gold prospecting to a pair of K2 skis belonging to 1984 Olympic gold medalist Phil Mahre. The tale of how the museum acquired them is a journey in itself. It seems Mahre originally gave the skis to someone who then passed them along to Joe Holgate, a member of the Durango Ski Team. After replacing the bindings, Holgate actually raced on them and then later donated them to the Animas Museum.
“We used the Smithsonian exhibit as inspiration for creating the outline for our annual publication, ‘History La Plata 2013’,”Bowers said. “We then used that publication to create the plan for the exhibit.”
Many in the American Southwest are here by choice, to take advantage of the environment and all it has to offer. Many too, were born and raised here and manage to squeeze out a living just to be part of what others can only dream of.
In combination, “Wish You Were Here” and “Journey Stories” provide an opportunity to look back at our ancestors and neighbors; to trace the steps of those who came before us or were already here when we arrived. In some instances they are poignant reminders of what was taken by brute force, or of hardships and persistence. In others there are representations of a simpler, more joyous time when travel meant adventure and family fun. The exhibit is one of those outings, one of inspiration as well as education.
Stew Mosberg migrated to Colorado from New York City and is a freelance journalist and published author. This is his first article for Four Corners Free Press. He resides in Bayfield and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.