September 2008


Congratulations to public history blogger Larry Cebula on his new job in Washington State!  His excellent blog, Northwest History, is a great resource for research on the Pacific Northwest and all things digital-historical.  Check it out and tell him I sent you!

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Are you excited for Superstruct? The massively multiplayer online game about building the future will be up in a few weeks (Oct 6) though the story is up now. The game, to be played in familiar internet spaces, is, according to organizer Institute for the Future, based on scenarios of the near future in 2019: “By playing the game, you’ll help us chronicle the world of 2019–and imagine how we might solve the problems we’ll face. Because this is about more than just envisioning the future. It’s about making the future, inventing new ways to organize the human race and augment our collective human potential.” This is a super imaginative and fun way to think about the history and future of technology and human societies. Here’s a nice article about it.

The AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums is urging museum professionals to play Superstruct. They even provide some dire museum-based stories to think about:

It’s 2019. Your museum is informed that an international group currently touring your building was exposed to the latest deadly strain of Respiratory Distress Syndrome. You are instructed to lock down the museum and shelter staff and visitors in place while authorities determine whether anyone is infected. Are you prepared to deal with this?

Other snapshots from 2019: Is your museum ready to help your community cope with an influx of refugees fleeing climate change, food shortages and political upheaval? How will your operations change in the face of soaring energy prices or collapse of the food production and distribution system? Your museum depends on its website to deliver information and attract visitors, but your content has been corrupted repeatedly in the past few months by hackers attempting to undermine your credibility. How do you adapt?

According to the CFM, “AAM will work with IFTF to summarize and report on your solutions, and use them as the basis of further planning and discussion with you and with the field.” At hanging together, Gunter imagines another dire museum scenario.

Keep this on your radar, folks! I’ll try to report on (and create) museum and history stories on Superstruct as the game progresses.

The American Association for State and Local History’s annual meeting is happening this week in Rochester, NY, and you can look in on the meeting virtually through the AASLH’s great annual meeting blog. I’m really heartened by this trend of conference blogging, even for organizations that don’t have much interactive web presences. At the AASLH blog you can learn about conference sessions, meetings, field trips to local history sites, and what local historians are talking about in the elevators. The AASLH has a team of bloggers from local history organizations across the country, including Minnesota’s own Local History Services head honcho, David Grabitske.

While you’re in Rochester, local historians, you should check out my favorite special collections, at the Miner Library at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Tell ’em I sent you.

Since I’ve been talking about museums in an election year, I’ll put in another plug for Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, on the ballot this November to create a dedicated funding stream for environmental and cultural programs. The folks from the campaign have been busy recently, with a poster contest, a film contest, and a supercharged booth at the State Fair (since they’re asking people to be “Minnesota heroes” in November, people could play Guitar Hero at the booth). Check out their website for more information.

I think the referendum is a great idea, and of course I’d like dedicated funding for the environment and cultural programs, but I do wish there was more emphasis on history. Originally it was called the “Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment,” which I liked a lot. History is missing in this new formulation (except as part of “legacy,” which is a little mealy-mouthed), and I haven’t seen much outreach to people in the state’s local history community (of which I was a part up to last week, remember), who could be great advocates for this. But do vote for the amendment, and do join the campaign on facebook and other social networking sites, and, if you’re so moved, make a video for Yes for MN’s contest about how important local history is to the state of Minnesota. I would be happy to post any videos about local history here.

The Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Papers at Oregon State have started a nice blog with discussions of Pauling’s life and work as well as cataloguing, collections management and preservation. (Pauling was an OSU grad.) They’ve put up tons of content already, so it’s a great resource on Pauling as well as on special collections work in general. OSU, which has a history of science graduate program, has extensive history of science special collections; the Pauling papers alone take up 1800 boxes! Go check them out!

For a small local history museum, the Dorothy G. Page Museum has been getting unusual amounts of national publicity.

The city-owned museum in Wasilla, Alaska has been spotlighted (or, well, mentioned in passing) in discussions of VP hopeful Sarah Palin’s record as mayor of the smallish town near Anchorage. After Palin took office in the late ’90s, she fired or asked for the resignation of many top city officials, including the museum director, John Cooper, and the library director (who was later spared). Palin also pushed through drastic budget cuts for the museum, whose mission is “to identify, collect, preserve, research, interpret and exhibit the cultural and historical heritage of Wasilla, Knik and Willow Creek areas,” cutting $32,000 a year from a museum with an annual budget of around $200,000. Additionally, three long-term employees were told that one of them must leave and all three resigned in protest. Media reports unfailingly describe these staff members as “septuagenarian,” “grey-haired,” “matronly,” or just “old.” For this I’ll excerpt an article from the Anchorage Daily News, August 1997, which has been making the rounds on the web (for instance, as well as this, and Jessamyn has discussed the library implications):

Opal Toomey, Esther West and Ann Meyers don’t seem like politically active types. There are no bumper stickers on their cars, no pins on their lapels.But the three gray-haired matrons of Wasilla’s city museum decided to take a stand last week. Faced with a $32,000 budget cut and the prospect of choosing who would lose her job, the three 15-year-plus employees decided instead to quit en masse. They sent a letter to the mayor and City Council announcing they plan to retire at the end of the month, leaving the museum without a staff. They also sent a message: They’d rather quit than continue working for a city that doesn’t want to preserve its history.

”We hate to leave,” said Meyers, who at 65 is the youngest of the three. ”We’ve been together a long time. But this is enough.” If the city were broke, it would be different, she said. ”If they were even close to being broke.”

Instead, the city is flush thanks to a 2 percent sales tax passed in 1994 that has left it with $4 million in reserves. There is no reason the museum’s budget should be cut, Meyers said . . . .

The women are only the latest to leave the city payroll, noted John Cooper, who was the museum’s director until Palin fired him last fall.

In addition to Cooper, Wasilla Police Chief Irl Stambaugh left last winter after Palin fired him, and planning director Duane Dvorak and Public Works director John Felton turned in their resignations this summer.

”People are voting with their feet,” he said.

Palin maintains she is doing what voters asked. To have $4 million in reserves is prudent. That’s not even an entire year’s budget, she said.

Much of the latest flap over the museum is a misunderstanding, she said.

All the council wanted was to cut back the museum’s hours in winter from seven days a week to five. The women made the decision to resign, Palin said.

West, Toomey and Meyers disagree. They say they were told that one of them would have to leave in September.

Unfortunately, when small museums have their budgets cut, it usually doesn’t make national news. And if it makes national news ten years later, as it has here in Wasilla, that’s too late for the artifacts and the dedicated volunteers and staff. The city’s website, though, shows the museum open six days a week during the tourist season, including a visitors center and museum with exhibits, and a historic town site with several preserved buildings. My hunch is that these budget cuts made continuing exhibits and programs more important than collections care, but that perhaps the funding has been restored by now. Wasilla also has several other museums, though the city only runs the Page museum and historic town site.

The lesson I draw from this incident, far from being a reflection on national politics, is that, on the contrary, local politics is far more influential for small museums. As I’ve said before, it just takes one county commissioner or mayor who doesn’t understand what museums do and thinks your museum is a waste of money to make decisions that will endanger the future of your museum. And on the local level, it’s much easier to find out candidates’ positions on museum and humanities funding and to influence those positions with your museum advocacy bloc. Susie at Museum Audience Insight notes that museum enthusiasts, a statistical group they call “museum advocates,” vote at a much much higher rate than the general public, 3.5 times more in the state of Connecticut this year. So, small history museums: you and your supporters can have a political voice.