Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sideswiped by history

One summer during the late 1960s, and I forget which, I was home from university for the summer and standing idly around in the A.J. Stephens House, newly-acquired and renovated and the only building on the Lucas County Historical Society museum campus in west Chariton.

Irene Garton, founding curator, asked for help and so three of us I believe went off in a pickup to a nearby home to load up a donated parlor organ and bring it to its new home, the Stephens House back parlor, where it still presides. The legendary Young Pearson was LCHS president at the time.

In the 40 years since, the campus has grown to include Puckerbrush School, Otterbein Church, a log cabin, the John L. Lewis administration and display building and a substantial barn built using traditional methods. Currently a seventh building is under construction --- a blacksmith shop that also will include much-needed storage and work space.

Monday night, I was elected LCHS president --- a development not anticipated when I began working as a volunteer last year and quite frankly something I’m intimidated by. I’d have preferred to spend a year or so on the LCHS board, which seemed likely a couple of months ago, and learn more about operations. But as it turned out, I was the only one of several people asked to stand for president who said “yes,” so there you have it.

In many ways it’s an ideal situation to step into --- all buildings on the campus are in a high state of good repair, more than 40,000 artifiacts are well displayed, the endowment is adequate, the 12-member board, volunteer curator and office associate work hard --- and so do the volunteers.

It’s the mountains moved cooperatively by hundreds of people under the leadership of downright amazing individuals to create and maintain what exists now that’s the big intimidator. A guy would hate to mess up …


Many of the challenges facing Iowa’s museums, large and small, as well as the field of Iowa history in general were illuminated by our guest speaker at Monday evening’s LCHS annual meeting --- William B. Friedricks, youthful and dynamic Anna D. Hunt professor of history at Simpson College and founding director of the Iowa History Center.

Among the bleaker signs cited by Friedricks were greatly diminished emphasis on Iowa history in Iowa’s public schools as well as private and regent colleges and universities and elimination of history-related leadership positions and cuts in programs and hours at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa State University and elsewhere.

The Iowa State University Press, once the premier publisher of Iowa history, now sold to private enterprise, has elminated Iowa history entirely --- choosing to focus instead on agricultural and technical subjects, Friedricks reminded us.

Some of this is related, of course, to hard times --- Iowa history is considered expendable when funds are short and “science” and “mathematics” are the academic mantras. More of it is related to trends building in momentum --- increased competition for time, a growing tendency to seek escape in entertainment rather than information, diminishing of the conviction that in order to move ahead effectively one needs to know about past.

A bright spot, according to Friedricks, is a newly-forged partnership with the University of Iowa Press, once focused on literature, to pick up some of the Iowa history slack created by ISU’s move toward the dark side --- although perhaps only those of us who believe in the relevance of local and state history would consider it dark.

All of this is reflected in Iowa’s history-focused museums where the greatest challenge is involving younger people by showing them that the past is both relevant and interesting and also illuminates the road to the future.

Poet and philosopher George Santayana told us first that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In that, I’m a believer.

1 comment:

J Kearns said...

Congrats! Have been following your blog for a while and I can't imagine you doing anything but a great job.