“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” –George Santayana
An understanding of history serves us well. It provides us with a look at how inventions have changed the world around us, how different military strategies have brought success or failure, how belief systems and cultures shaped people and their behavior. It is the best tool we have to help us weigh our options and predict likely outcomes in the future.
However, history can also be boring and dry. Facts and figures don’t hold the interest of most people. However, personal stories—that interests people. That’s why reality tv is successful and human interest stories are so popular. Historical societies take the past of a time period, geographic area, or a cultural/ethic group and keep it alive. They will collect artifacts and antiques, documents, photographs, and other items of interest. They may also work to safeguard old buildings or architectural examples by restoring, preserving, and protecting them from demolition or excessive renovations. This helps to provide context for historical events—whether they were significant to the world at large or just to the focus of the society (for example, maybe the rest of the world has never heard of the Battle of Calabee. Yet every school-aged child here knows that Butts County is named after Captain Samuel Butts, who died during that conflict).
Most historical societies are small. They survive mostly on donations; many of the items and properties that are owned by historical societies are gifted or bequeathed to them. They also tend to be staffed by volunteers with no formal historical training and background; they often simply care about their history and put in the effort and energy to preserve it. If there are any staff, they are often part time.
However, this does not mean that your local historical society has no value. Just because many of the artifacts are donations does not mean that they are not of interest to the general public. While a large museum may not be concerned with the letters a small-town mother wrote to her soldier son during World War II, that family’s hometown residents might find that they give an incredible look at what life was like during that time period—perhaps on their very own street.And that’s something people are often more interested in, anyway. Putting a human face on something that otherwise is too large to really grasp.
Historical societies have been on a bit of a decline—creating attention often costs money, which they are often short on. However, things like the internet and social media have certainly helped bring more attention to them. It helps to connect the valuable work that they do with the people who would be interested in the information. Hopefully this trend will continue!