There is a “mega trend” in which history projects of various sorts get special funding far beyond their natural (mission-determined) levels of support in exchange for adopting a public, tourism orientation. This redo is often permanent and, I think, fatal to the missions of these compromised organizations.
If this seems like an abstract point, let’s say that history as a discipline is being corrupted, one institution at a time, by popular storytelling, political expediency, and heritage tourism. Collaborators in historians’ garb, are so glad to be bought, they view each sellout as a triumph for their imagined calling. Richard Norton Smith, publicly labeled a “showman” by the press, is placed at the fore of a Lincoln scholarship complex repurposed for Illinois tourism. James McPherson, a popular storyteller who aggregates the work of scholars, is tenured in the history department of an Ivy League university.
The best hope we have had against this rot has been the local historical society. In our imaginations, these are stuffy organizations filled with determined old-timers who keep an eagle eye on local heritage, the sites, the memories, the archives. The Civil War Roundtable movement is somewhat in this mode, though more open. It has actually revived a central feature of the old-time historical society, the writing and reading of papers by non-specialist members.
The local society is going the way of all history, however. No longer publishing and collecting local history, the new model society is about educating the public in the current fads of pop history. Here is a story on Baltimore’s society. Notice how their chief has redefined its mission to be a local knick-knack center:
"The society never found its voice," the director said, recalling the cramped, badly lighted facility that used to house its collection. Pieces were displayed haphazardly, while exhibits were short on both explanation and context. The museum seemed more an afterthought than a destination or potential tourist attraction.
Of course any museum will be the afterthought of an historical society. Historians running museums is as natural an idea as writers running libraries or printing presses. Historians have history to do; they are not to be used for the dusting off of memorabilia, for the painting of a new Men’s Room sign; for brochure copywriting.
“The museum seemed more an afterthought than a destination or potential tourist attraction.” This is the perspective of a city planner, not of an historian.
Look at this kitsch. The society now has three buildings and on one, “Nipper, the RCA dog, currently sits on its roof.”
Let Nipper, the RCA dog, represent the Baltimore Historical Society. Let it represent the historians of heritage tourism everywhere. His Master's Voice emanates from the state house and city hall.