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Finger Lakes Spotlight: Cayuga Museum of History and Art

Updated: Aug 8, 2019


Image courtesy of Cayuga Museum of History and Art, which highlights the museum’s three different buildings on its campus—from left to right, the Willard-Case Mansion, the Case Research Lab, and the Carriage House Theater.

Located in Auburn, approximately forty miles north of Ithaca, the Cayuga Museum of History and Art is teeming with vibrant stories from the Finger Lakes’ past and exciting prospects for the future. I had the opportunity to interview Geoffrey Starks, the recently appointed Director of Development and Outreach about the museum and its plans to further engage its community. [Interview is slightly edited for clarity and length.]

Alexa Saylan: If you could describe the Cayuga Museum of History and Art in a few sentences for someone who’s never heard of the museum, what would you say?


Geoffrey Starks: Primarily, I would tell you that we are the site of where sound film was invented. We also serve the purpose of being the local community museum for both history and art. We do expand on that to see how our history fits into national-size movements, but primarily as a community museum of history, art, and science that happens to have a theater. 


AS: Could you elaborate more on the development of sound film that happened in Auburn? 


GS: In the early twentieth century, there were numerous experiments in recording sound with film itself. For the most part, people played discs at the same time as they were putting the film out, which was fairly unreliable because of timing them together and generally came off as weird. Up until the early 1920s, that was the only way people were doing sound film, and it was considered very gimmicky. People even thought of silent film as more of an art and saw no purpose in having sound-on-film, partly because the process was complicated and not very effective at the time.

Here in Auburn, Theodore Case was a scientist who loved working with lighting, and even developed his own infrared communication system that he sold to the Navy in World War I. From his work with light technology, he developed a type of bulb that was the key to having a clean sound-on-film process; the bulb essentially converted light energy into sound energy. 

This was the easiest and most productive way of doing sound-on-film at the time, but it did have the effect of emitting sounds in a higher pitch than they actually were—this is why you might associate people from the 1920s with having high voices. The first president to be recorded with Case’s invention was Calvin Coolidge, who ironically wasn’t much of a talker. The Charles Lindbergh landing after he flew across the Atlantic was secretly recorded with his technology, and when the tape was played back to attendees of the landing, they were shocked to hear themselves making sound. 


AS: When you go the Case Research Lab at the museum today, what can you see there from that era? 


GS: Everything that’s in the laboratory is kept looking like it would have at the turn of the twentieth century. Case’s workshop very much fits into the classic American inventor dynamic of the twentieth century—essentially going back in your garage and building something, which becomes a major innovation. Case had a greenhouse in his backyard and he converted that space into a working laboratory. We have the lighting that Case would have had, most of his cameras, and a number of his bulbs. Over the last twenty years, we’ve used the space as a historical resource to try to engage people with that history. 


AS: I noticed that a new exhibit about protest and social justice recently opened at the museum? Could you describe it for me? 


GS: The general theme of the exhibit is the history of protest in the United States. The exhibit starts off with an explanation of protest as a concept and what it means and also has an interactive panel about the Bill of Rights, describing your fundamental rights as an American and the amendments that give you the right to protest.

We invite people to think about different movements in the context of these rights in one space, and in another part of the gallery, we invite people to look at local movements within Auburn that fit into the national scale.

 For example, the abolitionist movement had a significant presence in Auburn: we have the Harriet Tubman House here and the Seward House Museum. [William Seward was the negotiator of the Alaska Purchase. He was also an outspoken abolitionist who made his home in Auburn.] Part of what this exhibit is about is considering how broad protest is as a concept. Protest is not just about going into the streets with signs—although that’s a big part of it—but just having a stance on a subject and vocalizing it. There are so many different movements that have occurred in history that we don’t necessarily think of as protest. We also encourage people to think about whether violence moves a demonstration from a protest into something else, for instance, the Stonewall Riots. In the exhibit, there is a substantial amount of interactive components: you’ll hear protest songs while walking through and you’ll see historic footage from the March on Washington and the Selma March to Montgomery. The exhibit also welcomes visitors to make their own protest signs and hang them on the wall to show us what they care about. 


AS: One of the museum's key initiatives is to vocalize stories and perspectives that haven’t traditionally been represented. Was this a motivation for creating the new exhibit? 


GS: Yes, that was a big factor in this. In some ways, this exhibit was an experiment because next year, we would like to position all of our programming around that concept—representing all of the community’s voices. 

As the community’s museum, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the history that we have traditionally presented, and start presenting history that we have not traditionally shown. 

For instance, we’d like to talk more about the role of women and African Americans in Auburn. We are their museum, and unfortunately in the past, we have not done them the services that they deserve. Now we’ve started working on Pride initiatives and hope to collaborate more with the LGBTQ community in the future. 


AS: Looking forward, how do you plan to engage with young people with the museum and Auburn’s history? 


GS: Of course, this is a big part in how we intend to engage with younger people. Going back to Pride, we did a drag brunch back in June, and there was such an outpouring of younger people at that event. Just in speaking with people, you could hear their enthusiasm and their hunger for narratives that would better represent the community inside the museum space. Additionally, we’d like to increase our science programming involving the museum's history because there is a lot of opportunity for hands-on interaction with the museum's collection items. We have lots of ideas to get people more involved in their history, and particularly science history, that’s unique to Auburn on the national scale. 

When we create our programming, we want people to think of this museum space as representative of them, and somewhere that they enjoy being and learn without it feeling forced. In my opinion, that’s the vital role of a museum in the community and I’m very happy to see us moving in that direction. 

We are ready to be representative of [visitors and community members] and to listen and work with you. 


AS: Could you tell me more about some of the programming that the museum does in the Carriage House Theater? 


GS: It’s hard to come up with a conception of “typical” programming because it’s very versatile. The theater is an ideal cabaret venue with a one-hundred person seating capacity that allows us to host events like the drag brunch. I’m so happy that the drag brunch went well because it gives us a road map for the kind of programming that will do well in the future. A lot of community events [e.g. zumba lessons and live music performances] are held in the theater space too. We also have various partnerships with groups that will come and rent the space, which is more hands-off for us. We are an open rental space and are always willing to work with anyone. 


AS: Is there anything else you’d like your audience to know? 


GS: We are fully intending to no longer intending to be the “hidden gem” of Auburn. It’s a status that we often hear, which is not necessarily a bad thing because it implies our institution has value, but at the same time, it shows that people didn’t know about us. While it’s a privilege to be overshadowed at times to the Harriet Tubman House, we want to change this. Going forward, what I believe is important to make sure our intentions of being an open and accessible (but also fun!) space are clear. 

As someone who volunteered in local historical conservation for two years, I came into this interview expecting to learn more about the tidbits of information that make local history unique and endearing. While I most definitely got this during my interview (and enjoyed learning about it), I left surprised on two counts. First, I did not realize just how much of a disproportionate effect one town in rural New York had on the country’s history. But secondly, and more importantly, I hadn’t anticipated that our conversation would veer into ever-pressing topic of social justice, and how to achieve this through the lens of community history. This interview re-emphasized to me why appreciation and funding for local history is so important: in the narratives of the past, we find reflections of ourselves and the societal dilemmas that we face. It was a pleasure to interview Mr. Starks, and you can learn more about the museum at https://cayugamuseum.org/