They look like just a set of chairs.

Yet beyond the chipped wood and faded black paint, these chairs tell a story—a story of love that traveled thousands of miles, of triumph, and of sorrow. And that story, like so many others, is what draws in Associate Professor of Anthropology Gina Hunter.

“People’s stories are the most compelling part of history. Stories of people’s lives help us relate to a time or a place,” said Hunter, who helped conceptualize the Making a Home gallery at the McLean County Museum of History, where the chairs sit with hundreds of other artifacts and stories, in the first of four new permanent exhibits collectively titled, Challenges, Choices and Change.

It’s individuals, and the stories they have to tell, that make up a community.

The chairs belonged to Samuel and Jerusha Hayes who came to Bloomington from Connecticut in the 1830s and worked at the area’s first school, Bloomington Academy. “Most of what we know came from a letter Samuel wrote to his family,” said Museum Curator Susan Hartzold, who wrote the text for the exhibit based upon information Hunter gleaned after spending six months looking through the museum’s archives. Hartzold then delivered the sad news that Jerusha died nearly a year after the couple wed. “It’s heartbreaking, but we have their story.”

The idea to renovate the galleries, starting with what was known as the People Gallery, started in 2009. Hunter joined as a consultant in 2012 and infused new ideas into the project. “The old exhibit in this gallery was centered around ethnic groups who came into the area—Germans, Irish, African Americas. And it was Gina who suggested we look at the experiences of individuals, rather than abstract groups,” said Hartzold.

For Hunter, the shift away from conveying history through ethnic and regional groups is part of a movement in anthropology. “If you focus on ethnicity, then it is easy to homogenize groups and slip into stereotypes,” she said.

image of Making a Home Gallery

A glimpse at the new Making a Home gallery at the McLean County Museum of History. The chairs of Samuel and Jerusha Hayes can be seen on the right.

Instead, Hunter and Hartzold decided to focus on the stories of specific individuals who journeyed to McLean County to find their home. “The idea of home is so personal, but it also gives great insights into the people who lived here, and still live here,” said Hunter. “We are not trying to characterize cultural groups, but give a general overview of different people who came here for various reasons in different time periods.”

Hunter researched and developed a broad narrative featuring dozens of McLean County residents over centuries. Hartzold then had the agonizing task of choosing just a few families and individuals to further research and write up for use in the exhibit. “There was just so much,” said Hunter. “I really enjoyed being able to sit down and read letters, and see pictures of the families who came here.”

The final product was also designed by Hartzold, who divided the space into rooms, each featuring artifacts and images associated with the individuals and families featured in the exhibit. Flanking the “rooms” are collections of artifacts—from tools of American Indians of the Mississippi Tradition, to sashes worn during parades in the 1800s.

Read about a new museum archive collection from Professor Mike Sublett’s classroom surveys.

Some of the people featured in the displays, videos, and interactive elements still reside in McLean County. “People continue to make their way to McLean County, and their presence adds to our community,” said Hartzold, who had the chance to interview residents like Balwant Singh and his wife Kumud, who arrived in McLean County from Mumbai, India, in 1967, before creating their “room” in the exhibit.

A video in the exhibit includes current residents who arrived from all over the globe, and add to the rich tapestry of the area, noted Hunter. “This is a community with a lot of cultural contact and diversity,” she said. “They weave into the overall landscape of the area. It’s individuals, and the stories they have to tell, that make up a community.”

Find out more about the exhibit.