Mar 21 2011

The Benefit of Local History Museums

When I look through guidebooks from state or local tourism offices, inevitably many of the attractions listed are local history museums, whether they be sponsored by a city, a county, or an interested group of historians.  And as we travel, I’ve sometimes taken those museums off our itineraries because they’re not as interactive as the bigger, flashier state and national history centers, and, in some ways, they all begin to look the same after a while.  After all, if you’ve seen one recreated 1800′s village, you’ve seen them all, right?

Not necessarily.

While not always exciting for kids to visit, each local site has its own unique characteristics.  You may have peeked inside a dozen one-room schoolhouses, but then you encounter one where the kids can sit in the seats and try out the slate boards.  You may have walked through historic house after historic house, restored with period items, and suddenly find one where kids are allowed to explore the nooks and crannies.  Finds like these make it fun for kids to visit local sites.

There’s another reason, however, to visit your local history museum even if it’s not the biggest or most exciting museum around.  That’s because it’s LOCAL.  It showcases the history of your area–your county, your town, where your ancestors lived or where you live now.  You just might recognize some of the names on the World War I roster, or locate your home on a hundred-year-old map of the area.  You might see the bell that was hung in the one-room school that used to be just down the road from you.  You might learn how your community was involved in national issues, or was at the forefront of something regional that was important at the time but has since been nearly forgotten.  You might see the tools and artifacts that were common in your particular area, as opposed to those of all of the other museums you’ve visited.

My tiny little hometown in North Dakota (and by tiny I mean tiny–its current population is about 65) has an active historical society that takes care of four buildings:  a one-room schoolhouse, a log cabin, a church, and a jail.  When I was a kid, we drove past those old buildings regularly, and it was exciting when we got to visit during community celebrations or by calling Richard to get the key for a self-guided tour.  These buildings weren’t that much different from ones found throughout the Midwest, but they were ours, part of our community’s history, right there in front of us.

This year, I challenge you to take your children to your local history museum, even if its hours are limited, even if it’s a “no-touching” museum, even if it is tiny and not at all exciting and maybe even smells a bit musty.

It won’t cost you much–most are cheap for adults and free for kids.  You might find that one of the dedicated staff members or volunteers knew your great-grandfather, or can tell you something you didn’t know about your town or even your house.  You might find something fun to do nearby.  (We enjoyed a new park and a soda fountain when we visited our county museum.)  It likely won’t take up your entire day.  It will, however, give your family a bit of a picture of local history and the way things were done in the “old days” by people who live right where you do now.

What could be better than that?

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7 comments so far

7 Comments to “The Benefit of Local History Museums”

  1. Amy on 21 Mar 2011 at 10:02 am

    Totally agree! You never know what you might find.

  2. Cat on 21 Mar 2011 at 11:27 am

    Yes! I took an old friend to a small, rarely opened small-town museum a year ago. There was an old piano and my friend was looking at it. The curator said, “go ahead and play. I’ll sing!” And they performed Dark Town Strutter’s Ball just for me. It was more fun than anything!

    I took a video if you want to see:

  3. [...] The Benefit of Local History Museums.  [...]

  4. [...] Travels with Children: The Benefit of Local History MuseumsWe’ve been to a few local history museums, but after reading this, I might make a point of getting to more. [...]

  5. GBK Gwyneth on 22 Mar 2011 at 9:24 am

    We’ve been to a few local history museums, but after reading this, I might make a point of getting to more. Thanks!

  6. Dominique on 02 Apr 2011 at 10:35 am

    We recently attended a local history conference here in metro Detroit, and the program included a visit to a small local history museum in suburban Troy, Michigan.
    The Troy Historical Museum has about a dozen buildings and is, like many such museums, a recreation of a small 1800s-era village. This particular night, they set up a sort of progressive appetizer reception with stations in each building…so you could grab a cookie at the general store, some cheese and crackers at the print shop, a glass of wine or hot cider at the church, or a piece of turducken at the cabin–where you could finish things off with a s’more cooked over an open fire in the front yard.
    Each building had at least one docent on hand to ask questions or demonstrate something like blacksmithing or printing processes of the time. It was also fun to go the school house where name tags on the desks bore names of 19th century students that you recognized as local road or school names today.
    And when I reviewed it for Yelp, I suggested that it might be nice for families exactly for some of the reasons you suggested. Plus, I thought it might be more doable with smaller kids than something so massive like Greenfield Village here (I’ve seen more than one kid get fussy when families are trying to squeeze that experience all into one day–besides, Troy costs just $3, so if your little ones are only good for about an hour, its a nice alternative to a bigger and far more expensive outing).

  7. [...] Travels with Children: The Benefit of Local History MuseumsWe’ve been to a few local history museums, but after reading this, I might make a point of getting to more. [...]

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