Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Is John Your Brother?" or Why Stories Matter

The title of this post is a question I got at the end of a presentation to a board of directors about a new long-term exhibit.  It's not quite as strange as it seems, because this was at the historical society where I began my museum career at age 14, in the community where I grew up.  The staff and I had proposed an exhibit that really encouraged and sought out community memories framed around a 20th century topic.   The board and I laughed about some shared memories of high school traditions--and then we focused on who local history museums are for.

I realized how strongly I feel that local history museums are for locals.  I think many organizations (and communities) went on an unsuccesful hunt for tourists for a number of years.  But think about it.  Do tourists become members at local history museums?  Do they donate artifacts?  Do they bequeath endowments?  Do they volunteer?  Those are the crass reasons to focus on involving your local community. 

But there's other reasons that are more important.  Real stories really matter.   They allow us to put our lives in perspective;  to understand people different from us, but from the same place;  and when carefully sought out and engagingly told, they provide a place where everyone in your community can belong.  And a focus on community means those local stories can be the core of your work--and you might be surprised how local stories, compelling told, can connect with other people.

My family has all moved away from the place I grew up but today reminded me that those connections are life-long ones.  And yes, John is my brother and I heard a couple funny stories about him today!


Jess said...

Great post. Exactly what I needed to read. I think, at least in my museum's case, we need to not only try to illustrate the stories of our community (which we really do quite well) but also make the museum one of the places where people feel connected to our community.

Anonymous said...

I curated on an exhibit for a local history society on the presence of a particular ethnic group in the community. The project included an oral history element and collecting initiative- whenever I talked to people, they all didn't think their stories were important because their families weren't doing anything notable. But when they realized that their stories of how their parents came to the town, made a life, built houses, passed on traditions, etc. were important, the excitement and pride was so evident, and truly touching. The connections were really heartwarming and the exhibit was able to reflect their joy for their own history.

Ginny Magan said...

I hope--and believe--that what we do at our small museum gives everyone, and especially locals, the sense that we are all part of the local history and it is a part of us, that Time is a continumm and here we are in the middle of it. Tourists might percieve that sense, and I certainly hope they do,but local history is LOCAL and surely it is most meaningful to us. The connection, as Jess implied, is a big part of what understanding history is about.

Samantha said...

Great timing! In one of my summer courses, I'm currently learning why it is important, esp. in history museums, to put the individual back into the collective memory.

* Crane, Susan A., “Writing the Individual Back into Collective Memory,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 102, No. 5 (December, 1997), pp. 1372-1385

* Thelen, David, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 75, No. 4 (March 1989), pp. 1117-1129

* Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory. (Spring 1989), pp. 7-24.

A great example of focusing on the individuals, the local area is the the Riley County Historical Museum in Manhattan, KS. This museum has an excellent exhibition that focuses on the everyday people. The exhibit is titled The Land and the People: The Settlement of Riley County. Although it broadly sweeps over the history of Native Americans in Kansas, it does a great job focusing on the everyday life of settlers in Riley County. Display cases feature a blacksmith, county officials, soldier, etc. I had never heard of anyone that was featured in the exhibition (doesn't mention famous locals, presidents, etc) and because the museum choose to do this I felt like I could step back in time and imagine myself in their shoes.

Mus(eum)ings: Musings from a Museum Intern