Minnesota Local History

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

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.

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Yellow Medicine County Historical Society

By: Joe Hoover | May 20, 2011

This video of the was made of the Yellow Medicine County Historical Society during the recent trip to Grant Falls to present the session, Care and Preservation of Textiles at the Area Museums Meeting. The video was shot with an iPhone using a shot gun mic (directional mic). More to be posted on the creation of the video later in the Forum.

Historic Financial Help for Local History

By: grabitsdm | May 10, 2011
The Land, Clean Water and Legacy Amendment (2009-2034) has certain parallels to the broad access and initiatives of the

  • Public Archives Commission (1899-1917),

  • War Records Commission (1918-1925),

  • New Deal Programs (1935-1943),

  • Minnesota Territorial and Statehood Centennials (1947-1950 and 1954-1959),

  • American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (1965-1977), and the

  • Minnesota Territorial and Statehood Sesquicentennials (1997-2000 and 2005-2009)

which all provided timely infusions of money and urgency for local historical organizations.

This essay does not look at ongoing governmental sources of support such as operations, the State Grants-in-Aid program (1969-present), grants programs of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and many others. The programs below are all of limited duration.

Public Archives Commission

Congress established the Public Archives Commission in 1899 to organize county government records. The National Archives was not created until 1934. Although the federal government kept its records, utilizing the records was difficult at best. The money was awarded to a statewide entity for project use on the local level, and in the case of Minnesota those funds flowed through the Minnesota Historical Society and facilitated the creation of additional historical organizations. In Minnesota, this program was utilized 1914-1917.

War Records Commission

The Public Archives Commission ended in 1917 as Congress sought to balance its budget and pay for the Great War. Thus the War Records Commission Act of 1919 was passed to continue and broaden the work of the Public Archives Commission, requiring a war records commission for every county to organize records related to veterans of the Spanish-American, Philippine, and Great wars. Again, the money was project based and flowed through the Minnesota Historical Society. Still more historical organizations started to preserve their local history and make it accessible.

New Deal Programs

There were a good number of New Deal Programs during the Great Depression designed to put people back to work. More than just laborers, these programs also employed writers and historians, such as the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project that included useful suggestions for what would now be called heritage tourism. Again, the money was project based and flowed through the Minnesota Historical Society to strengthen and improve local efforts to preserve history and make it accessible with even more additional organizations. 

Centennial Celebrations

The Minnesota Legislature provided $150,000 to commemorate the Minnesota Territorial Centennial for 1948 and 1949 (approximately equal to $1.4 million in 2011). The statehood centennial was even larger. The projects resulting from these celebrations created durable results, such as historic markers and strong local historical organizations that can still be found today. There was intense work to make sure a county history entity existed in time for each of these observances.

American Revolution Bicentennial Commission

The Minnesota American Revolution Bicentennial Commission distributed just over $900,000 (approximately equal to $3.8 million in 2011) in 1975-1976 for the national bicentennial observance. From the final report, at least 14 percent of all grantees were local historical organizations, and at least 14 percent of the grant dollars went to local history organizations for projects. Potentially many of the temporary community bicentennial organizations may have been led by the local historical organization, thus the percentage might rise after a more detail look at the records than the final report provides. While a few more county historical societies began, at this time a greater number of special topic history museums started, reflecting the broadening of historical inquiry.

Sesquicentennial Celebrations

The Minnesota Legislature provided $75,000 (approximately equal to $103,000 in 2011) to the Minnesota Historical Society for a special grants program, while ten years later the Minnesota Statehood Sesquicentennial Commission had $585,000 (approximately equal to $607,000 in 2011) for grants.

Both programs were for projects. While the amounts available were much lower than previous external funding programs, funds were timely and essential to preserving history and making it accessible. Beginning with these two initiatives, organizations were less likely to start because of the anniversaries, but more so as a natural evolution of their communities.


The Land, Clean Water and Legacy Amendment was approved by Minnesota voters on November 4, 2008. The amendment is in effect now through 2034. In the first biennium 2009-2011, grants for history projects came to $6.75 million, and indications are that this amount could grow over the remaining 23 years.

The important difference between this amendment and all others is both duration and money. The others averaged about 6.5 years each, and the longest at 19 years. The Legacy Amendment will last 25 years. In terms of dollars and impact, it may be too early to tell. However, it seems likely that the Legacy Amendment could dwarf all previous project sources in terms of total dollars adjusted for inflation.

