This is a rant. Its about the small museum’s obsession with official, legitimate, super-important-making frames and plaques.
I work for a (very) small history museum. While I do have a part -time job at a large museum run by an even larger entity, I also freelance for other (very, very) small history museums. These are the kind of places with a microscopic budget raised by lasagna dinners and a handful of membership fees and donations. They are almost all volunteer-run. So this rant is accompanied by a huge helping of guilt.
I give as much advice as a I can to small museums. I’m for raising the bar at all museums and sharing knowledge is the first step. There is, however, something I haven’t told them yet. I can bring myself to break it to them. I’m not even sure that I know how to put it diplomatically. Its about the frames…and the plaques. Continue reading
A recent post from the Stuff About Minneapolis blog shared a photo from the online collections at the Minnesota Historical Society:
The subject was momentarily surprising and, despite the oddity of finding a crack pipe inspiring– that’s exactly what it was. As an historian, I’ve spent years promoting the idea that the recent past is important and has a place in museums and interpretation.
Why I was intrigued by this particular collection item was that part of me was taken aback and came close to thinking, “hey, that’s not…” before remembering that I spend a good deal of my time explaining why some recent artifact or another is valuable to our human story. This very real look at culture from just 17 years ago sparked some emotions in me and got me thinking about collecting the recent past.
The Minnesota Historical Society isn’t the only historical agency that is committed to collecting the kinds of artifacts that we think of as new. Some members of the East Coast’s largest historical society, the multiple-state Historic New England found it strange that this institution put a George Foreman Grill in its collections. Historic New England’s CEO had this to say about “new “ history.
At Historic New England, where we have added a flower-decorated orange crock pot and a George Foreman grill to our collection, such acquisitions often draw either chuckles or criticism. How can those represent history, we are asked. Why would you want to save that?
Americans are great storytellers who generally value their personal experiences and community and national accomplishments. Such stories include the everyday and the typical as well as the unique and extraordinary.
In our community preservation work, in our museum collections, and in our personal saving of the stories of our families and our lives, we need to recognize that history begins one minute ago, and we need to work to ensure that a complete record of our own time survives so that the future can understand the experiences of today.
The 20th century is entirely history. Its buildings and artifacts and images need to be preserved and collected now, as part of the continuum of history that enriches American lives.
Often we think of the “50 year” rule to declare something as historic. Historic Registry status for buildings works this way and the 1950s and 1960s are just now finding their place in brick-and-mortar museums. The wildly popular 1968 exhibit that debuted at the Minnesota Historical Society and is currently in Oakland shook up people’s expectations and might just be the heralding of a new era in exhibitions.
In 2012, my little museum mounted an exhibit that presented the Christmas of 1977 in an immersive room exhibit. While I had to answer the usual questions about why and what for, it all became worth it when one dad brought in his ten year old daughter to show her the orange and macrame world of his own youth. They discussed the phone that had a cord, the TV that had rabbit ears and two dials, and, at the very end, she asked her father why there were so many calendars. Her confused dad realized that the cardboard squares that had piqued his daughter’s curiosity weren’t calendars but record albums (he quickly promised to stop by her grandparents on the way home and introduce her to music on vinyl!).
If time seems to be moving faster, shouldn’t our collections policies and our attitudes about what is history keep pace? Does your museum collect “yesterday’s history?” Where should the line be between an object of the present and an object of the past? Should there even be a line?