“Can we use objects from the past and present to envision our future?”

In her Summer 2011 article in History News Rainey Tisdale asks, “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?“. Lynne Ireland of the Nebraska State Historical Society offers the following reply. We encourage you to share your thoughts, questions and feedback as well.


Lynne Ireland

Lynne Ireland

The Nebraska State Historical Society’s senior management team’s discussion of “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” came on the day the world was responding to the death of the transformational Steve Jobs. While all marveled at his visionary, out-of-the-box thinking, one staff member noted, “Even when he was unveiling some new virtual technology, he simply stood on the stage and showed people an artifact.”

So the short answer to the article’s rhetorical question was a resounding “yes!” But the corollary questions—about how we treat objects, what kind of experience we allow people to have with them, how we view and use our biggest artifacts (the historic buildings preserved at our historic sites around the state) and how we collect contemporary objects for future purposes—will fuel our strategic planning discussions as we look toward Nebraska’s sesquicentennial in 2017.

We know the natural tendency will be for museums and their audiences to look back to classic interpretations of the settlement of the Plains and the plows, quilts, tipis, and beadwork that illustrate that story. But does the state historical museum need to recite those tropes? Or can and should we, through thoughtful collecting and public involvement, engage our state in contemplation of its future? Evidence is increasingly clear that the changes in store for us in demographics, economics, landscapes and natural resources will be as dramatic as those that accompanied statehood. Can we use objects from the past and present to envision our future?

As we consider “coulds” and “shoulds” we must also address very concrete challenges. A several-million-dollar price tag accompanies recent initial estimates to upgrade mechanical and environmental systems in the 40+ year-old-structure that houses the Nebraska History Museum and most of its collections. Even if we agree completely with the article’s statements that we should do great things with our collections, refine them, and change how they are accessed, we still hold hundreds of thousands of objects in trust for the people of the state of Nebraska. Determining how we both physically and intellectually fulfill that obligation in light of severe budget constraints will no doubt require our best thinking.

Lynne Ireland is Deputy Director of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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