Often local history museums have been started by older people in a community, folks at or near retirement who are thinking of their personal legacies or the legacies of their community. They’ve got the time and motivation to start a collection or save a building and put together a coalition of similar-minded, and usually similar-aged, people to get a museum launched.
This is by no means the only way local history museums get started, but it has been so common in the past that there is still a lingering stereotype in the field about museums being run by old women in tennis shoes.
Because such museum founders are resourceful and have created their museums as a labor of love, these museums are operated with a bare minimum of funds, with those involved donating their time to the endeavor.
As such, communities have come to expect that their local history museums will always be operated with volunteers, who, by definition, are not paid for their labor.
Because collections items are primarily donated to such museums, communities assume there is no real cost to taking care of these items. Once artifacts are on a shelf, what else do they need? The costs of archival boxes and tissue and envelopes and cataloging and environmental controls (heating & air conditioning & museum maintenance) and making these artifacts accessible to the public are unseen. Another unseen cost is the effort and time it takes to dispose of donated items that don’t belong in the collection, items given to a museum because “they are too good for a landfill,” but the owners don’t know what else to do with them.
If local history museums with this genesis are lucky, the founders will have figured out a succession plan before they suffer “two broken hips” and have to abandon the museum for health reasons.
As I write this, I can’t help but think about the genesis of my own institution, the Morrison County Historical Society, whose first president/curator was Valentine Kasparek, an old man in a suit, rather than a woman (although the first board of directors contained 5 women, who outnumbered the 2 other men and Val). Val served the organization for 15 years, until he died, at which point another man took the helm, Alex Huddleston, who served from 1952 until 1958, when he died of a heart attack.
I suspect Val and Alex would have found two broken hips preferable to their demise, but the result was the same: the Morrison County Historical Society became inactive. It was through the work of Arch Grahn of the Minnesota Historical Society that interested community members were gathered together to re-energize the organization and a mix of people of a wider range of ages got involved.
Eventually, the organization moved beyond being run solely by volunteers and paid staff were hired. As the organization worked to achieve professional museum standards, written policies and procedures were put in place in order to assist with succession efforts.
While the Morrison County Historical Society has a relatively stable base of funding, it is not enough to hire all the staff we need and provide them with health insurance. We currently have 2.5 full-time equivalents on staff while we need 4 to 5. We also need more funding in order to properly handle maintenance of our museum building, which is over 40 years old and needs a new heating/air conditioning system, roof, exterior doors … and so much more.
Though we have moved beyond the situation of being “two broken hips away from closing,” society has not yet caught up to the idea that we should be operating on more than a threadbare shoestring. This is an attitude that local history museums have to work hard to overcome, particularly because local history museums are part of a community’s infrastructure.
Let me restate that because it is important: History is infrastructure within a community. Just like libraries, fire stations, roads, and hospitals.
By collecting, preserving, and providing access to a community’s history, local history museums give a community a sense of where it has come from, a continuity of all the people, events, and activities that combine to create its culture. Local history museums provide proof of its citizens’ place within a particular geography.
That all sounds very high-minded, but it is at the base of how we define ourselves as both individuals and community members.
Minnesota historian Hy Berman said it best:
“A community without a knowledge of its past is like a person with amnesia. It can exist and function from day to day, but its lack of memory leaves it without a feeling of purpose, direction or identity.”
As infrastructure, local museums deserve to be funded at appropriate levels so that their existence and all the community history they contain aren’t threatened by crumbling facilities and two broken hips.