Out of the 121 years (1914-2034) possible, only 44 years are not covered by one of these programs. Given the strength of local history in Minnesota in terms of quality and capacity, boards, volunteers and staff seemingly have made intentional use of these programs so far. It would be important to understand the role of external programs like these on the strength of local history organizations by looking at other states. How many have external funding sources? How many of their historical organizations benefited from national sources? Will historical organizations begin in order to take advantage of this program, or will the program more serve to solidify and strengthen those already in place?

Path to the Future

The previous project-based funding sources certainly provide a sense of the general direction over time. All are project oriented, rather than funding general operation. Local historical organizations in Minnesota have used that to their advantage in each case to build their capacity and earn national recognition. All provided necessary, timely, and critical infusions of money to accomplish long standing projects, many of which appear to have stood the test of time and are still enjoyed today. The Legacy Amendment appears to be following in the footsteps of other programs, and that promises to further grow the strength and capacity of historical organizations across the state.

 Summary of Programs:

Program State/Federal Duration
Public Archives Commission Federal 1899-1917
War Records Commission State 1918-1925
New Deal Programs Federal 1935-1943
Minnesota Territorial Centennial State 1947-1950
Minnesota Statehood Centennial State 1954-1959
American Revolution Bicentennial Commission Federal and State 1965-1977
Minnesota Territorial & Millennium Grants State 1997-1999
Minnesota Statehood Sesquicentennial Commission State 2005-2009
Legacy  State 2009-2034

Care and Preservation of Textiles - Audio

By: Joe Hoover | May 4, 2011
A general overview of how to care for, store, and exhibit textiles in your collections. Presented by Melinda Hutchinson at the Area Museums Meeting, Granite Falls.

PowerPoint slides (PDF)

Care and Preservation of Textiles - Enhanced Audio

By: Joe Hoover | Collection Management | May 4, 2011

A general overview of how to care for, store, and exhibit textiles in your collections.  Presented by Melinda Hutchinson at the Area Museums Meeting, Granite Falls.

PowerPoint slides (PDF)

Collections Potpourri - audio

By: Joe Hoover | Collection Management | April 26, 2011

Cataloging, abandoned property, permanent vs. education collections, and use of policy and planning for grants presented by Melinda Hutchinson at the Northland History Coalition meeting.

Presentation Slides

Balancing Space and Placelessness

By: grabitsdm | April 18, 2011
In Relevant Warehousesthe blog looked at the experience of libraries having to address the concern of virtual collections, instant downloads, and worry over relevance of place-based warehouses. Comments addressed the digital divide between tech-haves and tech-have-nots, as well as reminders that tangible evidence is important. Things have to reside somewhere, and sometimes people want to go where the stuff is.

Adding to the story of increasing placelessness, Richfield MN-based Best Buy announced on Thursday April 14, 2011 that it would be shrinking its overall footprint by closing some stores, subletting and reconfiguring space in others, concentrating more on web sales, and placing smaller-more-nimble stores in malls. Critics of Best Buy over the few years have thought that the company's drive to continue building big box stores indicated it was out of touch with the modern, mobile-connected society.

Thus with libraries struggling to stay connected to a public that expects to interface with collections from just about anywhere and not necessarily in a library, and with big box retailers like Best Buy shrinking its footprint in order to align its product with intended users, it seems as though both could be lessons for local history museums to consider.

And yet, place still matters. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's This Place Matters campaign shows people connecting with physical places. The key seems to be that the people connecting to these places have a personal connection that matters to them. The disconnect often comes between a place that matters to someone who doesn't live there, and the choices that person made about where they have to live.

Another sign that place matters is the number of construction projects underway to add space to cultural institutions. Investments in new museums or additions have been significant.

In Museums Cost How Much?, the American Association of Museums reported on the addition of 5.9 million square feet from 2003-2010. Numerous additions not reported abound in Minnesota with the aggregate not known, from recently completed additions to the Winona County Historical Society's 12,000-square-foot addition to the historic Winona Armory, to projects nearing completion like the Pine Island Area Historical Society's 1,000-square-foot addition to the Collins-Glam House, to projects just underway such as the Steele County Historical Society's new 16,000-square-foot building in Owatonna, to the Washington County Historical Society's proposed reuse of a 27,000 square foot former furniture store. Just these alone represent 69,000 square feet of additional capacity.

