I talk with a lot of people about historical societies. Sometimes, I cringe when I hear how their own members refer to them or shorten their names. These shortcuts only ever make the organizations seem exclusive and old-fashioned, two qualities that most historical societies, especially on the local level, no longer possess.
There’s a bit of a marketing problem in terms of what historical societies are, why they were formed, and why people should join them in 2016.
Historical societies preserve aspects of the past. Local historical societies might preserve a past that a current iteration of a town or city might hope to shed. For example, they might preserve a farm near an area that values building a suburban community.
Historical societies might have originated in Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) notions of betterment—betterment often advocated in judgment of those who failed to meet standards and in conjunction with social platforms like temperance. (Think of this like birth control and Planned Parenthood—many modern women love and use these resources, but they came out of Margaret Sanger’s questionable positions on eugenics.)
Historical societies often continued after their foundings at the behest of wealthy benefactors. Depending on the community and the niche that the historical society fills, there may still be a “big man on campus” aspect to being in charge of such an organization. Big fish, little pond, and so on.
Historical societies are often so heavily allied to the history of a small place in a particular era that they draw in members who have settled their for life and push away members who might not be so sure that place is the one for them (though perhaps the historical society could convince them so!).
One of the problems that I have in talking to historical societies is that, when I go into their museums and talk to the people who are so tremendously passionate about their local history, I fall just a little bit in love with the place and walk through in my head all the considerations for what it might be like to live there. I suspect I am not alone in this, though I may be alone in admitting it. I don’t need to believe the branding to believe that the organization plays a vital role in a community—but the branding needs to evolve to attract people who need to be sold on that vitality. And it needs to do that without alienating the passionate people who have kept these organizations going for many years of meetings, events, and community activism.