Even before I moved to Corning, I had heard about the 1972 flood. A few weeks before I moved across the country to take a position at the Museum, I spent my last day as a volunteer docent at the Eames House in Pacific Palisades, California. That day I struck up a long conversation with a friendly visitor, and as our conversation ended, I told her that it was my last day before I was moving to Corning. Her face changed. She said, “No, you’re not.” Confused, I answered, “Yes, I am.” She replied, “I’m from Corning, New York!” She then told me that she graduated in 1972 from one of Corning’s high schools, where she couldn’t properly finish out the school year due to a devastating flood. She had also participated in the Museum’s Junior Curator program and credited the program as her introduction to the arts. It feels like I’ve come full circle, from that encounter to now four years later working with this year’s Junior Curators on the topic of the flood.
The Junior Curator program is going strong in its 64th year, making it the longest-running teen program at a museum in the country. Each year a group of 8th through 12th graders spends four months learning about what goes on behind the scenes at a glass museum. The Junior Curators then use their new skills to organize an exhibition, with the assistance of Museum staff.
This year, the program participants returned to meeting in person after two years of working virtually. Mieke Fay, manager of education and interpretation, Troy Smythe, manager of interpretation strategy and education projects, and I guided the program. We tasked our group of four students to tackle the complex subject of the 1972 flood that devastated many communities in the Southern Tier.
In the early hours of June 23, 1972, heavy rain from Tropical Storm Agnes caused the Chemung River to overflow its banks and break through its dams, flooding the City of Corning—and the Museum itself—in nine feet of water. The Junior Curators have considered topics including the community response and contemporary perspectives on the 50th anniversary of this natural disaster.
Weeks into the program, the students had learned much about the events of the flood and how it affected the community, the Museum, and the library. They watched WSKG’s documentary Agnes: The Flood of ’72, visited the Rockwell Museum’s exhibition Agnes & The Arts: The Architectural Evolution of Old City Hall, and visited the Conservation Lab to learn about the flood’s impact on the Museum’s collection and conservation efforts that continue today. Each weekly session provoked great discussion, and soon the group had brainstormed the story they wanted to tell and selected the objects and images they wanted to display. I hope you will come to see in person what the Junior Curators have created and their unique perspective as teens considering this poignant anniversary. The exhibition is being held in the Museum’s Gather Gallery and opened in June.
I never did get the name of that visitor to the Eames House, but I thought of her often as I worked with the Junior Curators. I hope that the program has the same impact on our students this year—an impact so great that they are excited to tell a stranger about it fifty years from now.
At the outset of the exhibition planning process began, we asked our 2022 Junior Curators what they were most looking forward to, here’s what they had to say:
“I’m most excited to be expressing the perspective of the flood from a teenager’s point of view. Also, to contribute to my first museum event.” – Minerva Miller
“I am most looking forward to sharing my ideas and work through the exhibitions. I’m really excited for the exhibitions this year since it’s my first time, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.” – Deepti Niranjan
“One of the things I am looking the most forward to is finding objects for the exhibition. I think that learning about the history of an object and figuring out how it fits into the narrative of our exhibition will be a very fun and interesting process.” – Kareen Bakhtiari
“I am really looking forward to researching the different objects that had histories in the flood. I’m eager to hear first-person perspectives from the flood as well as learn more about the resilience of glass as it dealt with the flooding waters.” – Ashti Tiwari
Many months later, and with their exhibition open to guests, we caught up with the Junior Curators again to find out what made the experience so meaningful for them:
“The most surprising part about being a Junior Curator this year is how much we could contribute to the show. I didn’t know we’d have the power to influence graphics, layout, casing, and food and linen for the reception. I really thought that having us, the teens, have a lot of choices and power was meaningful to us. I think the younger someone is the less respect people have towards them sometimes. In the Junior Curator program, I felt very respected and heard. I also really enjoyed how everyone’s opinion was taken into consideration and thought through before making final choices.” – Minerva Miller
“The most meaningful part of the Junior Curator program for me has been learning about the flood and the stories of the people who experienced it. Learning about individuals and families who had to deal with the aftermath of the flood, and learn to live after the tragedies of the flood, and being able to make an exhibition which reflected this event was very meaningful to me.” – Kareen Bakhtiari
“The most meaningful part of this program was learning about the conservation stories for each object. Specifically, when we learned about the candelabrum’s “come back” stories, I found the science behind its conservation to be fascinating. This concept of restoration was a large theme in our exhibition and I think that understanding the gist of an object’s resilience allowed me to offer a relevant perspective.” – Ashti Tiwari