History Facing Risk, or Opportunity?

Jennifer Van Haaften's picture

This interesting discussion about state historical agencies has prompted me to respond with some thoughts. It would be nice to hear about Minnesota if anyone is on-line that could share. I recall sometime around 2002 Minnesota Historical Society was experiencing terrible cuts to their education departments. I think that was the year AAM was in St. Louis and I attended an EdCom breakfast where this was a topic. However, Minnesota, from what I understand, has bounced back quite a bit to the envy of its neighbors. I have had the opportunity to work with the Wisconsin Historical Society. They have always had very tight budgets, but have managed to get the state behind a new preservation storage facility to house their collections. This is in conjunction with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, which is under the auspices of the Department of Veteran Affairs and a separate entity. The archives and library staffing at WHS, while they may not believe it is enough, is much healthier than any of the other departments in the Historical Society.

I am a museum professional. People who are not in the business of getting the general public to enjoy history often see our engagement methods as taking over from the care of artifacts and archives. My argument is that if no one cares about or enjoys history, then the archives and artifacts are going to not be cared for anyway. Museum professionals are trying to inspire people to enjoy history throughout their lives and to engage in many different ways. I suggest that before you criticize the Iowa Historical Society or other institutions that spend quite a bit of money on renovations and the attempt to engage the public you look at ways visitor serving organizations must work to engage the average person. I suggest that you take a look at this blog post about the dichotomy of education vs. entertainment. It is based on excellent data about the people who would and who do engage with non-profits.

I agree that there needs to be more professionals taking care of archives and artifacts. But you need to get more public behind you before there will be a groundswell of support for maintaining our institutions with tax money or admission money. To get that support you need marketers, people involved in social media, and education and program planners to bring the people in. You need to get over that this should all be free. It's not, and if the state isn't going to put it in the budget, the institution has to charge. What taxpayers don't think about is that all this costs money, and the money either has to come from taxes or from admission and fees. I am a rigorous scholar and appreciate having archives at my disposal, but I know I am one of a very small minority that enjoys the services these places offer. I appreciate when the services are free, but I also understand when fees and admission are charged. Someone has to pay for it. Taxpayers would rather those that actually use the services pay for it.

As a born and bred-Iowan, I remember the State Historical Society in the old building. Many an elementary school field trip was spent there and I loved the abundance of artifacts out in the open. I was angry as a lay person that everything seemed to have disappeared in the new building put up during my high school years. I missed the wild and crazy full eclectic displays. Then I took museum studies and understood that artifacts need protection from too much light on a regular basis and appreciated what the Historical Society did. But the average person doesn't understand this. I love the fact that they want to build open storage, so that people can seen items in storage, an education in itself to understand what curators are really doing. I appreciate the fact that they want smaller exhibit spaces so that they can change things more frequently and do it themselves. It is incredibly expensive to make high quality exhibits and the bigger the space, the higher the price. Being able to rotate exhibits allows more artifacts to get out in front of the public and more variety so that visitors will come back again and again. As the Director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs someone says in one of the articles posted in the discussion, "Weddings are not mission-rich" for the Historical Socety to host. Those weddings may not be on mission, but they support the mission by exposing more people who might not otherwise visit to what the museum has to offer, and they provide a revenue source to support the rest of the work that needs to be done.

Historical societies have to work to be entrepreneurial and have to understand they are competing for people's leisure time with for-profit companies. This is a contest for hearts and minds. We need to create fans who will talk about how much fun they had at our institutions and create a buzz that makes more populations step inside our walls. Eventually, these will be the people who will have our backs if legislatures want to slash budgets. I would like to know how many people supported the Illinois governor in closing the museums, or didn't care enough to call their own legislators. I am betting Illinois public opinion at large didn't care that the museums were closing, or the governor would have felt more heat in that situation to change his mind. The fight begins with creating fans in our states and getting the word out. Unfortunately, to compete with all the noise, historical societies need to put more money into marketing. Just using a Facebook page and having one employee slap things in there on a haphazard basis doesn't cut it in today's world. The good news is that the Millennial generation wants to care about things, so make them fans and get them to care about you.

This is lengthier than I expected. I'm hoping of hearing from others on how museum professionals work with history and with the public. I hope you understand that we are all trying to do the same thing. This time for transformation in the Iowa Historical Society has me rather excited, because I am hoping that it will create an environment in which the staff can create a sustainable and entrepreneurial model, bring people in, and in the future be able to add to the staff that cares for the collections in addition to caring for the visitors.