Monday, May 16, 2011

What Can You Do Besides Start a Museum?

Last week, my co-presenter and I had a great conversation about our session at the AASLH conference in Richmond this fall about whether local historical societies are dinosaurs.  I've volunteered to take the position in our debate that they are rapidly becoming so.  As a result, I've been trying to find alternative models--and hope to highlight examples that have come across my desk.

In Tompkins County, NY,  a local group, spear-headed by county historian Carol Kammen (known to many readers of History News for her regular column) has established scholarships at the local community college to honor four local Civil War nurses.   It would have been easy to say, "oh,  we should have a museum of nursing, or a museum of civil war nursing!"  Then a non-profit would have been established,  a board of directors established, a building donated,  a small group of objects obtained, and then...and then what?  It would join the dozens of other small organizations that are struggling to find adequate financial resources,  volunteers,  and community interest.

Instead,  the proposed $80,000 scholarship fund (of which more than half has already been raised)  will provide support for nurses and "reminds us of the sacrifices made by many - both past and present. Your support creates scholarships, rewards those seeking an education, aids faculty with their own professional development, and strengthens the quality of life for all"  (from the college website).

Susan Emily Hall of Ulysses,  Sarah Graham Parker of Enfield, Sophronia Bucklin of Auburn and Julia Cook--names that otherwise might have been forgotten will be remembered through acts,  not just through a static display.

 If you have examples of ways in which we can engage our communities in history outside the framework of a historical society--please let me know!

Image:  Sophronia Bucklin, via the Tompkins History Center


Samantha said...

I actually really like this idea. And it can be applied to any field. Even for museum studies students!


Donna Ann Harris said...

Linda you know I agree with you. I am doing a presentation in New Jersey on June 3 on my continuing theme of other uses--any use even--than a house museum. Here is the link to the conference web site.
I will see you in Richmond, doing two sessions on Thursday. Donna Ann Harris, Heritage Consulting Inc.

Jasper Visser said...

Of course, I applaud taking action instead of building static displays. I do believe actions like these can start from museums though. Rather than having all the (small) museum think "we should have done that!" and then return to their daily duties, let's make them incubators for this kind of great projects.

In the end, I firmly believe that a museum worthy of the 21st century should pick the right media (in the broadest sense of the word, including outreach, expositions, etc.) to truly connect with their audience and to make culture, history and heritage meaningful to people.

Carol Kammen said...

Thank you for mentioning the Tompkins County Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission [ridiculous name, I know] and the Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) joint effort to honor our Civil War nurses.
We began this to remind folks that everyone participated in that war; that women at home sent supplies and letter, they did the work that needed to be done while men were gone...and they waited for their loved ones to come home. We wanted to insert gender into the Civil War discussion.
Our living memorial seemed like a wonderful way to connect our local history, the history of women, and of nursing, to the present. The alternative suggested was a bronze marker in the park; we hadn't considered a museum but applaud the fine National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.
Locally, we wanted something that vibrantly connected the local past and the present, and this scholarship in the names of these four women will aid current nursing students at TC3. We acknowledge the self interest in this: we will all, at one time or another, need good nursing care.
I was rather astonished that there is no national monument to Civil War nurses other than the one at Dupont Circle in Washington, DC dedicated to the Roman Catholic sisters who nursed. They deserve to be remembered, but so do the more than 21,000 others who went off from home, to battlefield and hospital, doing so even though they were told "it is no place for a woman."
This is a rather thrilling story to tell and we all feel honored to be able to explore this aspect of that war. We do invite anyone/everyone to help with the scholarship fund: we are hoping for broad interest from a great number of people and donations have ranged from $10 to $5,000 (well, not so many of the latter). What we have been able to do is use history to point to our current need for good nurses, to show the connection between now and then, and to explain how changes have occurred over time.
This is a thrilling project and I really thank you for citing it.
I would welcome comments about what we are doing, and I would especially like the names of other women from New York who nursed during the war. Contributions are always welcome and it would be good to see historians and people in related fields, as well as people nearby help with this effort: please go to


David said...

This is a worthy example since it addresses one of the most important criteria for preserving history: helping people in the present. Local history organizations did that in the early 20th century by organizing records to help veterans establish their eligibility to access certain benefits. This example carries on that fine tradition by keeping history relevant. Bravo, and well done, Carol!

Linda Norris said...

Great comments all, and thanks for commenting! Carol, I bet you could pick up loads of NYS nurse info by posting a request for such on the Museumwise (formerly UHA) list-serv.

Jasper, your comment made me realize that I know very little about how small, local museums are created in other places (well, other than Ukraine where they are almost always still government-run). Are there groups in the Netherlands that establish local museums and then how are they funded? It is in part a lack of vision and ideas, but also a lack of resources at times here.

David--helping people in the present-a great mantra for history organizations of any size, using any medium as Jasper mentions.

Thanks all--and Samantha, hopefully there's an inventive museum job out there for you somewhere!


Alena said...

As co-host of the Living History Podcast I can tell you that there is a vibrant community out there composed of folks who spend most of their free time saturated in history. I’m talking about reenactors, members of the SCA, Renaissance Faire participants etc. A recent article by D. A. Saguto published in Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine ( on reenacting suggests that the number of reenactors is growing. I know many museum people who turn up their noses at these amateurs who get obsessed with some little detail at the cost of the bigger picture, but I’d like to point out that many reenactors shudder when museum folks make mistakes (and I promise they do make mistakes or compromises often for budgetary reasons, reenactors notice.)

One of the major differences that I have noticed between museum “professionals” and reenactors (or Independent Living History Enthusiasts as the serious ones like to be called,) is that museums try to be fairly outward focused, on being a part of the community or on educating their constituents, while many LHEs are inwardly focused, on their own knowledge, creating clothing for themselves, acquiring their own historical goods and skills. That is a huge generalization, and I know that there are inward focused museums and education focused LHEs but I think it is a generalization that holds up.

What does this have to do with the slow demise of small museums, often community or historic house museums? I guess I wanted to point out that history is not dead, that LH events are growing in number and in size, and that maybe LH events and reenactments fit a little better with the self-centered “what’s in it for me” generation.

Laura Roberts said...

I am a big fan of MassHumanities' Mass Moments program. Better than either a museum or a book! Lively, topical and relatively easy to be timely.

Gobae said...

In addition to excellent comments that Alena made regarding re-enactors, another approach to engage people in history is through 'historic skills' classes. Start dissecting any museum and you will find there are skills behind every artifact on display.

Some of these skills have morphed and survived into the present day (such as Nursing) and can best be promoted via scholarships. Others no longer have a modern incarnation and exist only through the enthusiastic practice of dedicated individuals (often the aforementioned re-enactors). And some are so long forgotten that they need to be reconstructed through "Experimental Archaeology".

But, regardless of the current state of the skill, classes and workshops using the same processes that historic people where using in their daily lives provide the most powerful and tangible link to the items of any museum's showcase.

With the "virtual internet age" becoming more commonplace the active and tangible connection between museum and patron will become more important not less. Historic skills provide this link.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks everyone for such great additions, thoughts and comments--much fodder for our AASLH presentation this spring. Keep those ideas coming!