The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.
Role for local history during church closures
The news and reaction does not mention the impact to historical resources as a result of what may be necessary decisions. Every place has a history, and has generated historical records that researchers will want access to in the future. What local history organizations could do should be prioritized by time, resources, and energy available.
One of the easiest things local historical organizations can do when they learn of the closure of a congregation in its area is to pose the question, "Where will the records go?" At the very minimum the local historical organization should know where to send those who are later bound to inquire. However, be prepared appraise the records if the congregation offers them to you: there is a certain amount of responsibility to make them accessible.
The local historical organization additionally should collect as much as it can about the merger or dissolution. While many things happen daily, and it is the job of local history organizations to document history as it happens, not everything can be. Some events are more self-apparently important (e.g., I-35 Bridge Collapse) than others, and certainly the closure of virtually any institution in the community will be significant in the future.
Some local historical organizations who recognize the significance of events like this will even take their service to the community a step further. Such organizations have created special exhibits on the history of the church, others will host memory nights where members can verbalize what their church had meant to them, and still others might conduct formal oral histories with members. All of these kinds of activities not only capture history, but can prove cathartic. History can promote healing.
Other aspects to consider when a congregation opts to close or merge deal with tangible reminders of history. Certainly material culture of the congregation could be evaluated for inclusion in a local historical society's collection. These should be evaluated on the same basis as any other donation, and must be able to relate several stories and have the integrity of authenticity. The church buildings also need to be carefully considered: is there an appropriate reuse? how will the building be maintained? mothballed?
What are your experiences with closing churches? How have you chosen to preserve the history of those congregations?