In an era of globalization, multiculturalism, and multilingualism, there is still said to be one common language that can tie all cultures together, regardless of geography, creed, or lifestyle. And that common language is music. Every culture has it…it’s accessible to all, and it provides the soundtrack to our lives and cultures. Music also provides a thumbprint of a particular culture’s history and character, a kind of living profile of who we are and where we’ve come from can be traced in our music.
This year, local residents will be able to take advantage of a very special program that celebrates what music has meant in the life of our nation. The Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service’s Museum on Main Street program is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Illinois Humanities Council, and is bringing “New Harmonies” to Mendota.
The Mendota Museum and Historical Society is excitedly preparing for a half a year’s worth of special community and school music programming in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, which showcases American roots music, the musical traditions at the foundation of our country’s music today.
MMHS’s Shirley Pierson said that to qualify to host the New Harmonies exhibit, which is an interactive museum display that the Hume-Carnegie Museum will host, and to be involved in the program, the community is required to have five roots music-related programs. Seven concerts are actually planned, she said. Beginning in June, an outdoor concert in Veterans Park will feature Larry Butkus and the IVCC Jazz Band. Subsequent performances showcasing various types of roots music will include a show by Chris Vallillo, a Midwestern singer/songwriter accomplished on guitar, harmonica, and various folk instruments; a bluegrass concert by the Northern Illinois Bluegrass Association; a barn dance with square dancing; a blues school program by Chicago bluesman Eric Noden; a formal opening concert welcoming the exhibit by Vallillo and “Bucky” Halker; and a Holidays at the Museum concert, featuring an organ concert on one of Mendota’s own Western Cottage Organs, which were manufactured in town in the 1880s.
Pierson is thrilled with the way the events are coming together. “Things are really going at a nice pace,” she noted. The concert series will take place the fourth Saturday of every month, from June through September, with the blues music school programs to follow in October, the opening concert at MHS in November, and the organ concert in early December. Many donations have been received to help support the partially grant-supported project of bringing the exhibit and program to town.
Pierson said the Museum on Main Street program, which has been in existence for 10 years, is newly offering an audio component to its traveling exhibit. The exhibits have taken the hands-on, booth approach for several years now, but this is the first year that there is a listening component as well. Museum on Main Street exists to provide small towns and rural residents with a cultural experience unlike that that would typically be available without flocking to a large population center. The Museum on Main Street notes in its literature that one-fifth of all Americans live in rural areas and one-half of all U.S. museums are located in small, rural towns. “Though rural museums demonstrate uncanny enthusiasm for local heritage,” says their web site, “they have the fewest opportunities for funding or technical assistance of any segment in the museum field.” And, so, the program exists to help combine resources to bring these cultural programs to areas that might not otherwise receive them. More than 350 small towns in 36 states have hosted a Museum on Main Street exhibition, and this is just the beginning.
Past exhibits include: the World War II home front experience, the historic significance of barns and American farm families, scientific predictions for the future since the late 19th century, and America’s regional food traditions. This season’s focus on the musical traditions that are the fabric of American life and culture allow for many wonderful tie-ins to the local music scene and the history of an area, as Pierson notes. She commented on how many local and regional musicians the program gives us access to, and how Mendota’s own musical history, from the building of organs to Mendotan Mike Ross’s history with the WLS Barn Dance applies to the exhibit as well.
Pierson said that there are plans to reach out to the community, participation-wise. She said that school children will have the chance to make artwork, and any older instruments that local citizens may have are welcome in the museum display during this exhibition. In addition, the call is out for people to act as docents for the program, and training will be provided. Sample lesson plans that can tie into the program will also be provided for area schools.
“We’re very fortunate to have this here,” said Pierson. “It’s been lots of hard work, but I really and truly believe this will be great for Mendota and the surrounding area.”