Somewhat to my surprise, my earlier post really hit a nerve with readers--well over a thousand hits so far. I've appreciated the thoughtful comments that I've received both here on the blog and directly in emails. In this post, I share some of those comments and try to continue my own thinking on the topic.
Is there a disconnect between professionalism and these organizations? Why, after decades of training and an enormous increase in the number of museum studies programs haven't more organizations moved forward? I think it's often too easy to blame the organizations, which in a way, is like blaming a student when he or she doesn't learn. Perhaps it's not the student, but our teaching and training methods (and I write that having run a museum service organization for more than a decade). I think it's worth questioning what our expectations are for local history groups and how we do training and professional development, including the graduate level training of museum professionals. How can we, those of us who are museum professionals, do it better?
History Museum? Community Organization? or groan, Hysterical Society?
In his comment, David Grabitske described 3 kinds of local history museums:
1) those that have got their act together and do very well adapting to economic woes much like their larger counterparts,
2) those that have professionalized but lack the support base due to many years of unclear direction, and
3) those that operate on a shoestring that are never affected by the economy because they are too small to suffer adverse affects.
It is category two that seem at the most risk because of unsettled stakeholder buy-in.
An anonymous commenter shared another perspective on how to define local history organizations.
Many small museums don't consider themselves "professional" organizations, but comprised of people who love their community and express it through the local historical society. Others do so through Scouts, arts groups, sports, Boys/Girls clubs, etc. So we're talking less about the museum field as much as we're talking about local community service, in one of its many forms.
I think that's a critical factor--and I'd argue that many organizations, saddled by a decrepit building and undocumented collections are hindered in becoming the vital, important community organization they could be, real places of community engagement and community service. Should they be a history club and not a collecting institution? Perhaps.
Another historical society director wrote about the problems of public perception:
The one problem always facing us, which you did not mention - public perception of historical societies is, for all the reasons you mentioned, fairly dismal, and we need to continually face the challenge of overcoming the characterization that we are either the hysterical or the hisnorical society (a persona that, unfortunately, so many blue haired ladies and bow-tied gentlemen have worked diligently over decades to maintain in historical societies everywhere).
Focus on Your Strengths
But there's not a single magic answer. The solutions are different for every organization, as Suzanne Buchanan of the Hingham Historical Society eloquently wrote:
As the director of a local historical society, I find that my organization, and several similar ones nearby are bucking the trend. Yes, we’re perpetually short staffed, and lack professionalization in some areas. But we’ve found that if you join the fray and market your organization creatively, you can get a lot of folks interested in local history and its preservation. I find the most useful thing about AASLH sessions is sharing ideas that work with colleagues and learning how not to re-invent the wheel.
Each historical society has its specific local assets and drawbacks that define the parameters that one has to work within. It’s good to figure out how to capitalize on the assets and not waste time trying fix inherent weaknesses (eg. we capitalized on our location in a retail center by expanding our gift shop. My peers our more rural areas don’t bother, and work instead on events that draw large numbers of people to their large sites for picnics, outdoor events. I have found that if you focus on your strengths, you’re not left with much time to wring your hands about the future or the weaknesses you can’t fix. (And, yes, our website is very out of date, but we’re working on it.)
I look forward to continuing to think and talk about this. I attended a session at AASLH about the Museum Different, a fascinating look at what mainstream museums can learn from tribal cultural centers that I think relates directly to many of these issues. Blog post to come on it.
It's been terrific to hear from so many readers and so many different perspectives. Keep those comments coming!
Front of combined Evangeline Museum and Navy store, Saint Martinville, Louisiana.
Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.