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The Faces Behind the Numbers

Architecture student Axel Mitchell Faces the Census. (Photo by Madeline Maxwell/Ithaca Week)

A local history exhibition uses historic data to paint a picture of life in Tompkins County in the mid 20th century

After a 72-year restriction period on access, the U.S. National Archives released the 1950 individual-level census records in April, containing information on households across the United States. In conjunction with the release of the records, The History Center in Tompkins County opened its latest exhibit titled reCOUNT: Facing our Census.

Housed in the Exhibit Hall of The History Center in Tompkins County, reCOUNT: Facing our Census consists of six interactive exhibits, that strive to share the personal narratives of those who may have been excluded from the census due to insufficient categorization of race or occupation, such as the Tang family, who ran the Asiatic Garden, a popular social space for many generations in Tompkins County.

“We’re trying to see both what the census includes, who is counted, how they are counted, and who is neglected because their category doesn’t exist. That is where the name ‘reCOUNT: Facing our Census’ really comes from,” said Zoë Van Nostrand, Marketing and Visitor Experience Director at The History Center. “We know that the census is this phenomenal amount of numbers, but we also know that it doesn’t capture everything.”

The exhibit also features a visual representation of facing the census: a wall with various years of Tompkins County census data hanging floor to ceiling. Van Nostrand said this was important in humanizing the former residents of Tompkins County.

“These are the names, these are the people who walked the same streets as we did,” she said.Axel Mitchell, an architectural studies student at Ithaca College, initially attended reCOUNT to learn more about historic building data. But, said that ultimately, the humanity of the exhibition became his favorite part.

“I loved seeing all the different people and their professions,” said Mitchell. “It’s fascinating to see how much history is held within Ithaca.”

Forged in History

When examining the census data that would eventually feature in reCOUNT, the team at the History Center used History Forge, a volunteer-run digital web platform that merges historic building records, maps and census records, allowing individuals to search for an address, see pictures of that building from the past and examine the correlating census data.

Curators flagged data they found interesting, or data that left them with questions to be answered.

“We were interested in highlighting the difficulties the census has had in recognizing and categorizing diversity and cultural ethnicity and origin,” said Van Nostrand.The team then turned to their archival collections, pulling out artifacts and information to be featured in the exhibit. Each display tells a human story about the census, highlighting that there is more to an individual than a name and occupation recorded on paper.

Zoë Van Nostrand pictured by the reCOUNT poster. (Photo by Madeline Maxwell/Ithaca Week)

A Face to the Data

History Forge played a large role in helping create the section of the exhibit which focuses on the Tang family. Using History Forge, The History Center confirmed that the Tangs were one of the earliest multigenerational Chinese families that immigrated to Tompkins County.

Staff were also able to use History Forge to confirm that the Tangs, their business partner and one of their employees were the only Asian residents in the 1940 Tompkins County census to be recorded as having an official occupation.

A photo of the Tang family on display at reCOUNT (Photo by Madeline Maxwell/Ithaca Week)

The collection on the Tang family is The History Center’s first large-scale display on an Asian family within Tompkins County.

“That one felt particularly powerful to me,” said Van Nostrand. “It was filling in a narrative that didn’t exist before. We were able to give face to people who had been excluded through the records of Tompkins County.”

reCOUNT: Facing our Census will be on display through December 2022. To learn more about History Forge, including volunteer opportunities, visit


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