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While on the road last week, one visit prompted the question of whether it was necessary for a historical organization to operate a museum to be a “good historical organization.” Most of Minnesota’s historical organizations do operate a museum as those organizations are collecting institutions that want to share history through artifacts. In a sense, sometimes a museum with exhibits is the mark of being a historical organization. There’s no question that the public can connect with history through artifacts in educational exhibits, which must be housed somewhere. See the discussion on Pieces of History, for example. However, there’s also no question that museums can be quite costly to operate. How should a new organization weigh the benefits and costs of collecting, exhibiting, and operating a museum? Can a historical organization be solid without a collection or museum in which to exhibit?

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8 Responses to Necessary Museums?

  1. Mary Warner says:

    The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about this issue is the process of achieving nonprofit status and the requirements that go into maintaining that status. Obviously I’m making an assumption that our hypothetical historical organization without collections or physical plant is shooting to be nonprofit. Becoming a nonprofit is much harder than it used to be and there are far more legalities and reporting requirements involved than most people realize. This alone should give anyone thinking of starting a nonprofit great pause. Are you going to have the resources (time, energy, money, etc.) you need to keep your organization going?

    I have watched ad hoc community groups (not necessarily historical) operate without a physical plant to anchor them and what you see over time is a waning interest among members. These groups will start out all gung ho and full of energy, but this tends to trickle away. When you have collections or a museum, you have something that MUST be dealt with. Someone has to commit to caring for this stuff for the long term. It’s too easy to lose that sense of commitment without the physical plant.


  2. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Geez, David, you sure do ask the most distressing questions!

    The short answer is no, a good historical organization does not NEED a museum in which to exhibit a collection. Organizations like the Massachusetts Historical Society (which does, by the way, have a significant collection primarily of manuscript material) have operated successfully for years without having anything that could be called a museum. The Virginia Historical Society, which operated similarly to Massachusetts for years, finally expanded its operation and began exhibiting the collection that it had. Even repositories that purport only to collect manuscript and library material do seem to eventually end up with 3-dimensional collections.

    The main question in my mind about similar organizations is: are they elitist institutions? Virginia made the decision to begin exhibiting their collection and expanding their 3-dimensional collections primarily to appeal to a broader audience. A manuscript repository that holds their stuff primarily for scholars or genealogists runs the risk of becoming a "clubhouse" for a group of insiders. It’s not very friendly to youth or the rest of the general public. Obviously, Massachusetts has been perfectly o.k. with that. Virginia was not.

    On the other hand, if the historical organization is intent upon producing programs of substance for the entire spectrum of the public, but will not collect, then the elitist label would not apply. It can certainly be done.

    Me, I just hate to think about not having the museums that we have across the state. When we’re dealing with written material, we must assume a literate audience (this was an assumption that we always made at the National Archives, because we exhibited mostly documents), while 3-dimensional artifacts speak to everyone. But it is true that they can be hideously expensive to run well and properly. And it is not a bad question to ask here, where they are so many small historical organizations across the state.

    Whatever this group decides, they should make sure that they have considered all the ramifications of their decision.



  3. Bob Frame says:

    Are documents not three-dimensional objects? Too elitist and restricted to a literate audience? I’m not so sure. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, to name a couple of documents, are certainly treated as objects and are pretty accessible. As we all know, you can read the Constitution anywhere, but the object still counts. It’s not so much the item itself, but how it’s presented and exhibited that matters.

    And look at it the other way, while expanding the context. The opposite of elitist is democratic, and the point isn’t who uses what–scholars and genealogists are citizens too–but who has access to publicly held stuff supported by taxes. When MHS acquired the huge railroad archives. railroad buffs and modelers were among the most enthusiastic users. Is that a clubhouse or simply a collection being used by anyone, railfans included? The number of people researching their family histories in the History Center every day suggests that the archives and manuscript collections are not, in themselves, elitist parts of the institution. Particular collections are found by the particular people who can use them and an open, public institution that encourages such access is more democratic than elitist. Among the institutions with the largest collections of documents for literate users, but which is one of our most democratic institutions, is the public library.


  4. Claudia Nicholson says:

    No, Bob, I do not think the vast majority of documents are three-dimensional objects. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are those rare documents that are valued for their "artifact-ness" quite as much as their content. But in the main, documents are valuable for their content.

