Monday, November 19, 2012

For the Love of the Small Museum

Why is work in small museums important? Ask any ten museum folks and you’ll probably get ten different answers. One that immediately comes to mind is my own experience—or experiences. More than anything, my love for history and my desire to work in the field was nurtured in my visits to small museums.

I grew up Stuart, a small town in southeast Florida about 100 miles north of Miami. In Stuart I didn’t have access to any museums. But we had one terrific museum, the Elliott Museum. The Elliott was located next to the beach and represented the collections and interests of Stuart resident Harmon Elliott as a tribute to his father Sterling, an inventor and social reformer.[1]

The museum featured themes of innovation and creativity but what always intrigued me was its historical vignettes down a hallway to the right of its entrance door. A barbershop is the one I best remember. I was, and remain, fascinated by the objects in these displays, looking at change over time without really even thinking about the concept. I remember the shoes, the cans on the shelves, and the barber pole. If allowed, I would spend hours looking closely at these exhibits. To some, they were static and boring. To me, they were fascinating and full of possibility.

This was also true down the beach at Stuart’s premier historic site, the House of Refuge—the sole remaining shipwreck life-saving station on the Atlantic coast of Florida. I remember visiting this tiny site and imagining of the life of the Keeper and the shipwrecked sailors who might’ve used its services. And what else could enthrall a young history geek than learning of a something as exciting as the site’s use in WWII as a spotter for German U-boats along the Florida coast!
These places were accessible to me and helped cultivate a spirit in me that encouraged an inquisitive spirit, a love for history, and a connection to my community. Small museums across the nation are doing the same thing.

Sometimes our work is crucial because it helps spark an interest in something greater than the sum of its parts. In my case, the community museums I visited as a child inspired a passion for the field of history that continues to this day. It also sparked a career.

So—to paraphrase the great Abigail Adams—“remember the history geeks” as you consider your work and the terrific resources in the Small Museum Toolkit—particularly the content in Book Four – Reaching and Responding to the Audience, Book Five – Interpretation: Education, Programs, and Exhibits, and Book Six – Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation. You never know what spark you are lighting.

A “history geek” since elementary school, Bob Beatty is Vice President of Programs for the American Association for State and Local History, a national history organization based in Nashville, Tennessee. Through his work at AASLH, Bob leads a variety of national committees serving the American historical community. From 1999-2007, Bob worked as Curator of Education at the Orange County Regional History Center a $35 million history museum in Orlando, Florida. Bob authored the preface to the Small Museum Toolkit.

[1] The Elliott is now led by a close colleague of mine Jenny Esler and is in the middle of a project that will result in an entirely new museum. I am not sure that it even qualifies as a small museum anymore.


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