Yesterday I attended the spring meeting of the Northland Historical Consortium. The Consortium is a loose affiliation of local museums and historical societies located across the western and central Upper Peninsula and northeast Wisconsin. There's a fair amount of variety in the membership. Some groups are focused on preserving a specific town or area's history; some are tightly focused on just one structure, e.g., a one-room school or a historic house. I did notice one thing, though.
The group that is doing the best in terms of having the largest overall membership and strongest financial base is the Keweenaw County Historical Society. In terms of dues-paying members, they're huge. Really huge. They're also big in terms of sites they preserve and manage: they have eleven separate museums/historic buildings throughout the county: a lighthouse, a church or two, a schoolhouse, and other sites. And they represent the entire county. There are no little groups where it's a handful of elderly people trying to preserve just one farmstead or old schoolhouse.
The other consortium members are a different story. Lots and lots of people who are totally sincere in their love of local history and their desire to preserve it, but are also totally balkanized. Instead of one big umbrella county organization, there are half a dozen or more small groups that are often in competition for the same small potential volunteer pool. The host organization for the meeting -- the Ishpeming Historical Society -- is a classic example. They're a fairly new group that spun off from an existing museum (the Cliffs Shaft House Museum) a couple years ago. They now have a nice space in the old Gossard factory building in Ishpeming and have put together a decent little museum in a short period of time. The question I have is why? Why separate from Cliffs? They've now got two groups in a small town with a huge amount of overlap between the histories. They're definitely competing for the same visitor pool and the same group of potential volunteers. What does having two separate organizations in the same small town gain them? Not much.
I could say the same thing about Baraga County. We're not immune. At one time, the Baraga County Historical Society was The historical society for the country. It had a large membership and a lot of committed volunteers. Then it started balkanizing. Some members got involved in preserving an old Finnish farmstead. Did it occur to anyone to keep it as a site managed by the Society as a whole? Apparently not. It got spun off as a totally separate organization, one that's now been around long enough current members don't even realize the Baraga County Historical Society is the reason it exists -- I know its administrative and legal history because I've spent the past two years sorting through files at the Baraga County Historical Museum and read the various pieces of correspondence and meeting notes, but with most of the original players now dead, I doubt if many other people know. End result? There are a lot of people with an interest in history who focus all their energy on that one site and never think in terms of the bigger picture.
Ditto Covington: there were people out in Covington who used to be involved in the county society. At some point an opportunity arose to convert the old Covington Township Hall into a local museum. So they formed a Covington Historical Society and now have a nice museum. Just like with the farmstead, a number of the people who helped create that museum had been active in the Baraga County Historical Society. Once the museum was in progress, they left the BCHS to focus solely on Covington. Did either group gain much from it? Not really. Just like with the farmstead, there's now minimal communication or coordination between them and the county historical society. We're all weaker because of the spin-offs, not stronger.
There are days when I wish I'd never focused on organizational sociology way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I did my dissertation. I know only too well what kills volunteer associations. Too small a membership base is definitely one of them, and the various local historical societies and museums are definitely suffering from that. It's no surprise -- our county has a population of approximately 8,600 people spread out over a fairly large area (1,069 square miles). We also have (at last count) 8 historical societies and museums, not counting the Alberta Sawmill, which is managed by Michigan Tech so isn't reliant on volunteers for survival. And we're all competing for the same pool of volunteers.
I don't know why I bother thinking about this stuff. Having balkanized 10, 20, or even 30 years ago, it's real hard to reverse the trend. At this point, all any of us can do is keep reaching out to the other groups and reminding them that networking makes sense: we need to communicate better, learn to coordinate events, and maybe even try an occasional collaboration.
The Consortium, incidentally, was created for just that purpose -- to encourage networking among the numerous small groups. So how successful has it been? Good question. Out of the possible 50 or 60 historical societies and local museums that exist in the western UP, about a dozen had representatives at yesterday's meeting. Which actually isn't a bad turnout considering the distances some people had to drive. There was talk about getting a good website up and running that would help link the various groups so who knows? Maybe we'll all start to cooperate a little more in cyberspace even if we're not particularly good at doing it in the real world. I can dream.