The Parable of the House Museum- Misunderstood Value: Another Unpopular Concept Archivists Must Address (Part 1, Probably)

April 27, 2010

An analogy that public historians understand is that of the historic house museum. Almost every small town seems to have or have had one. The beautiful old house that someone of importance lived in or where some big event in the town took place. The old lady or man that lived there died and the heirs donated it to the town or some heritasge group to use as a museum. No one wanted to see such a treasure lost. It was too valuable and had to be saved for future generations.

The problem was thus. Although everyone believed that the home was of value, some believing it to be of great value, some that it was vitally important, there was always a limit on available resources. The DFLA (Descendants of the Founders Ladies Association) that was to provide volunteer docents couldn’t quite meet the need. The town council could only appropriate a small amount of funds without eliminating the equipment for the volunteer fire department. Grants were few; it seemed as if every town in the state had a house museum. People traveling past on the highway didn’t stop, and the local folk had already visited as many times as they cared to. If the town was lucky, it had established an annual fish fry, BBQ, flea market, or theatrical production that drew folks with cash to the museum once a year, thus raising some funds. But the fact of the matter is that while everyone believed the place had value, few believed it had enough value. Not deep down inside. Not enough to make it a priority in the allocation of resources.

Many house museums fail. Not because they are not of value, but because of who makes the determination about what is most valuable. No one wants to say that a beautiful old house full of history isn’t valuable enough to keep. And the people who “know” about such things, ancestors, local historical societies, preservation groups, and professional historians, can always be relied upon to rally for preservation. They cannot, however, always be counted on to keep the place going and to effectively persuade others of its importance. As long as the people who allocate resources are unconvinced that the museum is the best place, as opposed to a good place, to use those resources, the museum goes without. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans what the professionals say. To make matters worse, if there are resources for one museum and they get split among three, all three go down. There are resources for one, but none survive.

Many in the museum sciences field recognized all this a decade or more ago, and began to focus on the things that they had in their control that met the needs (or at least perceived needs) of the people whom they, in turn, needed. They also worked hard to educate the people with resources about why the museums should be among the best places to allocate those resources. They did not “sell out” or compromise their integrity. On the contrary, by recognizing that they were not the sole, or even necessarily most important, of the stakeholders, they were acting with integrity. As such, they emphasized the aspects of their craft and institutions that were most valuable to their specific users. They acknowledged that they were not in the position to make all the decisions about what was valuable and what was not entirely on their own. Many took the step of recognizing that they couldn’t save everything, not all the artifacts, not all the homes, and not all the ways they had always done things, at least not if they expected to survive for any length of time. They also recognized that they were not really in competition with each other in the contest over users and visitors, but rather with less reliable sources of information.

So what about archivists? Surely there is no connection to us in this tale. See, archivists know that their collections, at least the true records and many of the manuscript collections, are unique. We are the only ones who have them and if others want them, they must come to us and do things our way. We know they have value. How? Well, because we are professionals and know such things!

Of course, the old house where the first town mayor lived is unique in that respect, as is the house that was built by some militia colonel on the site of some early battle his troops won. The people who made the decision to preserve it as a museum were professionals, or at least consulted professionals. They knew it had value. If only others could have been made to see the value to the extent necessary to make them visit and support the good works done there. But, fools that they were, people chose to find other things of greater “importance” to do with their time and money. When they did choose to spend their time and treasure with museums, they picked ones that showed that they respected the values of their visitors or the ones who persuaded their visitors to adopt the museum’s concepts of what was valuable.

But that can never happen to us. No one would ever fail to interpret our value as institutions, or that of our records, the way we do. There is no competition with new means of producing, recording, storing,using or communicating information that will ever threaten us. We are not house museums that need to adapt or persuade others of our value. That wasn’t a parable, it was a horror story. Right?

Right. Only a heretic would suggest otherwise.

The Heretic

If you are wondering:

The Heretic is the nom du plume (or should that be nom du blog?) of a historian and archivist who works with both public and religious institutions and settings. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” (not formally, of course, at least not yet; there is time, as he was recently informed,) in his work and opinions as a historian, archivist and Christian.  He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others, who in turn might be recognized through him. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “The Parable of the House Museum- Misunderstood Value: Another Unpopular Concept Archivists Must Address (Part 1, Probably)”

  1. There have been instances recently where I have deliberately handed the reins over to donors for appraisal decisions and watched as they have tossed out loads of stuff that someone might find “interesting”.

    Going to conferences I often see an attitude that we as archivists are unique in our compassion for the poor discarded remnants of the past and that we must step in to save them as if they were abandoned kittens . . .

    A year ago we did a collecting project in my shop that never would have happened if not for people outside of it. (Plug, plug: you can read about it here: http://coveredwithpapers.wordpress.com/presentations/society-of-southwest-archivists-2010/

    I look forward to part 2.

    • The Heretic said

      Interesting project. I like it. (I took the parenthesis off your link for you. Hope you don’t mind.) I’m generally for exploring things that open up participation in our work by others rather than trying to tighten control.
      Projects that note the potential biases basically what is necessary as far as I can see. The researcher will know how to evaluate the collection in light of that, and additionally will have data regarding the mindset and biases of the community that would have been lost if an allegedly unbiased professional had done all the work. The professional’s appraisal job then becomes one of preserving that context (i.e the biases of the nonprofessionals and their methodology) and is still necessary.

  2. Can’t shut up . . .

    I suspect that a lot of young archivists are frustrated collectors or activists or something or other, and that many of us have come into this field thinking it is a way for us to get paid while indulging some of our idealistic wishes. By becoming professionals, we hope that the things we care about will finally matter to others?

    This may be an unfair judgment but I’m a frustrated musician/fiction author myself.

    And the link I posted just needs the final parenthesis cut off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: