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LITTLE HISTORIES
They aren't the Met or the Louvre, but American historical society museums are filled with different kinds of treasure.

By Stefany Anne Golberg

The United States of America has a short history compared to other nations. This does not stop it from having more historical societies than seems possible. Most American historical societies were founded between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, to preserve records and artifacts of a rapidly dissolving local way of life. Today, there are roughly 10,000, all across the nation.

American historical societies come in a variety of expression, the most common being the museum. When we normally imagine a museum, we see Ionic columns from ancient temples, or important works by old masters, or 6,000-year old pots. The exhibits in such museums are painstakingly organized by well-considered, well-trained historians. Historical society museums, by contrast, are far less grand. The smaller the better. Exhibits tend toward the haphazard, with labels that are arbitrary and occasionally misspelled. You won’t find remnants of palaces or temples. Architectural displays in a historical society museum generally consist of a photograph of a now-defunct building, or a sketch of that building rendered by a person who saw it with her very own eyes. You will find different kinds of treasures in an American historical society museum — milk bottles and newspaper clippings and Native American arrowheads labeled not by their makers but the backyard in which they were found. You will see art, too, in an American historical society museum, but it will be by no great master. A quilt sewn by a grandmother, an oil painting of a dirt road that is now a shopping center, a string of soldier’s buttons taken from the historical society director’s father from that time he was in a war.



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