Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: Up & Doing: The Vermont Historical Society, 1838-1970

Up & Doing: The Vermont Historical Society, 1838-1970
by Weston A. Cate, Jr.

I read this for work, but it fits with my continuing interest in the founding and early years of museums and heritage organizations. The Vermont Historical Society is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, a remarkable length of time for any organization. (I'm working on commemorative programming such as a Farmers' Night presentation discussing the tumultuous decade of the 1830s.)

Vermont was the last of the New England states to found a statewide historical society, and the early years of the organization were less than auspicious. Its founding president and librarian, Henry Stevens, stored the Society's collections at his home in Barnet, Vermont, and for the next few decades intermingled those collections with his own. It's still unclear today how many of the Society's collections were never recovered after Stevens was finally ousted.

VHS's history is similar to many other early museums and historical societies. It originally focused on documents and books, with a small side interest in natural history items (primarily geological). Its holdings were occasionally consulted, and as a membership organization, it gradually grew into its role as promoter and instigator of scholarly works on Vermont history.

I was particularly struck, in this account, by the Society's long history intermingled with the important events of the state - closely allied as it always has been with the state government - and yet the relative lateness of its serious collecting of objects. "Collecting" as we think of it today, with grounding in historical perspective and a sense of preservation, was almost a foreign concept. For much of its history collectors were still fixated on the idea of the Wunderkammer - with in this case the exception of important portraits, which Cate describes as being added to the collection often by both the artist and the subject, with a flourishing reveal and a special evening event.

In other words, VHS was in a position to gather objects from the Civil War, from crucially important legal battles, from social movements such as abolition, suffrage, and temperance, from cataclysmic societal changes such as the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties and the Depression - and it didn't take advantage of its front row seat to history. This isn't to knock on the organization-that-was; almost no one was collecting contemporary objects at the time. (Certainly they weren't thinking about objects outside the mainstream of white male history, either.)

It serves as a good reminder, however, of how crucial it is, now that we have the advantages of a burgeoning and impressive field of museum theory, of perspective on our past mistakes as a field, to keep our eyes trained on the present as well as the past.

Overall, the book was short and well-written but I often wished for more incisive analysis rather than narrative history. Alexander's Museum Masters gave me an excellent template for what I wanted out of short, thoughtful institutional history, and this didn't quite measure up.

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