The Future of Local Historical Societies

Debbie Ann Doyle, December 2012

Not all cutting-edge historical research is presented in monographs and history learning does not only take place in the classroom. Historians practice their craft in museums, archives, government agencies, national parks, courtrooms, consulting firms, and libraries—the diverse array of work settings covered by the umbrella term of "public history." Predicting the future of such a varied and dynamic field would be a monumental task. This article will focus on the future of local historical societies, particularly the tiny, often volunteer-run organizations that operate museums, archives, and historic houses. Small historical societies play an important role in protecting and preserving the historical record and also interpret the past to the public. Their future is thus intertwined with the future of the historical profession.

It is fitting to assess the state of local historical societies in this anniversary forum. Academic research and what we now call public history were just beginning to evolve into distinct fields when the American Historical Association was founded in 1884. Early AHA members included history professors, scholars affiliated with state and local historical societies, and wealthy amateurs. As the Association became more focused on academic history, a Conference of State and Local Historical Societies formed within the AHA in 1904. In 1940, it became an independent organization, the American Association for State and Local History.

Many local historical societies were founded in the late 19th and early 20th century by amateur historians whose interest in the past was often combined with a desire to celebrate the significance, growth, and business potential of the community. These early societies were commonly formed by elites whose main interest was the history of people like themselves, leaders in business, commerce, and government. Their mission was to preserve the legacy of their ancestors, to commemorate local heroes, and to preserve historic architecture. Rapid urbanization and urban renewal in the 20th century led to another wave of interest in preserving local history. No one knows for sure how many local historical societies and small museums exist in the United States today—rough estimates place the number at over 10,000.

Many of these societies are tiny, underfunded, and understaffed. For example, more than 50 percent of the 150 historical museums in the state of Utah have a budget of under $25,000 a year, according to the Utah Humanities Council. An informal poll on the AASLH LinkedIn page suggested that approximately 15 percent of local historical societies are staffed entirely by volunteers, 25 percent by volunteers and a part-time staff member, and only 25 percent have more than one professional staff member. This means both that staff resources are stretched thin and that many historical societies are run by people with little formal training in history.

Recent financial crises have also impacted the field. Local societies that rely on grants or subsidies from the local and state government increasingly faced draconian budget cuts, while competing for an ever-shrinking pool of private and government grant money. As a result, many societies simply don't have the resources to update their exhibits or conservation practices.

Declining attendance at history museums may be one consequence of this inability to update interpretation and programming. A recent national study revealed that the core audience for history museums is white, older, and upper middle class, a serious drawback in a country that is being radically transformed in demographic (and ethnic) terms.1 Many local historical societies serve communities that are rapidly changing due to immigration and changes in the local economy. These new audiences might feel less connected to the local history that interested the founders and is documented in current exhibits. The local historical societies are, therefore, struggling to tell stories that remain relevant and significant to their evolving constituencies.
These trends have produced intense self-reflection in the field, leading to a number of initiatives to help local historical societies become more relevant to their communities and develop a sustainable model for the future. The influential 2007 Kykuit conference on the sustainability of historic sites in the 21st century focused on transforming historic sites into vibrant centers of community life.2 Efforts to implement the recommendations have ranged from monthly "history happy hours" for young professionals and providing meeting space to community groups to transforming a history museum aimed at adults into a children's museum aimed at multigenerational audiences. Some changes have been dramatic: Historic New England transformed a historic house in an inner-city neighborhood that once attracted an average of 13 visitors a year to a community education center offering after school programs to 6,000 students a year.3 Efforts to build community connections may sustain the organizations in a challenging financial environment and generate enthusiasm for history among new audiences.

Programs have been established to help underfunded and understaffed historical societies improve their services. The StEPS program of the AASLH is a series of workbooks and self-study guides that help societies assess their governance, interpretation, collections care, and management, and to develop an improvement plan. State humanities councils are also working to support the local groups though programs such as Utah's museum interpretation initiative, a series of workshops to train volunteers to research and document objects and design exhibits.

Joan Scott notes elsewhere in this issue that our predictions often reflect our hopes. I hope that efforts to help local historical societies professionalize their programming, combined with better communication made possible by digital media, will close some of the gaps between academic and public history. Professional organizations, including the AHA, should be a resource to connect historians at the local and national level. The stereotypical scholar in tweed and the volunteer docent in white sneakers share a common interest in preserving and interpreting the documents, objects, and sites maintained and protected by local historical societies.

Debbie Ann Doyle is coordinator of committees and meetings at the American Historical Association. She also serves as the primary contact for public history matters for the Association.

Notes

1 Cary Carson, "The End of History Museums: What's Plan B?" Public Historian 30 (November 2008), 9–27; Susie Wilkening, of the Reach Advisors, consulting firm, on the panel "Wrestling with Issues of Change and Controversy" at the 2012 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in Salt Lake City.

2. The conferences were cosponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Association of Museums, and the American Architectural Foundation. See Jay D. Vogt, "The Kykuit II Summit: the Sustainability of Historic Sites, History News 62 (Autumn 2007), 17–21; John Durel and Anita Nowery Durel, "A Golden Age for Historic Properties," History News 62 (Autumn 2007), 7–15; and Forum Journal 22 (Spring 2008).

3. Kenneth C. Turino, Historic New England, on the panel "Too Important to Fail: Historic House Museums Meet Communities' Needs" at the 2012 AASLH meeting. Formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Historic New England is the oldest and largest regional preservation organization in the United States.