August 2009

This week, a blow for preservationists in Orange County, VA. The county board has approved Walmart’s plans to build a store on the outskirts of Wilderness battlefield, which will radically change the character of the historic site.  Local historians have been fighting the store, but aren’t surprised by the decision.  There is some possibility, however, of a continued fight or appeal.

This news, combined with continued preservationist losses here in Detroit, is disheartening.  I can’t shake the feeling that we’re turning into CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.  Readers, do you have any positive history news to share?


Next week I’ll be in Providence, RI, attending a workshop on the future of history museums with a small group of public history types.  We’re all writing short think pieces about the future of history museums (posted on the workshop’s blog; for starters, check out Dan Spock’s piece about nostalgia); here’s mine. (more links TK, sorry)

How can web 2.0’s culture of transparency,  possibility and massive collaboration help us think about the future of history museums?  Though when we talk about the web, we tend to talk about tools, the tools are not the point.  How can we use the ways in which web is destabilizing our culture to do what we do better and keep history museums relevant, sustainable and vital?

Network effects

I recently visited a very small history museum, The Bank of Memories, in Orient, Iowa.  Located in one room in a former bank building, the museum features a large reproduction of a Mormon family and hand-drawn wagon, with a mural of the LDS migration across southern Iowa, along with a small amount of photographs and documents of local celebrities.  That’s all.  The museum is open very limited hours, and staffed entirely by volunteers.  But  it’s part of a cooperating network of museums, historic sites, and even historic wheel tracks on the Iowa Mormon Trail, part of the Mormon Pioneer Trail National Historic Trail, and a member of the private nonprofit Mormon Trails Association.  The tiny Bank of Memories becomes one stop (or “start,” as Nancy Proctor describes the quanta of mobile tours) on a long journey of stories about Mormon migration, America’s move West, and religious history, and both the small museum and the larger trail are enriched.

The idea of network effects is a commonplace: cooperation is good, and the more participants you have the more valuable—and the more surprising and exciting—the results, but recent projects on the web such as the Flickr Commons have shown that a cooperating network of museums and cultural institutions builds a larger, more diverse network of users, who bring new enthusiasm to the physical museums.

Value amateurs

Cooperating and collaborating with other institutions, joining databases, opening collections and cross-promoting are all useful, but history museums could also become more open to the contributions of amateur historians (I like to say “citizen historians”).  Sincerely involving amateurs means communicating more clearly what we do: making our policies more transparent, our collections more open.  “Renegades” are doing history already; how can we help them?  How can they help us?

Value young people

In the web space, people in their twenties and thirties program and develop, start companies, serve on boards, are thought leaders, and are generally respected as valuable colleagues, contributors and leaders, not despite or because of their age.  History museums need to do a better job of hiring, promoting, and respecting younger people and emerging professionals as colleagues and professionals.

In some ways, valuing young people needs to extend to interpretation.  The ubiquitous Victorian parlor reflects what the largest generation of history museum founders and workers remembered about their grandparents, not an inevitable avenue for talking about American social history.  The past’s vision of the past is not necessarily ours, and we need to make space for new stories and the way new people tell them.

Return of the local

With the increasing globalization of information, especially news, the local, and particularly the hyperlocal—location-aware information on news, businesses, environment, people in close proximity—has been taking on a new importance.  As newspapers go bankrupt across the country, media companies have been (paradoxically?) founding and funding local information sites.  Local history museums (and big history museums, which always exist in a place) have an opportunity to become hubs and resources for the local, for historic photos and maps, for environmental history, for helping to ground our visitors in not only time but place.

In short, the culture of the web can help move history museums toward institutions John Cotton Dana would admire:  universal, connected, accessible and relevant.

Talk about a museum as community hub:  the Wapello County Historical Museum in Ottumwa, Iowa, is also the Amtrak station and bus depot.

Wapello County Historical Museum, Ottumwa, Iowa