Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Save the Ward County Historical Society!

This week, everyone was talking about the terrifying New Yorker article about how Seattle may soon be destroyed by a massive earthquake.

At first, most of us were like…

I’ve been hearing about “The Big One” since middle school. Seattleites know about the risk. If you are scared please move so our housing prices will go down.

But then, in the middle of the night, it was hard not to be like…

Or at work, hard not to have an existential crisis while organizing the shoe collection thinking WHAT IS EVEN THE POINT ALL OF THIS WILL BE SWALLOWED UP SOMEDAY

Everything is meaningless.

But I was also reminded of my visit to the Ward County Historical Society while I was in North Dakota. It is a small historical society that had survived one disaster and now was facing another.

In 2011 there was massive flooding in North Dakota including in Minot. The Ward County Historical Society was in the flood zone, and the whole thing was filled with more than five feet of water. They have multiple buildings on their grounds, some of which were two stories and others which weren’t much taller than five feet to begin with. They had enough warning to put most of the artifacts in the attics of the taller buildings, but there was serious damage on the first floor of everything. The site director who gave me the tour was thrown into her position with no professional museum training and had to figure out how to negotiate with FEMA and get the necessary repairs. It was devastating to hear some of her stories but it was also inspiring. The place was beautiful and full of interesting stuff. When you visit small historical societies, usually the worst thing you see is artifacts that look like they have been on exhibit since the Eisenhower administration. Things are coated in dust, sagging and breaking on their improper mounts, and labels are faded and worn. But between the post-flood renovations and the site director's commitment to rotating displays and putting new things out, everything looked fresh and well-maintained.

Plus, the creepiest mannequin they had was intentionally creepy, so points for that.

Igor just helping out at the car show

It also seemed like a pretty active historical society too—they have all kinds of events, including actual blacksmiths who make stuff in the blacksmith shop on weekends.

The scary thing though is that the society is now facing another threat. They are on the North Dakota State Fairgrounds and the Fair is trying to evict them. By one estimate it would take over $5 million to move all the buildings, assuming that all of them would actually safely make the journey. There are many in the community that are fighting to save the museum, but it isn’t clear yet if the effort will be enough. And what does the fairground want with the space? Well, they aren’t being specific, which means it very well might be used for something riveting like storage or additional parking. I was told that one of their main arguments was that the Historical Society isn’t money generating.


You know that prayer about accepting the things you cannot change and having the courage to change the things you can?  Museums should have disaster plans and do what they can to prepare for emergencies, but if a 9.0 earthquake rips through Seattle there isn’t going to be a lot I can do. Fault-lines and floodplains are things you and I cannot change.

In many ways, the bigger threat to museums is apathy, and it is something that we can change.  A community that cares can rebuild. FEMA doesn’t pay 100% for repairs. Ward County Historical Society got back in shape because people gave money and time and resources. But if enough people in the community don’t care about history or museums, they are going to see more benefit in a parking lot than an educational space. Apathy is the real threat that keeps museum workers up at night, and the one we work to change every day.

(If you are interested in keeping up with the Ward County Historical Society, check them out on facebook here.)

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