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History boosters use themes to attract residents

An increasing interest in the spooky season has prompted The History Center in Tompkins County to create exhibits and events like the Haunted History Tours of Ithaca to spur interest in local history. 

Benjamin Sandberg at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church sharing a crime story (Photo by Brianna Warrant/Ithaca Week)

The History Center, located in the Tompkins Center for History & Culture in the Ithaca Commons, focuses on preserving the history of the community through collection and preservation of more than 100 years worth of archives. Through their themed guided tours and exhibits, such as the Haunted History Tours of Ithaca, the museum hopes to excite new audiences in local history.

Reviving Ithaca’s true crime

It all started with a few community members interested in true crime and ghost stories. After communication and collaboration with the History Center, the “Haunted History Tour of Ithaca” emerged. This small idea has developed a range of tours that have been occurring for over a decade.

Ghostly figures led members through the downtown area and visited sights of reported ghost sightings and sites of murders and mysteries.

Zoë Van Nostrand, marketing and community engagement manager of the History Center, said they try to create exhibits and learning experiences that mirror what the community asks for. Every year, haunted history is in high demand. 

“What makes us unique is that all the stories we’re telling are true,” said Van Nostrand. “They’re presented in a theatrical way but we are really telling actual stories that happened in the community.”

Sherri La Torre at the DeWitt Building telling a story to the crowd (Photo by Brianna Warrant/Ithaca Week)

The History Center spent more than six months preparing for these tours through research, mapping out locations and finding stories with an element of preservation. A total of nine tours a week were offered, where each one was sold out.

They also displayed an exhibit with archival material for participants to examine before or after the tours to inspire people to come and engage with the museum’s collections.

The haunted history archive exhibit on display at the History Center (Photo by Brianna Warrant/Ithaca Week)

Van Nostrand added, “It can be so easy to lose some of the stories, lose what makes our community special and lose some of the narrative that are what make people connected to their home.”

Preservation and promotion

Executive director of The History Center, Benjamin Sandberg, said their goal is to generate foot traffic and interest in local history. 

“All of our tours can be gateways to a deeper appreciation of history,” said Sandberg. “So much of what we do is inside our four walls. But we recognize that there’s importance through physical means of expanding that history and type of engagement so the walking tours are a key way where we get folks to see history in the landscape around them.”

Claire Dehm, an Ithaca resident who attended a tour, acknowledged this perspective shift of learning history in an interactive way.

“It gives you a different lens to look at Ithaca with because you’re put into it from a perspective of the history that’s happened here, it adds a lot of layers to it,” said Dehm.

Sherri La Torre, a volunteer tour guide, has led the haunted tours for 13 years. She said ever since the History Center changed locations three years ago, they see less traffic of those entering the museum.

The History Center located in the Tompkins Center for History & Culture (Photo by Brianna Warrant/Ithaca Week)

“I think even people coming in and getting to wander around beforehand, seeing all that there is here, brings people back,” said La Torre. 

Heather Scheck, another Ithaca resident who attended the tour, had only been to the History Center once. 

“Once I had been here for the first time a month ago I told myself I should keep coming back,” said Scheck. “Sometimes it’s that initial thing to get you in the door and once you realize how cool it is you want to come back.”

Van Nostrand continued, “We want the tours to be an introduction into this small sliver of local history with a haunted history approach, but that is showing how rich the collections can be if you engage with them.”

Attraction through niches

According to Van Nostrand, haunted history is only one of the many themed exhibits the History Center has used to draw visitors in. 

“Having themed programs can really help bring people in and introduce them to realize that there’s a lot of different parts of our collections and exhibits that they would feel connected to,” said Van Nostrand.

Benjamin Sandberg said he used the uptick of business through the powerful tool of haunted history as a motivator for future themes.

Executive director Benjamin Sandberg leading crowd during tour (Photo by Brianna Warrant/Ithaca Week)

“It makes me wonder how to get other focuses and topics to resonate to that same level as haunted history,” said Sandberg. “Whatever you’re interested in, there is a local history to that and you can find that local history here at the History Center.”

Currently, the History Center has an exhibit called “Knot Sew Fast” on quilt-making and the history of quilts in Tompkins County. A new exhibit focused on sports will open in 2024.

Sandberg said he hopes the sports theme will continue to attract new audiences.

“Our goal is to keep the quilt folks interested in local history, but to expand and add new folks to our audiences through the sports exhibit,” said Sandberg. “We are able to do that through tapping into the interests that folks have.”

La Torre shared her experience on how she discovered the History Center through the niche of the haunted tours.

“I liked graveyards and found my niche coming here, so there’s a little bit of everything that connects you to the past and brings you here,” La Torre said.

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