Today's New York Times has an article about what it calls "shiny new history museums," that are attracting hordes of visitors. Mentioned among them are the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Mount Vernon, the Lincoln Museum and the International Spy Museum. Several parts of the story raise some interesting thoughts. Gone, says author Kathryn Shattuck, "are shelves of crusty artifacts, yellowed text panels stuffed with dates and names and the 'excitement' of a stale soda cracker behind glass that some historical figure may have sampled."
Okay, so I'm happy to have those shelves of dusty artifacts and those jam-packed text panels making an exit, but I'm perhaps a little less happy to see that those equivalents of stale soda crackers disappear. We are, as museums, about the real...so the chance to see real objects, connected to real people--and all kinds of real people, not just Washington and Lincoln, are what make us unique as a place.
I do agree though, with the emphasis on storytelling as one of our most important functions, particularly as it helps us as visitors make those direct connections to our own lives. (as an aside, I'm intrigued that a number of these new museums are about war and the military--what does that mean for us today?)
Equally important though is to consider what this trend means for the small history museum in your community, wherever you may be. If you go on vacation and try out the spy phones at the Spy Museum, or test your marksmanship at the Marine Corps Museum, what does it mean when you come home? Does it make you less likely to visit, volunteer at, or support your community museum because it doesn't offer a big bang experience? Small museums can't offer that big bang, but what they can offer is that direct connection to your own life. You can learn about where you live--what happened down the street--both good and bad. Community museums may not be able to compete in the big media department, but we can, with some intelligence, care and imagination, compete very well in the storytelling department.