I am not the common history major, at least not at Monmouth University. As a South American immigrant, English is not my first language and I have only been exposed to American history beginning my sophomore year of high school. This means I’ve spent significantly less time learning it than most of my fellow history majors. My current love for history was sparked by my college professors and their enthusiasm for the subjects they taught and not by cool artifacts or museum exhibitions. In fact, I had never even visited a museum exhibition until this October. Being the unlikely history student that I am, I found it fitting that the first exhibition I would have the pleasure of visiting would be an unusual one—and one I’d worked on as an intern, to boot.
So what was this unusual exhibition? Hosted by the Monmouth County Historical Association (MCHA) in Freehold, NJ, it was called Tracking Sandy: Monmouth County Remembers. Before MCHA staff decided to undertake this exhibition to mark the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic Superstorm Sandy making landfall in NJ, it had some discussion and debate amongst itself and with its Board of Trustees. MCHA generally focuses on the period from the Revolutionary War through Reconstruction. Not everyone was comfortable with deeming a five-year-old event as “history.” And what would the exhibit be made out of? MCHA had no Sandy artifacts, photos, or oral histories in its collections. But as MCHA interim director Chuck Jones put it, citing the Honorable John Lewis’ famous question, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” The yays outweighed the nays and the Tracking Sandy exhibition was green-lighted in the Fall of 2016. It turned out to be very different from anything the MCHA had done before. The entire exhibit was crowdsourced, with all needed materials coming from within the Monmouth County community over the course of about a year. Oral histories conducted specifically for the exhibit would become a focal point. Interviewees included the Monmouth County Freeholders, Monmouth County Sheriff, emergency management personnel, impacted homeowners, scientists, and more.
The efforts of guest curator Melissa Ziobro and exhibit designer Stan Cain were clearly visible in the finished product when the exhibition opened to a crowd of about one hundred on a fittingly stormy Sunday, October 29, 2017. The exhibition was dynamic, visually captivating and highly informative. Despite the fact that a lack of Sandy related material had initially been seen by some as a barrier to telling this story, what made this exhibit so inviting was its crowdsourced materials: artifacts, photos, and testimony. Instead of telling the people of Monmouth County what the Storm meant to them, MCHA had provided a platform for people to remember the Storm in their own words. Even though some of the images, artifacts, and stories brought sad memories back, the exhibit also captured the sense of community that resulted from the storm.
The purpose of the Tracking Sandy exhibit was not just to remind visitors of the hardships many of the county faced five years ago but to prepare residents for the future. The exhibit urges visitors to know their evacuation zone by the time they finish the exhibit so that in future emergencies they are prepared. It discusses the need for an emergency preparedness kit. The exhibit was very interactive as it included stations for visitors to share their opinions and stories. Various other stations included listening devices to hear oral interviews first hand.
Overall I am glad I had the opportunity to shadow guest curator Melissa Ziobro during this project and attend this exhibit opening. This exhibit has set my expectations very high for the many more exhibits I will attend in the future. I’ll be curious to see how many others use oral history. I highly urge all individuals to take a look at this exhibit as it caters to multiple audiences and various interests.
Connie Jara is a senior history major at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
For more information on Tracking Sandy: Monmouth County Remembers, visit: monmouthhistory.org