Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Conundrum of County Historical Societies & Museums, Part II

A Conundrum of County Historical Societies & Museums, Part II

It is estimated there are more than 17,000 cultural institutions open to the public throughout the United States. These include non-profit organizations, government operated museums, and for profit businesses that collect, conserve, preserve and display items of cultural, historical, scientific, or artistic interests to the public, scholars, and researchers.

Those funded by governments, endowments, or businesses often are blessed with a coterie of conservators, preservationists, restorers, and curators with special knowledge and skills in a particular field. They have the knowledge to protect fragile items such as using cotton gloves to touch delicate fabrics or dimly lit environments to prevent colors from fading or to maintain the appropriate temperature and humidity control for preservation.  

Sadly, there are many small museums operated by local historical societies that are funded only by dues paid by members or donations by visitors. These museums are open only because volunteers committed to their communities donate time.  The volunteers and, if fortunate, the nominally paid generalist curator, do not have the special knowledge needed to properly catalog all of the donations, identify what has particular value, label the donations properly, store what is not on display appropriately, prevent damage or deterioration, or have the skills necessary to raise additional funds for conservation and acquisition.

It is up to every citizen of his or her community to participate in preserving our collective heritage.  Many small museums have Civil War battle flags, historical costumes or photographs deteriorating, mislabeled firearms or uniforms, or beautiful paintings or musical instruments or Native American artifacts that are at risk because of lack of funds or knowledge or security systems or limiting exposure to UVs or documenting provenance.

From a recent personal experience, I can say unreservedly, that the most important factor for any small museum to consider is this: Don’t alienate your donors! Do not offend and alienate your volunteers who give time, money, knowledge, energy and physical labor to the cause.  Embrace those who discovery a new treasure. Thank those who volunteer to identify donations. Remember that community historical societies consist of community volunteers who care and are needed for survival.  It is a team effort.  Unfortunately, there is an historical society in Cass County, Indiana that has forgotten that.

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