Friday, March 11, 2011

Greedy, Who Will Decide

What’s all this about Greed?

Recently the local newspaper, the Canandaigua Daily Messenger ( published a short story on the exhibition with the headline : “Historical Society Exhibit Takes on Greed”. It was about the focus groups we were currently interviewing.

At a local Chamber of Commerce Dinner the evening that the article was published, I shared a laugh about the publicity over an adult beverage with several bankers who were familiar with the project. The word “greed” caught their eye and were interested in how the research was progressing. They inquired how our focus groups were reacting to the concept.

Later in the evening, I ran into a long-time friend and benefactor of our museum. She warned that the article and its focus on Greed was not good and that if we weren’t careful the concept could backfire and create negative feelings about the museum and its feature exhibit. Her words were not spoken in jest and I started reflecting on the comment.

Admittedly, the staff and exhibit committee has struggled with the concept. The exhibit is intended to offer a perspective of the people who fought and settled the area that is currently western New York. We want to look into the personal desires of our local forefathers and how their actions created the western New York we know today. There are dozens of books and original manuscripts we are reading in our effort to get to the root of our research.

Then I received a memo from our staff researcher and Distance Learning Developer, Ray. He contested the wording of questions we were asking the members of the focus groups that sought input on the differences between survival, ambition and greed.

“Greed is not a desire”, he wrote. “ Freedom and equality, are.” He went on to posit that these basic human desires manifested themselves in WNY historic movements such as the Underground Railroad and the Woman’s Rights movement. Our first settlers were not greedy. They sought economic freedom, above all and to replicate the communities that they left in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Ray made a great point. Greed, ambition and survival are not a desires but rather a societal perception by others. Also these labels are a moving target. What was considered greedy or ambitious in 1650 was likely not the same as the greed label in 1812. That begs the question, what would visitors to the museum in the 21st Century think about the actions and methods of our county’s founders?

From this discussion, we are beginning to see a path in our research and exhibit development. If we present the stories of movers and shakers in our early years; people such as Oliver Phelps, Joseph Ellicott, Red Jacket, Corn Planter and Jemima Wilkinson. Then, offer the exhibit visitor a glimpse into 17th and 18th century western New York, we can let the visitor decide whether the individual actions made them survivors, ambitious or even greedy.

IDEA !!! Maybe it will be best to let visitors to the exhibit decide. If we keep track of their responses we can all learn from each other’s judgment of how to perceive the early settlers that caused our region to grow and become the home we know today.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful post Ed (and sorry I'm slow to read). I think you're absolutely right about letting visitors decide. But also what's important is that the greed concept has really started people talking--and that's terrific. I don't imagine the same conversations would have been happening if you had just announced an exhibit about early western New York. If we think of museums as places for engaging and engaged conversations, then we're well on our way!