Monthly Archives: March 2020

When museums fold, small towns and rural communities lose the most

According to the president of the American Association of Museums, as many as one-third of the museums that have closed for COVID-19 may never reopen.  That’s astonishing to contemplate.  And if it happens, I think it’s the small towns and rural communities that will lose most.

Although I work at a museum that has one of the largest private collections of its kind, it’s located in a region of low population density. Our county has about 32,000 residents, with a density of seventy-four people per square mile (something like half the density of the state as a whole).  There are only about 4,000 people in our hometown, and the closest towns north and south of us have just over 10,000 and 2,000 people, respectively.

Since we’re one of the more visible museums in the area, people rely on us for a wider range of functions than a glance at our mission statement might suggest. They’re not just coming to learn about Lincoln and the Civil War.  They come with inquiries about history as a whole, from the Archaic period to the Cold War…and with questions about genealogy, education, preservation, grant writing, tourism, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes they come with questions that have nothing to do with history at all.  People bring in fossils, rock specimens, and archaeological material.  There are a lot of things we can’t identify, of course, but we can direct them to other institutions with the relevant expertise. We’re lucky to be a kind of conduit between local residents and the rest of the museum and academic world.

Perhaps more importantly, small towns and rural areas don’t always have the array of specialized services, facilities, and institutions that people in cities take for granted. A local museum can help fill the void.

At the museum where I’m employed, we’re proud to be a multipurpose institution for our region. We’re a homeschool classroom, a speaker’s bureau, a civic center, and a library.  We’ve hosted yoga sessions and political debates, scouting activities and voter registration drives, memorial services and Easter egg rolls, art workshops and reunions.  We have regulars who come by just to browse the gift shop for new reading material, since our town doesn’t have a bookstore on every corner.

When rural and small-town museums close, who will fill all these needs?  Who will provide all these services?

If you live in a small community, your local museum will need your support in the coming weeks: your donations, your engagement with online and remote programming, and your advocacy.  Take a few minutes to let your elected officials know how much that museum means to you, and if you can spare some money to help tide a neighborhood museum over, consider sending them a donation.

Downtown Sylva, NC. AbeEzekowitz / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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A conversation on disease in the Civil War

Museum buildings might be closed, but that doesn’t mean their staff members can’t get together for a virtual chat about history.

Join the ALLM‘s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine‘s Jay Quinn as they talk about dealing with disease during the Civil War.

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Museums and historic sites need your help during the COVID-19 crisis

We were lucky at the ALLM.  When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we were already closed to the public because of our big construction project.  For a lot of other museums, though, it’s a real catastrophe.

In fact, the COVID-19 outbreak is costing American museums, historic sites, zoos, and aquariums something like $33 million per day.  And these institutions can’t just turn off the lights, lock their doors, and wait for the crisis to pass.  Collections have to be monitored, historic buildings have to be maintained and secured, and (with so many kids now doing all their learning at home) their online programming is more vital than ever.

Like other sectors of the economy, museums and historic sites are in desperate need of support to keep their heads above water during this emergency.  The fallout could be disastrous—as in one quarter of all museums closing permanently if they can’t start bringing visitors in again soon.  We simply can’t let that happen.  This is a $50 billion industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, and immeasurably enriches the lives of many millions more.

The American Association for State and Local History is asking people who care about these institutions to get in touch with their legislators and urge them to back economic relief legislation for nonprofit museums, along with a temporary charitable deduction to boost the donations museums depend on.  They’ve even put together some talking points you can use when calling lawmakers.

Please read AASLH’s appeal, and then take a few minutes to get in touch with your representative and senators.

Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. Photo by Dave Pape via Wikimedia Commons

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When remarkable artifacts meet exceptional stagecraft

A museum visit can be such a powerful experience that you walk out of a gallery feeling like the world has shifted on its axis.  Sometimes it’s because you see an artifact so remarkable that it stops you dead in your tracks.  Sometimes it’s because of exceptional stagecraft on the part of the exhibit designers.  And sometimes it’s both, a combination of artifact and stagecraft so outstanding that it knocks the wind right out of you.

It happened to me a couple of weeks ago at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The artifact was Emmett Till’s coffin.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the story of how it ended up at the NMAAHC, click here and here.)

It’s not just the object itself, but the presentation that packs such an emotional punch.  It’s in its own small gallery, set up to look like the front of a church.  You can hear a choir performing.  You line up with other visitors and file past the coffin, just as you would if you were one of the mourners paying your respects in Chicago more than six decades ago.  In a small anteroom there’s a short video with interviews from Till’s mother and other people who knew him.

Sometimes I’m skeptical of attempts to recreate or generate the emotions and perceptions of people caught up in past historical circumstances in a museum setting.  But I think the Emmett Till exhibit works because the emotions it stirs up in visitors are the very same emotions that made Till’s murder and funeral such a watershed.  The sight of his body confronted people with the monstrous nature of racism.  And the exhibit serves the same purpose.  It turns the history of racism into something concrete, immediate, and individual.  Putting the coffin on exhibit in the NMAAHC accomplishes the same thing in the present that putting it on exhibit in a church effected for people living at the time.

And the effect is magnified by the setup.  Visitors are going through the same physical motions as the mourners themselves, standing in line and filing past in order to see, to bear witness for themselves.  The distance between the 1950s and the present—between that Chicago church and the museum gallery that represents a section of it—collapses.  For a few moments, you forget that you’re a tourist in a museum.

I watched visitors stand there in the anteroom and literally weep, while others would spontaneously walk by and comfort them.  I’ve never seen an exhibit generate such emotion, let alone prompt strangers to embrace one another.  Lots of exhibits recreate or simulate historic settings, but this is one of the few that deserves to be called transportive—and transformational.

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