Possibly the greatest asset that any historical society possesses is direct connection to the public. From documenting built heritage, to capturing our personal stories (and offering a haven for amazing collections), historical societies are incredibly effective engines for engaging our communities with the past.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that the “public” is absolutely everybody.
The phenomenon which is the greatest strength is also the greatest weakness.
1. Authenticity. Ever since “Roots”, the general public has been engaged as never before in heritage through the very personal interface of family history. This is a good, perhaps a great, thing. However, it has resulted in a perception that all input is equally valuable, which it isn’t. From vast data banks of poorly transcribed materials, full of mistakes to bulletin boards which offer information which is totally wrong, the work of simple folk who are really good at history is mixed and muddled with the work of simple folk who haven’t got a clue. Historical societies are more and more under pressure to represent and publish everybody, which means that the quality of offerings is diluted, authority is increasingly suspect and respect diminished.
To me, this has always seemed akin to cutting ice time and funding for the Ontario Hockey League and diverting all resources to free skating.
2. Political activism. Communities always include passionate individuals who want to storm the bastille. Usually, this is in defence of built heritage. Of course, all historical societies occasionally compose letters or send representation to hearings on compelling issues. -But activists see this level of participation as weak, a “cop out”. Societies are more and more often asked to “take a stand” – by which is usually meant involvement with the media, rallies and placard-waving and some very strong words.
Since preservation decisions are made at the municipal level in most jurisdictions, this frankly means making life hell for elected municipal officials. Now, these are the same officials who decide local funding for our museums, archives and heritage sites. The existence of these institutions is hard-won, usually the result of years of work by our predecessors. This fight is not over. In the early twenty-first century, the survival of many of our small heritage facilities is very fragile. Can we, should we, risk losing old political allies and established good will for new battles? Perhaps societies should, but it is by no means clear to me.
No doubt about it. In the early twenty-first century, the role of historical societies is being questioned. A delicate balancing act may be insufficient to meet the challenge. What’s an historical society to do?