Most cities or counties have a museum dedicated to its history. This is a place to collect and display the historical items from a particular region’s past. There are many examples of this type of museum across America. They present an interesting story, but sometimes these stories are part truth and part myth. Local history is often used to encourage tourism for a city and that is why some of the more exciting stories are told.
Local museums are often run by a group of volunteers or history buffs that have lived in the region for the majority, if not all, their lives. These museums rely on donations from the community in order to exist and this creates problems. When a prominent family donates a large amount of money to form a local museum, they are often doing so with the expectation that their family’s history will be told somewhere in the museum. I have been to many museums where one room is dedicated to a particular family, but they did not necessary have anything to do with the city’s history. There are exceptions to that, however. The Harrison family in the Shenandoah Valley donated the land which makes up Harrisonburg today; therefore, his story is featured in the history of Harrisonburg, but it has been included with the context of city. Unlike other museums (I will not mention names) I have been to where there is a room dedicated to the furniture owned by Family X, even though they really had nothing to do with the city.
Newton County Museum in Neosho, Missouri
Another part of local history is the publication of books. I am sure you have seen books on the history of Neosho or Harrisonburg at the local stores. These books are often written by local history buffs, and they tell the story of the city but do not quite piece together the full context of the city or region. I own several books on local history and they all do some things well, but ignore other aspects of the history of a town. Local historians do this on purpose. Books and museums are a way to educate the public about their city, but they tend to leave out the more controversial parts of history because, in many cases, the families involved in the events are still living in the area and no one wants to offend their neighbors. This also brings us back to the donation issue. The family that gives to the museum may have a role in the city’s history, but it may not be a positive role and therefore that is ignored due to their generous donation.
The final issue with local museums is context. Those running local museums are often well versed in local history, but not so much in national or state history. This can be important because events taking place in the city at a particular point in time may not have been unique to that city. It could have been a state wide issue or even a national trend. Context is important because relating a major national or state event to something that happened in the city allows the visitor to make connections. A city is most likely not isolated from these events and will reflect some aspects of it.
All the negatives aside, local museums are important to the historical community because they are repositories for local history. People tend to donate old pictures and items to the museum because they no longer want them cluttering their house. These items may not always make it into the museum exhibit, but they build a great archive. Another role local museums often plays involves genealogy. Many times they will collect the genealogy records for the city or county and make them accessible to the public and that helps a wide variety of historians and the local public.
Local history is not without it faults, but it is one of the most common forms of history in America. Many Public Historians find themselves at local museums after they complete their degree. They try to present a complete history of a region, but often upset many members of the community in the process. As historians we want to tell the whole story, the good and the bad, but local historians need to have the tact to brush over the negatives that effect members of the community.
NOTE: This is the second in a ten part series on Public History. The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6. A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.