What is the purview of history museums? Some history organizations are event or person specific. Battlefields and homes are an example. Some organizations have the name of a municipality as part of the organization name. My position has been municipal societies have the responsibility to tell the story of where their area from the Ice Age to Global Warming. That covers all the people who have lived in the area now defined by the municipality, a roughly 12,000 year period or more. Generally historical societies ignore the first 11,600 or more years of that time period. That is the domain of science museums or natural history museums not history organizations. Technically based on the definition of history as beginning with writing, that omission is reasonable – the prehistoric times including people are for other organizations.
However, history organizations aren’t so good on the last 100 years either. There may be a lot about the colonial era, the American Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization, and even up to World War I. But after that things begin to peter out. If someone a century from now examined the records of your organization would they know that any one from your community had participated in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan? Sure the names of the people from your community who died in those wars might be listed on a monument or memorial somewhere in your community, but what information would you have about these people in your museum? What about the people who lived including on the home front? What records to you have?
How can something that happened during your lifetime be historical? It’s current events. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? “Kennedy was shot” is the answer in “Harry Met Sally” from the non-faked orgasm scene. Suppose you are in your 70s, a not unusual age for someone in a history society. That means you were born in the 1940s. That means you may have heard from grandparents and parents what happened in the Depression and World War II; you remember the 60s and Vietnam. Why should there be any information about them in your history society? That’s current events.
In general, history societies aren’t good at current events. By that I mean, even if you interview someone it might be about why that person or family emigrated to your community. Maybe you documented the responses and actions after 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy. Quite possibly not. That’s for the newspaper to do if you have one in your community. Collecting letters, diaries, and newspaper articles can be difficult when information is communicated by the internet and there is no local paper.
On April 2, 2020, in The New York Times (print), there was an article entitled “Using Their Inside Voice: Quarantine diaries, compiled using words and drawings, are a first draft of a mass confinement’s history.” The article states that future historians writing histories about life during the coronavirus pandemic will be interested in first-person accounts. Jane Kamensky, professor of American History at Harvard said, “They’re among the best evidence we have of people’s inner worlds. History isn’t usually told by the bigwigs of the era, even if they are some of its main characters. Instead it is often reconstructed from snapshots of ordinary lives.”
Here is an example from a history organization that is not a municipal one but person specific but is aware of documenting current events in local history. The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation sent an email with the following:
We are living through a dramatic change in our lives; each day the numbers grow. Our children and grandchildren will one day ask us: “What was it like?” “What did you do each day?” “How did you feel?” These are the things we wonder about those who lived through the Pandemic of 1918-1919. Imagine finding a journal your grandparent left about that experience! Why not journal your experience and leave it for the generations to come?
The Gage center has the perfect way to do it: a new purse or pocket-size notepad that makes a great portable journal. It comes with a pen equipped with a stylus top that tucks into the elastic band that closes it. It measures 4″ x 3″ x 1/2″. Get one for yourself or the whole family and each night spend 10 minutes all journaling your day. Not only will it be a keepsake, it might also be a remedy for cabin fever!
Putting aside the retail aspect of this notice, it does highlight how such journals might not become family heirlooms but also historic artifacts in a museum along with diaries, letters, and journals from the 17-20th centuries.
In Europe, there curators and researchers who have as their responsibility documenting events and crises as they occur “Museums Strive to Bear Witness to the Pandemic,” NYT 4/7/20, print). That work is undertaken with knowing exactly the data they collect will be used. However they do so because just as people today draw on similar data from the past to understand those time periods, so the historians of the future will want to have information about our present and tourists will want to the artifacts of our present. How often can you take photographs of empty streets in daylight? How often can you see all the “closed” signs in a row of stores? The news networks constantly interview medical personnel about what is happening in their hospitals, testing facilities, supply chains right now. History societies and museums have members (and their email addresses). What’s going on with them? Help create the history record for the future.
Besides these personal expressions, what is going on in your community?
What has your mayor, your town supervisor, your county executive done?
What has you school superintendent done?
What did teachers do?
How about restaurant owners? Barbershops? Dry cleaners?
What can you do as an historical to reach out into your community to preserve the record of what is happening now?
With that in mind, below is a notice I received from the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). Its words apply to history organizations as well.
As local government-appointed historians, it is our duty to document not just the past but the present. The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in all our lives; it is imperative that we record the impact on our communities and how our citizens respond. The Association of Public Historians of New York State suggests that you immediately begin documenting your community’s response and offer the following guidelines and suggestions:
Remember! Health and safety are your number one priority. Documenting your community’s response does not include risking your own health or that of your family and friends. Please follow all rules for social distancing and any quarantines that have been established.
Keep a diary. Beginning today, record your memories of local events and reactions to COVID-19 at least since the beginning of March. Continue to update that journal as we move forward: What are you doing, what are you hearing and seeing, and how is the response to COVID-19 affecting your normal habits? Encourage the public to do the same. This can be done by in a variety of ways. Individuals can keep handwritten or computerized diaries, write blogs, record video or audio diaries or use whatever creative venue appeals to them.
APHNYS has developed a form that historians can use to collect stories from throughout New York State. Once the crisis and the collecting period have ended, APHNYS will share the responses with historians throughout the state Please share the Google form widely within your community and via social media and encourage participation: https://forms.gle/ZUxePXJLcQC2fKCK8.
Be a witness to history! Share your COVID-19 experiences
We are living in a historic moment in time! The COVID-19 crisis is reshaping our daily lives and our communities. In the future, others will look back and learn from our experiences. This is why it is so important to begin recording the history of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on New York State’s people and communities. What is happening to us right now must not be forgotten! We need to document our experiences so that they can inform the response to future crises.
The Association of Public Historians of New York State and New York’s 1,600+ government-appointed historians want to record your witness-to-history experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please use this form to tell us what you are experiencing. How are you feeling? What are you hearing and seeing around you? What are you doing, and what effect is this having on you, your family, your neighbors, and your community? How is your life different now than it was before the pandemic? Please answer only those questions that are pertinent to you and that you wish to answer. Be creative in your responses. You may reply with written text answers or you may respond with poetry, artwork, video diaries or something else. We also want to see photographs of what is happening around you, in your home, and in your community. You will be able to upload images and artwork at the end of the survey.
With your permission, we will preserve these responses in our archive and in the archives of your local government historians and/or historical societies where they will be shared with researchers and the public now and in the future. Thank you for participating!