About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Watonwan County Historical Society in Madelia inspired generous support to complete this addition in 2004.

As is often said, the actions of a few museums color the way the public perceives all museums. The reaction can take various forms, from harmless opinions to legislative corrections suddenly deemed necessary. This is unfortunate, and perhaps the most effective step the history museum community in Minnesota can be to help refocus the message onto more productive lines of public discourse.

The Wall Street Journal of December 21, 2010, carried the article by Clare Ansberry, “For Jimmy Stewart Museum, a Not-So-Wonderful Plight.” The story is familar: lots of initial enthusiasm for a museum, followed by solid attendance that slowly has been eroding, and now a story about the museum’s budget and potentially bleak future.

Closer to home, the Pioneer Press of January 1, 2011, carried an article about the Serbian Cultural and History Center in South St. Paul, with much the same story of adversity mixed with urgency by Nick Farraro.

The message in both stories seems to be that certain segments of history are unimportant because too few care. That sentiment easily transfers to a broader pool of history organizations when that little yeast works its way through the rest of the batter.

While stories of adversity can inspire us to apply lessons in our own circumstances, and urgency can prompt action, both of these stories lack compelling reasons for the history museum to continue in the first place. I know there must be compelling reasons to continue, but neither story mentions what those reasons are. The stories spread further yeast to historical museums in general through fairly typically proposed “solutions” to money woes, namely writing grants, wedding rentals, resource for educational groups, or selling reproductions or even collections themselves (which is unethical).

Even when newspaper articles and other media attempt to characterize compelling reasons to support a history museum, how often is it not that the museum believes that it is out of space to store history? Surely history and the need to preserve it is more compelling than “we are out of space.”

Many at Minnesota history museums, however, have had success describing compelling need and have been recognized with national awards for finding practical and yet innovative solutions to prioritized needs. The Winona County Historical Society raised over $4.5 million in a very tough economic climate. Many other historical organizations have found financial resources recently as well, and for the very reason they articulated specific compelling reasons for merit that support.

Two questions: 1) How can we as a history museum community refocus the messages about our museums to something more productive? and, 2) What examples could you share from your experience?

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2 Responses to Why so bleak?

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Museums are purveyors of immortality and collective memory.

    This blog post inspired Ann Marie (our curator) and me to think about the “compelling reasons” for the existence of history museums and that’s the answer I’ve come up with. I’ll be expanding upon that thought in an article for our next newsletter. Thanks for the inspiration, David!

    Reply

  2. Mary Warner says:

    The newsletter article that was inspired by this blog post is now online. You can find it at the Morrison County Historical Society’s website on this page:

    http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?p=2984

    The article is called “What Good Are Museums?”

    Reply

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