March 25, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 45°F

Life & Culture

Center dives into the history of Tompkins County

Mementos from the past are the focus of the Tompkins Center for History and Culture. The center is filled with vibrant infographics and historical items, including an interactive replica of a 19thcentury schoolhouse and a World War I Tommy plane that was built in 1918 in Ithaca.

In February 2019, the center relocated from its space in the Gateway Center to a new space on The Commons. The center itself is a collaborative partnership among 12 different community partners, and the exhibit space features attractions that are created through collaborations with community partners like Cayuga Chamber Orchestra and Historic Ithaca. The exhibits are usually categorized by theme: people, land, architecture, culture and enterprise. The center itself is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. every day of the week.

On Jan. 23, the museum opened the exhibit “Sisters of Change: Dorothy Cotton and Unsung Sheroes for Racial Justice, Human Rights and the Vote” in partnership with the Dorothy Cotton Institute.

Ben Sandberg, executive director of the center, said the exhibit honors Cotton’s legacy. She was a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights leader and an Ithaca native. She worked at Cornell University as the director of student activities and lived in Ithaca until she died in 2018. The exhibit opened Jan. 23 and will run until the end of April.

Sandberg said the museum aims to rotate and develop new exhibits twice a year. Sandberg also said the center serves as a welcoming community hub that celebrates the great aspects of living within the Ithaca community.

“I am part of the governance body for the building, but I’m not the sole voice, nor could I do it on my own,” Sandberg said. “It’s about building creative synergy between our organizations and managing the space as a cultural community.”

Sandberg said that through new technology, the center is able to collect data about its visitors, including how long people are reading a specific page or looking at an image. With this information, Sandberg said he hopes to integrate new and better ways to engage guests. 

Another way Sandberg said he plans to increase enthusiasm among visitors is by looking at age demographics. 

“I think history gets this bad rap that it’s just for older generations,” Sandberg said. “So in this museum, we want to have pieces that are exciting and engaging for young kids.” 

The center also houses a research library toward the back of the exhibit space. The library became open to the public in May 2019. It has a broad collection of books and newspapers dating back to approximately 1819. It also contains hundreds of scrapbooks, manuscript collections and a large photo collection consisting of approximately 100,000 photographs.

Donna Eschenbrenner, director of archives and research services at the center, is responsible for the archival materials. She said that making information available to the community is a top priority. Eschenbrenner said she has approximately 15 staff members, including Ithaca College senior Liza Gillespie. 

Gillespie, who is a history minor, said that she volunteered at the center in May 2018 before interning with Eschenbrenner this semester. Gillespie said she is exposed to different parts of history through her internship.

“Archives are a great place to dig deeper into to find information about early Ithaca College, for example, and how that has impacted the rest of the area,” she said. “It has been really great for me personally just because I’m obviously interested in history.”

Sophomore Victoria Sheridan also works at the center as a docent. During the summer, Sheridan guided guests through a quick overview of the museum and answered their questions. When visitors decrease during the winter, Sheridan helps to maintain the exhibits and shares social media posts for the center.

Sheridan said the atmosphere of the space is great to be a part of. 

“It’s just a very comfortable atmosphere because the people are super friendly,” Sheridan said. “It’s very well laid out and doesn’t feel like a bunch of information is being thrown at you. And it’s a really, really great place to work.”

Sheridan is involved with the Ithaca College History Club and serves as the executive board’s local historian. She said she wishes to see a stronger link between campus life and the center.

“I’m trying to work on getting a volunteer group from the club over to the center,” Sheridan said. “I want to involve people not because I have to but because I think it’s a great place, and I think more people should visit.”

Antonio Ferme can be reached at