ITHACA, N.Y.—The History Center in Tompkins County and the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County have teamed up to present “Unfolding: A Timeline of Sexual Assault Activism in Tompkins County.” The exhibit displays t-shirts, pamphlets, posters, buttons and other artifacts to document decades of survivor activism in Tompkins County. 

“Unfolding” is on display until June 25 in the Community Arts Partnership Artspace/Gallery in the Tompkins Center for History and Culture and features artwork from the Clothesline Project, with pieces made by local survivors of sexual, domestic and relationship abuse. The pieces, provided by the Advocacy Center archives, are t-shirts that display drawings, paintings and messages from abuse survivors. The shirts are hung on a clothesline around the artspace and the project title refers to the phrase, “airing out dirty laundry,” to anonymously showcase survivors’ voices. 

The exhibit will close out with an event called, “Celebrating Queer Survivorship & Resiliency Through Art,” which will take place 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 25 at the CAP ArtSpace/Gallery. 

Zoë Van Nostrand, marketing and visitor experience coordinator at The History Center, assisted in curating the exhibit alongside Lyn Staack, the youth community education coordinator at The Advocacy Center. Nostrand said the messages and artwork on the t-shirts are an act of reclamation for survivors. She said she wanted to display them to inform people, on a more personal level, about what a survivor’s experience is like. 

“It’s really important to remember that all of these messages are the messages that survivors want people to know about their experience, their healing and the ways that they have chosen to reclaim what that means for them,” Nostrand said. “The shirts themselves are survivor voices. […] These are people who are reclaiming power and reclaiming the space they hold.”

In addition to the Clothesline Project, the exhibit features artifacts from Tompkins County since the 1970s that document the history of victim and survivor support and prevention efforts in the area. What is now known as The Advocacy Center began as the Task Force for Battered Women in 1977 to support survivors of domestic abuse. As it expanded its services throughout the years to accommodate more survivors, its name was changed in 2003 to The Advocacy Center to better represent the wide range of services it offers. The exhibit displays everything from pamphlets to posters to buttons created by different activism organizations throughout the decades.

Credit: Casey Martin / Ithaca Voice

The Advocacy Center’s Education Director Kristi Taylor said the artifacts are especially impactful because they show how much of a difference individual people and actions can make when they are persistent. 

“The world is a really overwhelming place right now and I think we can all feel really lost,” Taylor said. “Like, ‘can my small group or can I even make a difference?’ And the exhibit shows how much of a difference these small groups of people can really make. […] Don’t give up, it takes time, there’s a long game. Our small actions combined can really make a huge difference.”

Nostrand said she hopes this history can encourage and support younger generations to pursue social justice and activism.

“Younger generations have a tendency to think that they’re the first ones in the fight and that there isn’t any knowledge for them to draw on,” Nostrand said. “And here looking at this, if I think about 1979, that’s 50 years of elder knowledge in the community about how to successfully get what you’re fighting for. […] There is a huge amount of effort and knowledge and experience to draw on within our own community.”