Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

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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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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Yet another federal attempt to gut libraries, museums, and humanities

It’s becoming an annual ritual.  This is the fourth time the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would eviscerate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

As I’ve said on previous occasions when this idiotic idea has been put forward, if you think you don’t benefit from these programs, think again.  Ever been to a history museum?  Researched your genealogy?  Read a biography?  Listened to a talk by a prominent historian?  If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve made use of programs or institutions that depend on NEH and/or IMLS support.

What’s really obscene about this is the fact that cutting NEH and IMLS wouldn’t even make a dent in the federal budget.  Sure, the money allocated to NEH last year might sound like a lot—but it’s barely a blip when you’re talking about the trillions of dollars that make up expenditures on the federal level.

Fortunately, these guys are 0-4 in trying to kill NEH and IMLS.  Contact your representatives and let’s make sure that track record holds up.

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Support fire recovery at the Museum of Chinese in America

Perhaps you’ve heard about the awful damage to MOCA’s archive in a three-alarm fire.  Here’s a GoFundMe link for donations toward the recovery effort.  They’ve already raised more than $100,000 in just five days, and I encourage all readers to pitch in.

You can also email them with inquiries about other ways to help: firerecovery@mocanyc.org.

MOCA’s main museum building is intact and open for tours.  If you’re in the NYC area, get some family and friends together and pay them a visit.   You’ll be supporting them financially while also enjoying a few edifying hours.

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Peale’s mastodon is headed back to America

While we’re on the subject of moving really big museum artifacts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is bringing the Peale mastodon from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt back to the U.S. for a special exhibit.

By the time Charles Wilson Peale—artist, museum entrepreneur, and Rev War veteran—was excavating mastodon bones near present-day Montgomery, NY in 1801, the fossils of massive, elephantine creatures had been turning up in America for almost a century.  But Peale was the first to mount a mastodon skeleton for exhibition.  (Indeed, he was among the first to articulate any fossil skeleton for display.)  It became a star attraction at his Philadelphia museum, alongside his taxidermied birds and portraits of Revolutionary notables.

The mastodon figures in two of Peale’s artistic works.  He painted the scene of its exhumation in 1806…

…while its bones are visible beneath the curtain in the 1822 self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum.

Since mastodons became an emblem of the young American republic’s vitality—and since Peale himself was so caught up in the intellectual currents of the founding era—it’ll be nice to have this specimen back in the U.S., at least for a while.

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The plane, boss!

Moving everything out of the ALLM to make way for our big renovation project has been a labor of herculean proportions.  But hey, at least we didn’t have to disassemble an entire DC-3 and haul it across town, like the folks at the Smithsonian.

The biggest items we had to take apart and move were a 3-inch Ordnance rifle, an ambulance wagon, and William Seward’s carriage.  Seems pretty easy compared to a 17,000-lb. aircraft, although we weren’t thinking it at the time.

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