Sunday, November 14, 2010

How Do You Put People in the Picture of Local History? 2 Smart Ideas

As I've written about historical societies in danger of becoming dinosaurs--and in the many thoughtful comments I've received--it has become clear that one major problem is that, in a nation where we move often and rarely live where we grew up,  that local history museums haven't quite figured out how to put all of their audience--not just the long term locals--into the picture of local history.  They risk becoming irrelevant to their audiences and their communities.  But I've heard about two inspiring, fun and engaging efforts, neither by a local history museum,  that do just that--create relevance and meaning for audiences and communities.

First,  Love, Loss and What I Wore.  Years ago I had picked up this little book at a used book sale and loved it.  By Ilene Beckerman,  it's an autobiography, a memoir, told through her simple line drawings and descriptions of what she wore.  It's now been turned into a Broadway play by Nora and Delia Ephron that, as the play's website says, "uses clothing and accessories and the memories they trigger to tell funny and often poignant stories that all women can relate to."   At the performance though,  playgoers are invited to draw a picture of themselves in a favorite item of clothing and share the details about it.  Those simple drawings are then featured on the play's Facebook page.   What a great idea to adapt to a local historical society exhibit--and it could mean that everyone with a favorite clothes memory could be included, not just those families who donated those wedding dresses.

Carol Kammen, the Tompkins County, NY historian, and a regular columnist for AASLH's History News, introduced me to a new initiative of the Tompkins County local historians (in New York, an appointed and largely unpaid position in municipal governments of all sizes) called House History.  In this project, homeowners are encouraged to record the history of the house they live in on a brightly colored House Tag that can be stored in a front closet, near the electrical box, or in other easy-to-find location.  A longer two page form collects additional information about the house and neighborhood and can be filed with the local historian's office.

Importantly, however, this project is not just for historic homes.  The Tompkins County historians are encouraging all to participate and have already had submissions from owners of new homes, who welcome the idea of leaving a lasting record of their particular place.  This project,  like Love, Loss and What I Wore opens up the possibility of participation to everyone; and in both cases, thinks not only about the past, but about the future.

What else could a local history organization do to connect all of their community?  If you've undertaken a project, please let me know!

Images, top to bottom: Norris family photo, drawing from Love, Loss and What I Wore audience member, and houses, both from  FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress.



Great post Linda! I see this as all about the idea of recognizing communities in society that extend beyond geography. If we as cultural heritage professionals can help people recognize multiple connections to other people, I think that we help individuals better understand their place in local history and culture.

Here's an initiative I heard about on NPR this morning about cherished mail. (I was waiting to write about it in my own blog, but I think it fits here perfectly.) I think it is another example of helping people connect to history in general, and can be used to connect them to local history in particular. NPR is encouraging people to take photographs of a piece of mail they cherish to encourage them to think about the role the ailing postal service has played in our lives. If one encourages people to think about their mailbox, their local post office, the old corner store that handled mail, etc. one can easily make this locally relevant. .
Thought-provoking blog Linda. Thanks!

Richard Urban said...

Are any local history organizations finding ways to replicate more traditional ways of sharing this information online? When doing research on houses I've lived in, (see here and here) little tidbits left in vertical files of my community proved invaluable. I probably ought to print out my research and turn it over - but it would also be great if there were a way for me to just add it to an online "wiki" for my community.

Linda Norris said...

Melissa--thanks for sharing the NPR story--and as I read this I imagined my college acceptance envelope--a fat one! and Richard, I love the idea of a community/house history Wiki--so easy and could be really wonderful. I hope some community--maybe yours--will undertake it. Thanks for sharing your projects.
Linda said...

Îţi place să scrii articole şi eşti pasionat de muzică?
Eşti la curent de fiecare dată când artiştii tăi preferaţi lansează ceva nou?
Îţi place muzica în general sau asculţi doar un anumit gen?
Îţi place să te uiţi la filme şi să le povesteşti celorlalţi filmele care ţi-au plăcut cel mai mult?
Doreşti să promovezi artişti prin interviuri, biografii, ştiri?
Îţi place să te distrezi la concerte, să faci poze, iar a doua zi să povesteşti atmosfera?
Alătură-te echipei – un site cu şi despre muzică!
Contact: – Pentru că muzica aparţine tuturor!

David Grabitske said...


Thoughtful post as always. Several examples over the years have stuck with me for their effort, intended or not, to weave in transient populations. Hennepin History Museum's acclaimed exhibit, "Unsatisfied: Minneapolis Rock in the 1980s," (2001) dramatically raised attendance. No matter if you were in Minneapolis at the time or not, that music resonated with many. The Carver County Historical Society's sesquicentennial exhibit for the county, "Choosing Carver County" (2004) looks at the reasons people over time have had to choose to live in the county. And, as a result of this year's traumatic tornado on June 17, the Wadena County Historical Society has been making recordings of survivors' stories regardless of how long someone has lived there.