Nearly all Americans are travelers in some sense. Many of our ancestors were immigrants, and due to the size of the country alone—in addition to the pioneering bent of the country's settlers—movement across large distances helped make us who we are.
Journey Stories—a traveling exhibition presented by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street program—examines immigration and travel as central to the story of who we are as Americans; our roots are seemingly always somewhere else, or we are aspiring to go somewhere else. This look back may be able to remind us of how far we've come, and how, in a way, we are still in the same place.
The exhibition arrived at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City on Sept. 15 for a six-week run, and it's an ideal site. At the center of the Salt Lake Valley, it marks a crossroads between a number of ethnic groups in the area, and architecturally, the center is well-suited to display an exhibit of this magnitude.
This fascinating collection is made up of informational displays and artifacts. Large panels including cutouts, large-scale images and maps are featured, as well as cases displaying items illustrative of various journeys: boots, a hurricane lantern, coffee pots, children's toys, driving goggles and roadmaps. Interactive panels and audio recordings also help tell these stories, reaching from the country's beginnings to Ellis Island immigrants to trade routes and slave travel, from the Civil War and Westward expansion to the development of motorways.
The exhibition is divided into six themes: One Way Trip, Pushing the Boundaries, Across the "Great Desert" to the West, Railroads Span the Nation, Accelerated Mobility and Our Expanded World. These Journey Stories themselves made a trek to arrive here. Since 2009, the exhibit has been hosted by 100 communities in 18 states. It has already seen Moab and Vernal, and after West Valley City, it will move on to Ephraim and Brigham City. Part of the ingenuity of the exhibit is its ability to fit into many different communities; it "travels well."
Michael Christensen—folklorist and cultural specialist at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center—believes Across the "Great Desert" will speak most directly to Utahns' experience and history. That part of the exhibit, he says, "recognizes not only a significant part of Utah's history, but also presents it at a national level." And the railroad portion has a Utah angle as well, looking at Promontory Point and the meeting of the east-west railroads.
These journeys have been through time as well as space, and the exhibit demonstrates the ways our modes of transportation have transformed us. We are different people from when we began our journeys, and though we have come across vast distances from a variety of different origins, we've arrived at a common destination.
A number of events will be presented in association with the exhibit. The Sept. 15 opening featured a performance called Journeys by Repertory Dance Theatre. On Sept. 29, the panel discussion Journeys Toward Leadership will include Maori, Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants discussing their success stories. Local artist Namon Bills has also curated the Nation of Immigrants exhibit at the center, presenting immigrant stories in a variety of artistic media.
Staff from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts will help children understand the exhibition's themes of exploration and discovery, and then guide them through creating "beautiful journals of their own," Christensen says, at an event for families Oct. 4 and one for student groups Oct. 13 and 14. Registration is required.
Christensen says the exhibit will resonate with the local community. "West Valley has the most diverse population in the state of Utah," he says. "Though it brings challenges, this diversity is one of the greatest assets of our community.The Utah Cultural Celebration Center team embraced the opportunity to host the Journey Stories exhibit as a way to engage the community in conversation and experience surrounding heritage. Our purpose is to strengthen a sense of unity and community among residents."