August 18, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Making history is one thing; doing history is another. History makers roll through the day as if it’s just another wake-up and go. Those who do history look for meaning. They look for context. They make connections between time and events that escape the rest of us.
We go to history museums to fill in the gaps. A good citizen knows their country’s history, but it’s usually based on the big things: Wars, leaders, disasters. A museum tells about the home front during war, the people behind the leaders, the aftermath of disaster. If you want to see behind the headlines of an era, go to a history museum.
Where do you go if you want a look behind the scenes of a history museum? Is there such a place, or do we have to depend on front page news to stay informed. For example, when we read of the Oregon Historical Society’s reduced hours, library closure, and staff cuts what do we learn? It’s all about funding and budget. Or is it about agenda?
A museum building serves as a treasure chest. From exhibits to long-term storage, an archival facility is more than its contents. It is a statement that shouts out to the community “We Care About Our History. You should too.”
New arrivals embracing regional history are quick to see the highlights. Long time residents take a slightly more jaded view. They’ve seen enough history. How do these two groups come together?
Step into any museum and you enter a climate controlled environment. Stable temperature and humidity preserve the artifacts, manuscripts, and works of art on exhibit. They also preserve you while you are there. Machines and monitors record the slightest changes. A good record of climate control reduces the risk of accelerated deterioration and proves to others that the museum treasures are safe.
New and old fans of history share the experience of viewing objects in a new context. Gender and minority histories show the fabric of a time and place beyond the standard textbook reading. By peeling back the layers of society the working historian creates a place where museum patrons can imagine themselves. Living history isn’t always about costumes and stage craft; it is about re-awakening a sense of wonder hidden by neglect and the ‘official’ story.
What happens when people stop going to a museum, when money dries up? If revenue streams slow to a trickle, should a museum buy a new pump or should the staff do a better job?
Good history makes the common seem uncommon. An axe is more than a tool when it has a provenance showing it traveled from one coast to the other. It becomes a visual introduction to a time ruled by the axe, where no tree was safe. In form it is no different than an axe you see in a store, but its function is elevated to iconic metaphor.
A better example comes from a history museum library and a local paper. A story in the Oregonian told of old Portland area homes and how to research them. Readers found great resources in story, but the Oregon Historical Society Library was not listed. Here was a chance to reach out to the rest of the state and showcase a service many could use.
Where is the disconnect between the media and the museum? Their physical sites are literally across the street from each other on SW Broadway in downtown Portland, Oregon. The newspaper writer left messages for the museum publicist. Another section of the paper ran a story on the library closure and re-opening, which was good news, but it missed a big chance.
Our homes are so important that we want to know as much about them as possible. We have home inspections, roof inspections, radon testing, water quality analysis. But we want to know more. We want to know if our home is different than any other in the neighborhood. The Levittowns of the world have an easier task.
Is history that matters to us worth a walk across the street? Is a history museum’s place in our lives valid if the staff doesn’t have time to return a news reporter’s call? Maybe short-falls in museum funding and declining circulation in newspapers are no one’s fault. Or maybe everyone is so professional that picking up a phone or crossing the street is no longer part of the job description.