‘Empty Place at the Table’ exhibit honors Centre County domestic violence victims

Throughout this month, locations across Centre County are setting up a place to remember those who were killed as the result of domestic violence.

Centre Safe’s “Empty Place at the Table” exhibit features a dinner table and 15 empty place settings — one setting for each Centre County victim from 1998-2015.

The exhibit was first displayed in 2017 as a means of capturing local attention during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, while also honoring and remembering those impacted. A women’s resource center in Lackawanna County had created a similar display, which Centre Safe then licensed.

Centre Safe Director of Outreach and Education Sarah McPherson said a lot of research and care went into the exhibit in order to protect victims’ identities. That attention is one of the reasons why the exhibit has not yet been updated to include more recent victims, though the exhibit may be expanded moving forward.

Two sets of the exhibit can be found at nine locations across Centre County, some of which are new this year. New sites include St. John’s United Church of Christ in Boalsburg, State College Friends Meeting and 3 Dots Downtown. Other exhibit sites have remained constant over the initiative’s three years, such as the YMCA of Centre County.

“This incredibly impactful exhibit helps to honor and remember those lives which were lost due to domestic violence,” said Yvette Willson, vice president of council at St. John’s United Church of Christ. “As a congregation that is committed to social justice and welcomes everyone, we want to let survivors know St. John’s UCC is a place they are not only welcomed, but they can seek safety and support with us. We also support the work being done in our community to end domestic violence and we want to educate ourselves on a deeper basis so we too can work toward ending domestic violence.”

McPherson said that Centre Safe attempts to find locations around the entire county, so that the exhibit makes its way into more rural areas and isn’t just localized to State College. When finding locations each year, she says she and her team also have to consider that the exhibit is a standalone display, though they’ve considered having a volunteer to accompany the display in the future, to answer questions and provide information. For now, though, she says, “it needs to be in a place where it can speak for itself.”

Throughout the county, McPherson says the exhibit is making an impact.

“All of the host sites have said that it garners attention and gets people to talk,” she said.

For 3 Dots Downtown Managing Director Harvey Weidman, the downtown State College community space was “created for exactly these kind of projects, installations and conversations.”

“I was thrilled when Centre Safe approached us, not only because the display is a powerful and beautiful representation of a very real crisis in our community, but because our space is built around starting conversations that lead to actionable change,” Weidman said. “With a topic like this, it is so critical to the safety of our community that we move from awareness to action, and I hope that when people come into our space, they will be moved to action.”

Weidman remembers seeing the exhibit several years ago at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe and being instantly drawn to it.

“It was so demure and perfectly curated at first glance, but when I actually looked closer and began to ask questions, I realized the darkness underneath — the silence, pain, shame and guilt — and it gave me chills,” she said. “Domestic violence is right in front of us, but dressed to impress, seemingly demure and perfectly curated at first glance. We need to continue looking closer, and continue to ask questions in order to make necessary change for the safety of our community.”

Centre Safe may expand the exhibit from two sets to three, if demand continues, McPherson said, adding that the exhibit doesn’t need to be limited to October.

“Domestic violence happens throughout the year. So, if folks were interested and wanted to have (the exhibit) out, we’d be more than happy to have it out throughout the year,” she said.

Though the exhibit began its 2019 journey across the county at the start of the month, with appearances at St. John’s UCC in Boalsburg and the Moshannon Valley YMCA, you can still find Centre Safe’s Empty Place at the Table exhibit at the following locations: the State College YMCA, through Saturday; 3 Dots Downtown, through Friday; Bellefonte YMCA, Oct. 13-19; Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, Oct. 14-18; Bellefonte Centre County Library, Oct. 19-24; Penns Valley YMCA, Oct. 20-27; and State College Friends Meeting, Oct. 25–27.