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Highs and Lows of Cleveland's History on Display at New Exhibit

More than 800 artifacts, some of which have never before been seen by the public, are now on display at a new exhibit called “Cleveland Starts Here.” It’s at the Western Reserve Historical Society, which is rebranding itself as the Cleveland History Center.

The artifacts are a visual tour of Cleveland’s history. The exhibit includes the first map of Cleveland, a wooden model of Terminal Tower, artifacts from the many immigrant communities that settled in Cleveland, and outfits worn by Clevelanders through the ages.  “Cleveland Starts Here” is a way to show how history plays an integral role in Cleveland’s story, says the museum’s chief curator Eric Rivet.

“This exhibit really is a gateway. It’s a gateway into the rest of the museum and it’s a gateway to the city,” Rivet said.

The museum chose to start the exhibit with Moses Cleaveland’s arrival in 1796.

“The city has experienced such a rebirth and a renaissance,” Rivet said. “To appreciate where we are now, you have to understand where we came from.”

The exhibit addresses Native American inhabitants living in the area before Moses Cleaveland. It also addresses the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the city’s housing crisis.

“You can’t tell only the good side of the story,” Rivet said. “To appreciate the good that we have now, you have to go back and look at the bad as well.”

The history center is in University Circle on Cleveland’s east side, and it’s part of a group of museums in the area. Chris Ronayne is the president of University Circle, Inc., the umbrella group for all of the organizations.

“If you peel back the layers of the onion of Cleveland, you find America. This was a city that was the fifth largest city at the turn of the 20th century. It was a city that through its industrial might, built a lot of the Midwest,” Ronayne said. “This city, if nothing else, is a city of perseverance.”

Ronayne’s favorite part of the exhibit is a new video that gives a brief history of Cleveland, from its industrial past that allowed it to grow to the fifth largest city in the country, to the decline of the steel industry. It ends with the city’s current growth and successes, like the 2016 NBA Championship and the Republican National Convention.   

“It shows the pride, the exuberance, the resilience, the real Cleveland,” Ronayne said. “It tells us the story of our challenges, of our decades of struggle, and yet it shows a promise for a really vibrant future. And it’s only because of the great will of the people of the city of Cleveland.”

One of those people is Doug Swain, who is featured in the video driving an RTA bus.

“I’ve been with RTA 29 years. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen the city grow, I’ve seen it depreciate, and now it’s thriving again, it’s growing,” Swain said. “Cleveland history means a lot to me. I feel that I’m a part of it because I do drive through every neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland.”

The staff at the Cleveland History Center hopes the exhibit instills a sense of pride in Clevelanders and gives people a sense of what the city has accomplished and created. Museum curator Eric Rivet moved to Cleveland from Louisville about two years ago, and he’s enjoyed learning about all of the pieces of history that were made here. One of his favorite artifacts is a piece of the country’s space program that was made in Cleveland.

“We have a lunar dissent engine right here. They were made in Cleveland, so the space program, we could have gotten to the moon, but we couldn’t have landed without Cleveland,” Rivet said. “The impact that this city has had on the United States is fantastic, and you can learn about it in this exhibit.”

Rivet hopes lifelong Clevelanders and tourists can find a part of themselves in the exhibit and discover where Cleveland history begins.

Video Produced by Rick Jackson and Gabriel Kramer

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