Monday, April 9, 2012

Avoiding Obsolescence in Contemporary Society: The Small Historical Society Part II

Good exhibits grow from strong administrative tools and
strong collections like this at the George Peabody House Museum
Last week, I began discussing some of the challenges small historical societies face when considering their future. The post focused on some basic ways to revitalize a typical historical society's exhibits. Today's post will address ways to ensure the historical society has a solid foundation, including proper documentation and administrative tools, to prepare for more dynamic display and description. Not every organization will need to address all of these issues and some may need to consider alternate stumbling areas. These bullets provide some idea of things that an organization may want to address. I presented these points as part of an initial proposal of things a professional can do for and with a local historical society in an attempt to help them plan for the future.
  • Create a collection development policy to strengthen collections, engage the community and pursue grants. Review administrative materials for collections. Perform a survey of records and artifacts collections. Note gaps in records. Note areas where collections can be stronger.

  • Using the information garnered in an initial collection review, create a plan for appropriate rotating exhibit themes. For example, if there are many materials related to World War Two and the soldiers, this might be considered for an exhibit. Design exhibit ideas with an eye toward your town's cultural heritage.

  • Record information about the Historical Society’s exhibits. Take photographs, record society members’ memories about exhibits, and use any appropriate administrative information that tells more about collections to ensure that the Historical Society’s past exhibition history is remembered.

  • Redesign exhibit spaces keeping in mind themes by subjects or dates and based on the exhibit theme plan. Create a space plan that incorporates existing display cases and recommends new furniture if necessary. Discuss how to make the exhibits more interactive and engaging.  Create or help create appropriate labels for new displays that places items in context. 

  • Create a space plan for storage of materials when they are not on display. Recommend appropriate furniture etcetera. Discuss the different needs of archives versus objects.

  • Review the Society’s current procedures and create a formal procedure manual. Include information about creating finding aids and other indexing tools. Add a section for creating appropriate exhibits. Review and update procedures for labeling items. Add information and resources for creating programs launched from exhibits.

  • Make recommendations for the preservation and conservation of collection items in need of repair and better maintenance. Add information about the preservation needs of the collection to the Society’s procedure manual. Discuss how exhibits can lend themselves to collection wear and how this can be addressed.

  • Create a volunteer manual that provides information about finding and managing volunteers. Discuss the appropriate diverse roles for volunteers in the institution and how to generate volunteer enthusiasm.

  • Look to the future and consider all of the above to create a long range plan. Once the institution puts its on-site procedures in order, it should consider reaching out, which involves creating an outreach plan and establishing some social media policies.
Before an institution one can take good advantage of new technologies and new ways to reach out to diverse communities, the institution's core and vision of purpose needs to be strong. That is where I find many institutions fail. It is exciting to immediately jump into exhibits and programs, but without a strong mission, vision and collection policy, without a procedure manual and planning documents, local organizations flounder without the money and support needed to perform all the activities they would like to do. Take the time to build strong tools to guide you and let them become the foundation that keeps you going and your community behind you.


  1. Great post, Melissa--my only additional comment--undertake some of these things by having as many conversations with your community as you can (not just your members). For instance, I've found many historical societies have far too narrow a perspective on collecting.

    Go out, meet people, and listen to their desires for their community organization. And of course, look for models, and consider AASLH's StEPs program as a way to benchmark your progress.

  2. Absolutely! good point! Thank you Linda. Collaboration and community outreach are always key in cultural heritage institutions. Your work is a fantastic model for that community work, my friend!