The American Way

The Smithsonian Institution's new traveling exhibit chronicles journeys past and present.

Few human stories are more joyful, more sorrowful, more personal, than the experience of traveling from one place to another.

Often, a journey is for pleasure — like taking a vacation or indulging a twinge of wanderlust. Sometimes, travel is a necessity — such as relocating for a new job. And other times, it’s forced — as it was for Native Americans driven from their lands.

“Journey Stories,” an exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution, takes in all those reasons America is a country on the move and invites visitors to contemplate their own personal sojourns. It’s a traveling exhibition about travel. And it’s coming to a community near you.

Presented in partnership with the Ohio Humanities Council, “Journey Stories” will be on display through July 31 at Groveport Town Hall, and will tour the state through April. Stops include Bowling Green, North Canton, Youngstown, Wilmington, Sidney and Aurora.

The exhibition is part of the Museum on Main Street program, which brings treasures from the Smithsonian — sometimes called “America’s Attic” — to rural and small-town museums across the nation.

From immigrants who sailed to America in search of a better future to Africans whose passage on horrific slave ships brought them here in chains, “Journey Stories” uses historic images and artifacts, as well as engaging audio accounts, to give voice to the family and community members who came before us.

“When it comes to travel and settling,” says Jack Shortlidge, senior program officer for the Ohio Humanities Council, “Ohio is a microcosm of the whole country’s history.”

Our state is rich with ethnic and cultural groups who have come here to live and work, Shortlidge explains. And they’re still arriving from places like Somalia, for example, forming a growing community within Columbus. Each exhibit paves the way for sites to relate local journey stories as well.

“When you share something about your people,” says Carol Harsh, director of Museum on Main Street, “where they came from and how they got here, whether it was 300, 400, 500 years ago, or whether you’re a first-generation immigrant — whatever that story is, it tells something about who you are.

“As we open up and share that,” she adds, “[we] can learn more about our neighbors and understand more about our communities. That’s a way of building bridges and bringing people together.”

At 800 square feet, “Journey Stories” is clearly designed for smaller museums. But it still packs a punch.

One panel in the exhibit depicts a smiling, Brady Bunch kind of family photographed next to their packed station wagon in 1970. The image evokes the freedom and adventure of the all-American family vacation.

Except there was a time when not all Americans could have that carefree experience: Turn the corner in “Journey Stories” and you come to a copy of a 1952 “Green Book” travel guide. Designed to help African-Americans enjoy “vacation and recreation without humiliation,” it listed the shops, hotels and restaurants where they would be served in an era of racial segregation.

“In 800 square feet,” Harsh says, “that juxtaposition really takes you to your knees.”

“Journey Stories” continually turns the conversation back to the visitor. A 19th-century guide to traveling cross-country by wagon offers advice on common hardships faced by settlers: fording rivers, repairing broken wheels, treating snakebites, overcoming loneliness.

“They were people just like us who made decisions to move on, to go to a better place, to look for new opportunities, but at a personal cost of breaking family ties,” says Harsh. “It makes you think: Would I have had the courage to get on that wagon? Or on that one-way boat across the Atlantic — and maybe never see my family and friends again?”

The exhibit also makes you wonder: How did my family get here, after all? Maybe I should find out what my journey story is.

Today, with much national dialogue focused on job creation and immigration reform — and the implications for those who move to find work and a better life — “Journey Stories” has a bearing on the present, not just the past. It includes the experiences of recent immigrants from Bosnia and Iraq, who escaped war-torn homelands to become U.S. citizens.

“People are still coming to America, still looking for opportunity, still dreaming a dream,” Harsh reflects.

Linda Haley, Groveport’s director of community affairs, says the city is proud to kick off the “Journey Stories” tour of Ohio. A host of interactive events is planned to complement the exhibit highlighting Groveport’s history as a transportation hub since the days of Ohio and Erie Canal.

Events include a guided walking tour of canal sites, a pioneer campout where participants will learn to make a johnnycake breakfast, as well as an oral history project.

“The whole purpose of ‘Journey Stories’ is to make an emotional connection to wherever you think you belong,” Haley says.

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Through July 31
Groveport Town Hall
648 Main St., Groveport 43125.

Aug. 5–Sept. 18
Wood County Historical Center
13660 County Home Rd., Bowling Green 43402.

Sept. 23–Oct. 31
North Canton Heritage Society
185 Ream St., North Canton 44720.

Nov. 6, 2013–Jan. 2, 2014
Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor
151 West Wood St., Youngstown 44503.

Jan. 8–Feb. 7, 2014
Quaker Heritage Center/Boyd Cultural Arts Center
1870 Quaker Way, Wilmington, 45177.

Feb. 12–March 7, 2014
Shelby County Museum
201 N. Main St., Sidney 45365.

March 11–April 5, 2014
Aurora Historical Society/Aurora Memorial Library
115 E. Pioneer Trail, Aurora 44202.