Mass Humanities wants to bring a little piece of Washington, D.C., to a small town near you.
The organization is partnering with the Smithsonian to host the traveling exhibit “Crossroads: Changes in Rural America” in six towns with populations of 12,000 or less across Massachusetts, arriving in September 2022.
The exhibit explores the evolution of rural America over the past 150 years, touching on elements such as community, identity, and land ownership in the wake of a drastic drop in the percentage of the country’s population living in rural areas. The exhibit also explores persistence in rural regions, as well as how to manage the changes to come.
“We as a country have gotten away from really understanding the places in which we live — the good and the bad and the ugly of it,” said Carol Harsh, cofounder and director of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, which produced the “Crossroads” exhibit. “Rural America is important to the health and future of the United States as a whole ... and we don’t focus on that much.”
The exhibit, which is about 850 square feet and made up of freestanding structures with interactive video and audio elements, Harsh said, will spend six weeks in each town before moving onto the next.
Museum on Main Street — which has offered small-town America a taste of various programs from the mammoth Washington, D.C., institution since 1994 — has never done a full tour in Massachusetts before, Harsh said. As of 2013, about 65 percent of the state’s landmass was classified as rural, containing about 10 percent of the population.
“Too often rural Massachusetts gets overlooked in our conception of the state,” said Brian Boyles, executive director of Mass Humanities. “The Smithsonian opportunity allows them to take pride in the work that they have done, and ask some hard questions about where they want to go.”
And the conversations won’t end when the exhibit goes back to the nation’s capital. One of the requirements for a host site in Massachusetts is to host at least six public programs to supplement the exhibit, such as a walking tour or youth activities.
At least one of the programs must be a “community conversation held in partnership with another local organization,” said Mass Humanities website. Examples of such an organization could be an immigrant services center or local business, Boyles said.
“We want them to really look outside the box a little bit, and develop partnerships with organizations that can make the humanities more central in the conversations they’re having about what’s changing in their community,” Boyles said. “Who lived here before? Who lives here now? Whose faces do we see when we think of our hometown? How do these changes that take place nationally or globally impact our community? And what do we want the next 10, or 25, or hundred years to look like in this small town?”
Boyles said he’s hoping for “geographic diversity” in the sites chosen, with a mix of western and eastern Massachusetts locales. Part of the purpose of the exhibit, Harsh said, is to give local communities a chance to make the exhibit their own by highlighting something that is “unique about their town.”
“There’s a whole lot of front end work that works with the communities to help inspire them to think about what story are they going to tell,” Harsh said. “What it is about their local history and culture that connects to the exhibition that’s coming to the state.”
Each of the six selected sites will receive training from the Smithsonian, in addition to a grant of $10,000 from Mass Humanities to support the display of the exhibition and its complementary programming. Applications for sites — which can be a library, museum, or other cultural hub — are open through Sept. 27, and sites are slated to be selected in October.
“We have supported rural institutions for quite a long time,” Boyles said. “What we’re hoping to do is to start some new momentum where we’re sustaining some relationships in these regions and generating conversations that we can continue to fund and learn from as they evolve.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org