Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Museum Near and Dear to Our Hearts

The following museum described might serve as a model for a proposed plan of creating both a photograph and oral history archives on The Curran Homestead's new website as put forth in the September, 2008 Board Meeting and included in the "Modest Proposal" posted on this blog site. We are an institution whose tangible collection consists exclusively of the farm homestead itself, tools and accoutrements, and household furnishing, applicances, and sundries, but there is another undeveloped resource that we have, and this is the many stories that people who come to Homestead as visitors and volunteers share with us. Additionally, it is The Curran Homestead's exemplication of American farm and home that make its purpose so powerful to not only Mainers but all Americans, for we all share that experience of family, friendship, and hearth in all its permutations. Creating a resource from which the public can learn about The Curran Homestead and share their own homestead histories and experiences seems to be an even greater realization of our mission.

We will likely never include in our collection a sizeable archives of paper documents, photographs, and the like for research purposes about the family farm, about the Curran family and their experience specifically, or rural folk in Maine and in general. Without these educational resources we are missing out on an audience for our living history farm and museum; we are missing out on the utilization of the most important communication and education medium of our time. The Shiloh Museum is a model for us to learn from because it has a collection of modest value and survives through modest funding. It, like most museums, sees a necessity to grow and to develop its educational outreach. Recent innovations like digitalization and a website provide such a museum of modest means the opportunity to build a collection of immense educational value with little money and with relatively no need for the expense of additional facilities and storage like never before.

Along with its physical plant, the Shiloh Museum maintains a virtual museum of incredible proportions that continues to grow through the donation of digital reproductions of real photographs from the public. To further assist The Curran Homestead in telling the story they have to tell and in teaching the things they wish to teach, a similar collection of digital photographs and digitized oral histories would not only assist in this but assist the present collection in more effectively serving its purpose. Take a look at my essay on this museum which we might learn from as we explore new development strategies.

The Shiloh Museum Serves a Unique Purpose

It is fair to say that the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, which was founded in 1965 and opened three years later, evolved and is still evolving like most museums that survived their initial humble beginnings as a repository for a single collection of donated artifacts and resources, but this museum aspires to something unique. Originally conceived as an institution limited to acquiring and displaying "items of historical value and to encourage and promote historical and cultural interest in the Springdale [Arkansas] area," it was eventually given its present name which more than anything else declared an even greater "scope for potential visitors" beyond Springdale, a name that had replaced the original town’s name "Shiloh" in the 1870s, to embrace "other cities and counties" in Northwestern Arkansas as well as a worldwide community through its Internet website. Its present manifestation has resulted from an aggressive collection policy and efforts to create better exhibits, educational outreach programs, and larger research facilities.

An original donation of some 10,000 Native American artifacts, 260 books, and pamphlets early necessitated, on the part of elected trustees, the employment of a part-time scholar for the purpose of cataloguing; this set the tone for subsequent decisions to make this endeavor more than merely a local historical society with minimal responsibility to its community; it sought the challenge of "documenting life in [the entirety] of Northwest Arkansas. The acquisition of vintage and contemporary photographs of the area, presently numbering to 700,000, initially evolved from a federal grant. This collection, which helped earn the museum an "Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History,"drew attention to it on a national level. The museum’s physical footprint has also grown considerably through the assistance of several significant federal grants which have increased its staff, services, and size. Its present campus of two acres includes, in addition to a new 1.1 million dollar visitors’ facility, six historic buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century moved to the site as well as several buildings of local value in situ.

Historically, Shiloh serves some of the same populist goals evidenced by many museums in America since the 1930s with its mission centered on contributing to public education for all through programs reaching the young and the adult alike; these programs, which have included "lecture series, crafts workshops, and tours for school classes" have sought to add to a greater understanding of a regional landscape, its people, and history within the mosaic of America. Its educational outreach programs to school children make use of such standard tools to museum education as "discovery boxes" and "portable programs" brought to the classroom. It is here that these future inheritors of Shiloh’s important collection of photos, garnered from donations from the humble family albums and shoe boxes of one-time or long-time residents of Arkansas and others, benefit from the unique stories they can tell about the past. The museum has an ongoing outreach for donations or loans of photographs of or related to the Northwest Arkansas, and this promises further growth for the museum.

These primary documents especially promise great future educational value for not only those visiting the museum or benefitting from its educational programs directly, but to a worldwide community of the interested through digitization, and this is undoubtedly anticipated in Shiloh’s attention to its offerings for scholarly research via its evolving website. In a 1993 exhibition entitled "Vanishing Northwest Arkansas," the museum essentially proclaims through this title the rationale at the heart of its aggressive collecting of photographic images of a rural area of one-time fruit and timber production that has seen both boom and bust repeatedly, human migrations, the disappearance of folk traditions, and an acceleration of life that once "moved at a slower pace."

Such a museum as Shiloh, born in the early tradition of organizing a local institution to house bequeathed cabinets of curiosities, in this case Native American artifacts, and the like, offers in its evolved manifestation something far greater and unique to the public through its focus on the humble private collections of Americans’ photographs. Through this collecting strategy a priceless record of peoples and cultures is offered that larger museums have often ignored or overlooked in lieu of more iconic imagery that was first disseminated through mass media. This is perhaps best evidenced in the Shiloh’s current exhibition "Serving Our Clients: Rural Relief in Newton County," which is centered around an album of some 100 captioned photographs taken by a couple, the Nicolsons, who worked for the WPA Rural Relief Program in rural Arkansas in 1935. The donated album was recently discovered in an attic after the couple had passed away. These images are an invaluable addition to the ubiquitous images by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and the like from the same era that many Americans know. Although intended as an "official" view of the Great Depression as it effected specifically the Ozarks by one-time employees of a government project, their re-discovery offers a fresh look at history through the eyes of its participants. The current Shiloh exhibit of these photographs by these onsite caseworkers is in sharp contrast to photos by Lange, Evans, and others that were condemned by contemporaneous administration officials as "too artistic and loaded with social commentary for their needs." With these types of collections presented through institutions like the Shiloh, there is an ever greater possibility of allowing the multiple stories that make up actual history to be revealed and examined by the public rather than tragically allowing one or two stories alone to serve the purpose.

Similarly, institutions like The Curran Homestead too may fill a void in history through their access to the many stories of its volunteers, visitors, and acquaintances, for among its many offerings is simply its role as a place where people come together and share their past family farm experiences and have new one. Creating an archive of these stories through use of new digital mediums to present oral histories and photographs via a website could be a valuable resource for educational purposes to ever greater numbers.

Mission Statement:
" The Shiloh Museum of Ozark History serves the public by providing resources for finding meaning, enjoyment, and inspiration in the exploration of the Arkansas Ozarks."

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