David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.
To succeed in both the near term and for the long run, local historical organizations may need to adapt, if they have not already done so. Drawing on experience with Minnesota’s local history organizations, it seems as though there are three primary initiatives that should yield success.
Many historical organizations rightfully consider themselves as value added amenities that supplement the quality of society. However, like the value the popcorn adds to a night out at the movies, at times people may opt to do without local history and may label it superfluous.
Local history advocates may stake a claim that local history is an essential part of society, but without clear need and rationale these kinds of statements are rather hollow because they are usually not substantiated. Merely asserting that something is true does not make it true.
The three are, in a “tied-for-first” alphabetical order: Integration, Public Good, and Responsiveness.
Elders often tell the youth to make themselves indispensable when taking a first job. Local history has to do the same by integrating more closely with our communities.
Integration means that the local historical organization must enhance and support the quality of life in a measurable way. That may mean following the example of the Carver County Historical Society that plays an integral role in Carver County’s required comprehensive plan. A similar example is that of the Finland Minnesota Historical Society’s role in the Crystal Bay Township comprehensive plan.
Beyond the obvious ways that local historical organizations might integrate with local government, local history also has the opportunity to integrate with major local projects. Many local historical organizations have actively assisted in public infrastructure projects. Far fewer have been integral to fostering for-profit ventures, such as the Carlton County Historical Society’s efforts to support the Lindholm Service Station, the only gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the mind of the public, local historical organizations have an almost magical status in the community. At times local history can appear part of government, and at others quite independent. Depending on circumstances there are advantages to either end of those positions that inspires confidence in the public that local history can, indeed, “do something.”
Integration takes a lot of work to develop nuanced relationships whereby local history can become part of the societal machine. Again, however, just asserting that local history should be part of an overall public strategy is insufficient. As a group local history needs to take a careful look at efficiencies and outcomes achieved when local history is integrated with public policy makers and for-profit ventures.
Public Good is an economic term that means that whatever it is, a public good is both nonrival and non-excludable. ‘Nonrival’ means that just because one person enjoys it, the resource is not diminished for others to use. ‘Non-excludable’ means that no one can be effectively kept from using it. Local historical organizations must be for the public good.
What local historical organizations do better than any other entity is improve cultural legibility. Cultural legibility is a public good because when one person can read the built environment, cultural landscape, and other overlays, no one is harmed by that ability. And, since the clues are all present around us, local historical organizations really can’t exclude anyone from learning about them. Using the clues in aggregate as they often exist in our collections can broaden the ability to be able to read our surroundings. That can be measured.
Local historical organizations might use their ability to broaden public good, and thereby further integrate with their community. For example, in some portions of Minnesota depopulation is taking a toll on communities. By increasing community legibility in the youth that live in these rural areas, local historical organizations might be able to contribute to stemming the ‘brain-drain’ by showing the youth the quality of their own community and how to make a good life there. Although it will take years to measure retention, after a couple decades local history organizations might be able to show how they have slowed or maybe even reversed out-migration.
Another skill that local historical organizations can do very well is to provide a neutral place of healing for the public good. The Anoka County Historical Society did that with their exhibit a few years ago, “Vietnam: The Veterans’ Experience.” Not only did the exhibit have boxes of facial tissue and a notebook in which to write memories available, but ACHS also partnered with the Veteran’s Administration. The VA was able to provide a hotline, training for staff and volunteers, and counselors that would be present at major events (opening, closing, etc.) The outcome? Veterans who were entitled to services received the services they were due.
In order to integrate and be a force for public good, local historical organizations need to be responsive to ever-changing conditions. Local history in Minnesota was built for that because local history organizations are supposed to pay attention to current events so that each might be recorded as it happens.
Responsiveness means that exhibits, programs, and publications should not shy away from current events. Flooding seems like it is a near-constant rite of spring, why not prepare items for consumption that relate to what is happening right now? Or, as in the case of the Wadena County Historical Society, after the June 17 direct hit tornado last year, WCHS undertook an oral history project with Wadena residents. The oral history not only captured history that future researchers will need and public policymakers will use, but by offering this service WCHS fostered a public good by becoming a place of public healing.
Helping people heal can be measured and tracked. Using those kinds of numbers will establish the compelling reasons that supporting local history will make sense to the broadest number of people.
Finally, responsiveness means paying attention to public capacity to support our missions. Even if local history does all as stated above, money and space that money might buy are finite resources.
A number of years ago local history services staff helped plan a new storage building for one organization. That building was designed to meet the needs of the organization for another ten years. Approximately six months after opening, the president of that organization beamed with pride and said, “You know how we thought it would take ten years to fill that building? We did it in just three months!”
History is a winnowing process – not everything that is old must or even should be saved. Those things that possess historic significance and integrity must meet a high threshold for that rare honor of being preserved in perpetuity. To be successful in the future, local history organizations need to reduce the pace of space consumption.
The pace of space consumption can and should be tracked nationally so that local organizations can use those statistics as a measuring stick. We must be careful not to use that to prompt a race for the fewest accessions in a year, but rather to determine what an appropriate pace might be. Hopefully over the course of time the annual fluctuation in accessions will relate closely to the benchmark.
What will make local history worthy of support is when it can prove how integral to the community local history can be, demonstrate the force for public good local history really is, and measure the stewardship of the community and its finite resources. If local history continues to rely only on altruistic assertions, it will continue to experience the adverse conditions and frustrations often voiced. Being able to do one or more of the above won’t make life a bed of roses for local history organizations, but it should lessen frustrations by a significant degree.
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