ITHACA, N.Y. – The list of speakers at the grand opening of the Tompkins Center for History and Culture was more than 20 people long, a program that just hinted at the breadth of community partnerships behind the center’s creation. Hundreds of people turned out Friday night to celebrate the historical exhibits, gallery spaces and visitors center at the new non-profit hub on the Ithaca Commons.
The Tompkins Center is more than four years in the making and brought together stakeholders from county, city and state government, regional business and tourism associations, and myriad foundations and non-profit organizations to raise funds for the comprehensive renovation of the former Tompkins Trust Building at 110 N. Tioga St. Rod Howe, who will step down from his position as executive director of The History Center in Tompkins County later this year, was at the heart of it all.
“Every project like this starts with a crazy, harebrained idea, and that was Rod,” Martha Robertson, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, quipped at Friday’s ribbon-cutting. She thanked a slew of partners for stepping up to champion Howe’s idea and bring the project to fruition.
The new center is home to 12 partner organizations: Discover Cayuga Lake, The Discovery Trail, The Tompkins Chamber, Visit Ithaca, The Dorothy Cotton Institute, The Susan M. Christopherson Community Planning Center, The History Center in Tompkins County, Historic Ithaca, Wharton Studio Museum, Community Arts Partnership, Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation, and the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra. Representatives from each were present Friday to say a few words and show off their new workspaces.
Visitors took in exhibits examining the region’s human history – indigenous and colonial – in the main first-floor gallery space. In the center of the hall, the reconstructed Tommy plane that made its centennial flight last fall offered a tribute to Ithaca’s industrial past and enterprising present. In a renovated bank vault, guests made their way along a Tompkins County timeline while surrounded by artifacts from across the ages.
Beyond the historical exhibits, a pair of musicians entertained visitors perusing art in the Ithaca College Gallery while a local author signed books in the Downtown Visitor Center. A wine tasting showed off the region’s agricultural roots and evolving foodways, while local beers proffered from a small third-floor office pointed to how thoroughly the bank space has been repurposed.
During his remarks, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said opening a center highlighting regional history is not meant to romanticize the past. “For many, history is a dark stain,” he said. By remembering our history, he said we can do better to protect people across lines of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexuality moving forward.
Many speakers professed hope that by offering space for new collaborations the center would enhance the region’s diversity and advance inclusivity.
Echoing the opening blessing by Sachem Sam George, Howe’s remarks began with a simple invitation: “Skä•noñh. Welcome.”