Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Tells Your Community Story?

If you're on a board of directors, you probably spend more time than you would like in meetings talking about things that aren't so fun...about the roof leaking,  or the need to raise more money,  or how to get more volunteers. In those conversations,  it seems that we often forget the why of our voluntary involvement.

I've been experimenting with a really simple way to get boards (and staff and volunteers) involved in community history to begin thinking about the why of what they do.  But it doesn't start with why,  it starts with a what, a question about what single object represents their history.   Last weekend I was down on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, working with such a group. I began the board meeting by asking each person to describe a single object that represented the county's history to them. I've tried this before and the answers are always both thoughtful and surprising.  This time was no exception.

The group of 12 or so named not a single object that could be classified as a museum collection object--but taken together, they really did represent a history of this place.   Here's some of the responses:
  • The courthouse.  I love to sit in the square in front and think.
  • The marshes, the backroads and the rhythm of nature
  • My great grandfather
  • My neighbor intense, colorful local history learned from him
  • The Bay Bridge..."I'm almost there"  when I cross it
Not a one of those can be numbered and placed on a shelf.  But each one could make an incredible exhibit, program,  community collaboration,  website or more.  It's also a lesson about differing perspectives.  That courthouse represents one history to the white citizens;  I might be willing to guess that it could mean something very different to members of the centuries-old African American community here.  But in this list of meaningful "objects"  we can see a way forward;  ways to explore different perspectives,  to make contemporary connections,  and to forge a meaningful place for local history in our communities.  Let's see your undocumented,  broken spinning wheel do that!


Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

The story of many communities, including my tiny one, is told by its old buildings. This is why I believe architectural preservation is so important. Buildings from the past are artifacts we live and work in--they are the ultimate interactive "exhibits," here today, still functioning, sheltering us, and telling of the past AND of today.

Samantha Osborne said...

These are the types of things we address with a Community Experience Plan. It's essentially a blueprint for enhancing a community’s brand by revealing the community’s unique story and recommending methods to communicate that story to visitors as well as residents. This takes into account objects, people, places, stories, etc, and recommends ways to cohesively bring together all the different experiences. Available nationwide from Taylor Studios, Inc. out of Rantoul, IL.