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Volume 1, No. 11: November 3, 2004

Cultural Citizenship

by Michael Bouman

Over the years I have been involved in a variety of voluntary associations and their boards.  I have noticed that they all have something in common, which is a continual struggle to do well. 

On an individual basis, doing well may come easily to some people, as if they were born for it.  But as soon as two individuals form a friendship, a marriage, a work group, or an association, doing well becomes a challenge.  This seems obvious, but I think many people expect their own association to be an exception. Smith gets fed up with Jones's attitude, quits, and forms another club, historical society, church, or what-have-you. Then there are two associations.   And then there are four.  I sometimes refer to this fractured feature of life as "God's Plan."  It appears that we are meant to struggle to hold things together.  Sometimes more good comes from starting another association, at least for a while.  But struggle shows up like weeds in a garden.  Therefore, is seems a virtue to tolerate the shortcomings of our associates and to hope for their forgiveness of ours.  I think it is through opening ourselves to another's quirks and incompetencies that we can approach true "philanthropy," which is a long word for "love."  An association is a boot camp for love.

I'm on this topic because of the seemingly impossible odds of achieving success as a historic house or historical society.  Evidence of the struggle is everywhere.  But as I review a year of visiting the good, the bad, and the ugly, what comes to mind is the story of human character and ingenuity that emerges from the scene of the "town's attic."  Yes, the physical plant may be in disrepair, may need paint, may be overloaded with chaos.  Yes, there are almost always too few members, too few volunteers, too few visitors, and so much work to do that any constructive idea is one too many.  But character and ingenuity have a way of coming to the foreground. Within struggling local institutions, one discovers people who find a way to do more than keep the doors open one afternoon a week.

 Pictured at left is an image of two "heritage citizens," people who faced the struggle and resolved to make something good happen anyway.  You're looking at Jeanie Troy and Eva Dunn in one of the display rooms at the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History in the picturesque town of Marble Hill.  Between them is the Edison Phonograph that was owned by another heritage citizen, Lawrence "Doc" Hahn. He was the only person in town with such a device, so he conducted public demonstrations of it in the Wicecarver's Mercantile store, enabling people to hear recordings of the popular music of the day.  Imagine how Doc Hahn brought the Nation into Marble Hill!  In its own way, a device like the Phonograph was as revolutionary to people's idea of "the outside world" as the Internet is today. 

You may also notice the absence of clutter on the walls behind the small, portable exhibit they created with a grant from us.  And look at how few objects they deployed...just a handful!  This eye for using space pleasantly doesn't come naturally to everyone; the successful organization assigns people to roles that play up their distinctive talent.  This isn't easy, either.  Many people incorrectly imagine themselves talented at things simply because they enjoy doing them.  Successful organizations need people with a gift for leadership and a gift for generous shepherding of volunteer energies.  Successful organizations are generous with recognition and words of thanks.  Organizations need people who you'd want as a personal friend; they need people who know how to keep friendships alive.  Where the pleasures of human association are missing, no organization thrives.

None of this is specific to history museums.  These are transferable skills.  In fact, some of the more interesting History Rooms I've seen lately were done by everyday people who simply asked themselves, "What would this room have to become in order to make me interested?"  Such a person elected herself a citizen of a history room I saw last spring in Poplar Bluff.  It's that simple.  The best voluntary institutions have given scope of action to people who "want to make it interesting."

Look at those smiles in Marble Hill....Jeanie and Eva are proud that they were able to bring their ideas to fruition.  They look like candidates who won an election.

Having read this far, you might have noticed that I've made a photo exhibit of an exhibit, and that the "treasures" of my exhibit are people, not objects.  What would that bright red object be worth without the story of the people who attached a story to the object?  See?  The real treasures within our heritage community are the people who breathe life into the community.