History in the Making

By Charles McKenzie, May 15, 2019
Ithaca’s new history and culture center celebrates IC collaboration.

Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado was among a dozen county officials and VIPs who helped cut the ribbon for the Tompkins Center for History and Culture on Friday, May 10, in downtown Ithaca.

Collado greeted visitors to the center’s “Ithaca College Gallery,” a large brightly lit room that will house rotating exhibits of local art and offer educational and community programming. The center named the room in recognition of the college’s support and collaboration.

“This space is a wonderful opportunity not just for our faculty, staff and students but also visitors, local artists and people embedded in the community who can all use it for educational opportunities and to build connections,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing.”

The gallery’s first exhibit is part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival and was organized by ArtSpace, a program of the Community Arts Partnership. It runs through May 27.

Collado and other IC leaders also toured the center’s museum area, where IC’s roots are displayed, interwoven with the history of Tompkins County and especially Ithaca.

 “We started downtown, and the heart of Ithaca College will always be here,” Collado said. “I heard early on from friends of the college that Ithaca’s college will always be Ithaca College.”

President Collado looking at image of Ithaca College

President Shirley M. Collado reflects on a photo of Ithaca College's first home downtown, with its founder standing on the steps.

She said she’s glad that Ithaca College will maintain a presence down the hill, and she thinks the new center will help recruit and welcome new faculty, staff and students.

“It really gives a sense of place. I’m still fairly new to Ithaca, and I know when visitors are looking for the sense of a community, it’s so nice to come into a space like this and find a group of people affirming where this place came from, what its values are, and what it’s about,” she said. “But this space isn’t just about culture and history. It’s also forward-thinking, this dynamic of exploring change and movement while honoring what came before us. I can’t think of a better example of community than to see people come together and note their history collectively.”

Collado was particularly moved seeing a display commemorating the Ithaca Music Conservatory becoming Ithaca College. One iconic image showed founder and IC president W. Grant Egbert on the steps of the Boardman House, the college’s original administration building. 

Included in the museum’s other exhibits is a restored WWI “Tommy” bi-plane, which was manufactured in 1918 on South Hill. There’s also a timeline, artifacts, maps, photographs, and interactive displays that capture the area’s diverse history and people.

Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick said he hopes the center “serves as not just a celebration of our history but a reminder of it. It’s very important that we remember that our history is not the same across all class, social, ethnic and gender boundaries.” He paraphrased the poet Maya Angelou’s 1993 inauguration poem, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Performing before the ribbon-cutting were the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, founded in 2010 by Baruch Whitehead, associate professor of music education at Ithaca College. The group is dedicated to the preservation of "Negro Spirituals." Visitors to the gallery were also entertained by IC student musicians Margaret Chan ’20 on cello and Katelyn Tai ’20 on violin.

The center is at 110 N. Tioga Street in the Commons between Center Ithaca and the Bernie Milton Pavilion. It brings together the Ithaca Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the History Center in Tompkins County, and other history, heritage, and cultural organizations.