A Small Museum Viewpoint

All History is Local

“All politics is local,” stated legendary former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill many years ago. With the presidential elections finally behind us, it is an appropriate time to reflect on this famous political quote and how it relates to history museums.

Through years of rough-and-tumble experience, Speaker O’Neill learned that voters were more likely to be driven by local issues than the so-called “important” national issues of the day, though the latter received much greater publicity from the media. The same can be said of history. Local communities are not identical. Each has its own unique characteristics and culture. Each has its own unique reason for existence and development into what it is today. Local history is “real” and something the average citizen can relate to. It explains unique local traditions and institutions that residents deal with every day. While generally ignored by the mass media media, local history is nonetheless a vital component of our nation’s history and culture. I believe that Tip O’Neill would have agreed that “All history is local.”

As the custodian of local history, the community museum or historical society is an essential element in the effort to preserve the stories of our local communities. Our national history is well-studied and documented in multiple sources: books, universities, museums, etc. If one institution were to be destroyed, the important stories of our country would live on through other resources. But if a local historical society in a small community were to die, what other institution would step forward to take its place?

Our local historical organizations are essential and irreplaceable. Unfortunately, many (and I could probably say “most”) lack the resources to adequately carry out their roles. Most  are very small, and nearly invisible to grantmakers and other funding sources. They are predominantly run by volunteers — hardworking and dedicated volunteers —but the pool of volunteers is dwindling.  Unlike their larger brethren, small history museums have no core of paid staff to fall back on. If there are no volunteers – or no funds to hire staff – there is no museum.  And if the museum dies, the collective memory of the local community dies with it. This cannot be allowed to happen.

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November 12, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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