Practicing History

What does it mean to practice history? Does it mean reading the latest biography about a former President or examining an old, published copy of Lt. Zebulon Pike’s journal? How about watching the PBS reality series that depicts modern people living in homes from various eras? (The latest is Colonial House. For more info check www.pbs.org/colonialhouse/.) The History Channel devotes all of its programming to history. Does watching this channel constitute practicing history? What about reading the Morrison County Historical Society’s (MCHS) quarterly newsletter (shameless plug!) or touring museum exhibits? Does it count if one catches the Disney adventure movie, “National Treasure”? The movie, starring Nicholas Cage, depicts a treasure hunt that uses historical items such as the Declaration of Independence and symbols on dollar bills as clues.

Yes, all of these count as ways the public practices history. These products, aside from being entertaining and educational, are the tangible results of museum professionals practicing history. Beyond the products, there is an entire method for practicing history that quietly evolves outside of the public eye.

It is useful to look at the Historical Society’s mission for hints about how museums practice history. MCHS is a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving artifacts and historical information regarding Morrison County, and to educating the public about the history of the county. Most historical organizations will have a mission that is quite similar.

For museum professionals, the audience is a critical component in how we practice history. The audience is implied in the educational portion of our mission. Through our historic scholarship, we attempt to appeal to some kind of audience, whether of our peers, school children, researchers and genealogists, the general public, or ourselves. Without an audience, what’s the point? It’d be a bit like the sound of one hand clapping.

The products we create in order to educate the public are varied, such as books, articles, movies, exhibits, curricula, and websites. The museum community is continually searching for the most intriguing methods to engage our multi-aged audiences. Do we try a hands-on approach or a lecture? How do we use technology to enhance our information and make it more memorable? What is the best way to use our artifacts in teaching history? Foremost, how do we help people to see their personal connections to history?

Along with examining the issue of reaching our audience, historical organizations simultaneously practice history through the preservation of artifacts and information. The preservation of these items implies that we must first collect them. Let’s just open a big ol’ can of worms now, shall we? Historians realize pretty quickly that we can’t save everything. We wouldn’t necessarily want to, even if we did have the space. How do we choose what to save? Our mission tells us where to begin. For MCHS, the focus is on artifacts and information related to Morrison County. The Guggenheim Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian appropriately base their collections on their respective missions.

Smaller museums don’t necessarily have a choice about what artifacts are offered for donation. We rely on people coming forward with items from their personal collections that they are willing to entrust to the museum. Museum staff then decides whether the items fit the mission. Of course, museum staff are people, too, and we have our own personal collections. Frequently, we fill gaps in the museum collections with something from our own. (Yes, we really are that dedicated!) We can also create projects that add missing history, such as with the photography project Uncommon Focus: Images of Morrison County.

Once we receive artifacts, we practice history through the preservation of those items. With the large variety of artifacts housed in local history museums, curators look to scientific methods to help them in their preservation efforts. Each material, be it paper, metal, wood, glass, fabric, and etc., has its own ideal conditions for preservation. Museum curators need to know how best to deal with all of these materials. The goal is to protect artifacts from deterioration forever. Yes, forever is a long time, and even with the most advanced preservation techniques, it is an unachievable goal, but we can try. Museum curators and archivists also practice history through their orderly arrangement of artifacts and documents in storage areas. It doesn’t help to collect an artifact and then not be able to find it later.

When our museums are burgeoning with documents and photographs and artifacts, it’s time to practice history by putting these various elements together to tell a story. Museum professionals then return to creating products for the public.

Like the universe, history continues to expand, both into the future and into the past. It expands into the future as the history still to come adds to the history that has already been. It expands into the past because historic treasures are continually unearthed that lead to a greater understanding of past events. With this expansiveness, museum professionals will never run out of opportunities for practicing history.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical Society

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