Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Finding a Sense of Place

I began a new consulting project last week at the all volunteer Sayre Historical Society in Sayre, Pa, that reminded me, once again, about why local history matters. I barely knew Sayre, but my two days in the archives there gave me a chance to get a sense of a place. The historical society--not yet open to the public--is in a beautiful 19th century passenger depot once used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. As I sat going through the archives and collections records, I began to get a sense of this particular community. Trains--unfortunately no longer passenger ones--still pass right by the building, so my day was filled with the huffing of trains and the occassional whistle. As I looked across the tracks, I could see several large, somewhat decrepit buildings--I found out they were once hotels for railroad workers laying over. In the further distance, the dome of the Ukrainian Church...just one block down, the new restaurant serving falafels and grape leaves, both places evidence of the diversity of immigrants that have made Sayre their home. Sayre has a tremendous tradition of music--bands from the locomotive shops, church groups, country-western groups--I found pictures, uniforms and instruments from many of them. Driving back to my hotel, I passed a small, beautifully restored bandstand in the square--and, a small miracle in this day of multi-plexes--a still operating movie theater right on the town square.

All of this is why I work in local history. In a way, it's like putting on x-ray glasses, allowing me to see back into a community--and then to gain an understanding of the community's present, and I hope, help a community to envision its future.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Museum Thoughts

This blog is a way to continue my own thinking about museums--mostly, but not exclusively--community history museums. I hope to write about some of my independent projects on exhibits and interpretation, thoughts raised by my work with undergraduate students, and a grab bag of ideas that I glean from reading, talking and otherwise considering the place of museums and history in contemporary life.

I thought I'd start with a copy of a letter from the Walter Elwood Museum's archives, kindly sent to me by the museum's collections manager, Kathleen Coleman. Dated January 3, 1963, the letter reads:

Dear Sirs:
I am a ten year old girl who is going to start a museum this spring. I have some money saved for the museum building. Do you have any information that you could send me about the subjects listed below?
1. Starting the museum
2. Arranging the exhibits
3. Size and kind of building to use.
4. What would people be interested in? (I have many exhibits already)
5. How should the exhibits be mounted and labeled?
Thank you.

and it is signed Marilyn Hansen, from Olive Bridge, NY. I don't know whether Marilyn ever started her museum, but her questions in some form or another, are the questions that all of us in the museum field strive to answer--and that, in this blog, I hope to consider.