    I do agree that historians and genealogists are citizens, too, and therefore, if an organization is primarily serving them, it is still carrying out its charter purpose. But If you are not a historian or genealogist, then an archival/manuscript repository is just not going to attract you like a place that also has three-dimensional objects.

    Letters, diaries, treaties, even government forms can be indispensable parts of museum exhibits. But most three-dimensional objects can be understood by the general public without any label information at all. A chair will usually be understood immediately as something for sitting upon. A little bit of reading would be required to recognize most documents.

    And I do think that the crux of David’s question was less about democratic institutions and more about what is necessary to make a public institution attractive to the general public (correct me if I am wrong, David).

    The examples that I gave of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Virginia Historical Society were more about hard-headed corporate decisions about who they wanted their audience to be, and whether or not that audience could support them. My point is that Virginia opted to open itself up to everyone, as a way to garner further support. Massachusetts did not.

    So the answer becomes, then, "No, a collecting institution does not need to have what would be considered by most to be a ‘museum’ in order to exist." It all depends upon who you want to serve, why, and how well you can be supported by them.


  5. Mary Warner says:

    That’s interesting, Claudia. We’re thinking different thoughts on the issue. I thought David was asking whether an organization needed artifacts or a building in order to hang together as an organization, not necessarily as a way to attract visitors/users. Care to elaborate on what you were specifically driving at here, David?


  6. David Grabitske says:

    My initial question was really aimed at the notion new organizations often have that they must have a museum with exhibits and artifact collections to be legitimate. Somehow having that situation legitimizes is along the lines of "If it quacks like a duck, flies like a duck, and walks like a duck, it must be a duck." New organizations struggling to find resources to operate probably should not take on the costly responsibility of buildings and collections. I do not think it is mandatory for an organization to operate costly methods of educating the public. Historical organizations exist, usually, to foster a connection between the public and the past. There are a great many methods to do just that: museums, exhibits, traveling exhibits, publications, walking tours, living history, public access television, newsletters, bicycle tours, lectures, preservation workshops, genealogical training seminars, bus tours, radio programs, and many, many more. Some of these require more work than others, and some require more money than others.

    Mary’s point that the nonprofit organization is a separate issue from its functions is valid, but one that people have a hard time keeping distinct. Claudia’s initial point built on Mary’s to suggest considering the ramifications of decisions. Bob’s comment points to the access to history that historical organizations provide. Deciding what kind of access to what types of record (paper, artifacts, buildings, etc.) is part of considering the ramifications that Claudia noted earlier. Claudia’s second post is close to the mark. Rather than considering what makes a historical organization attractive to users, my question related more to whether an organization needed to have a museum to be a legitimate historical organization.

    So, if any of you were to start a new historical organization, what functions would be most cost-effective to educate the public within limited means? Please elaborate.


  7. Mary Warner says:

    Put that way, David, I think an organization whose purpose is to assist small historical societies in digitizing collections would be useful. The Minnesota Digital Library does just this, only I’m thinking more along the lines of an organization that would assist historical societies on an individual level. Some of us like our individuality, but don’t have the time or expertise to do everything. Genealogy societies have long assisted local historical societies in tasks such as indexing obituaries and cemeteries.

    This was before my time, but when the Morrison County Historical Society was located in the Courthouse and didn’t have to meet the needs of a building, society staff and volunteers spent way more time out in the community doing educational programs. With the building, the focus shifted to trying to bring people here and to maintenance of the structure. Not that either is necessarily better or worse than the other, but they’re different. How many organizations have gone through these sorts of changes? It’s a life cycle thing. Most of us started out with very little and the accumulation of collections moved us into the category of building owners.


  8. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Well, David, to answer your question, I think you just take all the work that county and local historical societies are doing, and subtract the building and the exhibits. This would be freeing, to a certain extent, as Mary points out the burdens of being a landlord (I had never thought about a building as a millstone preventing progress, but after taking a good look at my expenses this year, I can absolutely see that).

    A historical organization that does programs, classes, driving and walking tours of their area, cemetery preservation, supports research and publishing would be a dandy historical organization.

    Me, though, I like the stuff.


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