However, based on the reduction in space for Best Buy or the new expectations in the age of spacelessness, one would have to ask if museums in general might run into some of the same issues as the race for more space continues seemingly with no end in sight.

Is there a balance between necessity of place and increasing placelessness that local history museums might strike? Presuming a certain amount of expansion over time will be necessary (for server room alone?), how might that need be evaluated? What pace of space consumption might be sustainable?

MHCG: Writing Successful Grant Projects - (audio only)

By: grabitsdm | April 12, 2011
This is an audio version of the Writing Successful Grant Projects presentation.

Writing grants is not rocket science, but it does take some understanding, thought, and planning to do well. David Grabitske from the Minnesota Historical Society provides general advice on writing grants and creating projects, drawn from his seven years of service in the Society’s Grants Office.

MHCG: Writing Successful Grant Projects

By: grabitsdm | April 12, 2011
Writing grants is not rocket science, but it does take some understanding, thought, and planning to do well. David Grabitske from the Minnesota Historical Society provides general advice on writing grants and creating projects, drawn from his seven years of service in the Society’s Grants Office.

Presentation Slides (PDF)

Funding Matrix (PDF)

Budget Samples (PDF)

[powerpress image="/sites/default/files/mnlocalhistory/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/mhcg-clicktoplay_grants.png"]

Measurements of Tomorrow

By: grabitsdm | April 7, 2011
To succeed in both the near term and for the long run, local historical organizations may need to adapt, if they have not already done so. Drawing on experience with Minnesota’s local history organizations, it seems as though there are three primary initiatives that should yield success.

Many historical organizations rightfully consider themselves as value added amenities that supplement the quality of society. However, like the value the popcorn adds to a night out at the movies, at times people may opt to do without local history and may label it superfluous.

Local history advocates may stake a claim that local history is an essential part of society, but without clear need and rationale these kinds of statements are rather hollow because they are usually not substantiated. Merely asserting that something is true does not make it true.

The three are, in a “tied-for-first” alphabetical order: Integration, Public Good, and Responsiveness.


Elders often tell the youth to make themselves indispensable when taking a first job. Local history has to do the same by integrating more closely with our communities.

Integration means that the local historical organization must enhance and support the quality of life in a measurable way. That may mean following the example of the Carver County Historical Society that plays an integral role in Carver County’s required comprehensive plan. A similar example is that of the Finland Minnesota Historical Society’s role in the Crystal Bay Township comprehensive plan.

Beyond the obvious ways that local historical organizations might integrate with local government, local history also has the opportunity to integrate with major local projects. Many local historical organizations have actively assisted in public infrastructure projects. Far fewer have been integral to fostering for-profit ventures, such as the Carlton County Historical Society’s efforts to support the Lindholm Service Station, the only gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the mind of the public, local historical organizations have an almost magical status in the community. At times local history can appear part of government, and at others quite independent. Depending on circumstances there are advantages to either end of those positions that inspires confidence in the public that local history can, indeed, “do something.”

Integration takes a lot of work to develop nuanced relationships whereby local history can become part of the societal machine. Again, however, just asserting that local history should be part of an overall public strategy is insufficient. As a group local history needs to take a careful look at efficiencies and outcomes achieved when local history is integrated with public policy makers and for-profit ventures.

Public Good

Public Good is an economic term that means that whatever it is, a public good is both nonrival and non-excludable. ‘Nonrival’ means that just because one person enjoys it, the resource is not diminished for others to use. ‘Non-excludable’ means that no one can be effectively kept from using it. Local historical organizations must be for the public good.

What local historical organizations do better than any other entity is improve cultural legibility. Cultural legibility is a public good because when one person can read the built environment, cultural landscape, and other overlays, no one is harmed by that ability. And, since the clues are all present around us, local historical organizations really can’t exclude anyone from learning about them. Using the clues in aggregate as they often exist in our collections can broaden the ability to be able to read our surroundings. That can be measured.

Local historical organizations might use their ability to broaden public good, and thereby further integrate with their community. For example, in some portions of Minnesota depopulation is taking a toll on communities. By increasing community legibility in the youth that live in these rural areas, local historical organizations might be able to contribute to stemming the ‘brain-drain’ by showing the youth the quality of their own community and how to make a good life there. Although it will take years to measure retention, after a couple decades local history organizations might be able to show how they have slowed or maybe even reversed out-migration.

Another skill that local historical organizations can do very well is to provide a neutral place of healing for the public good. The Anoka County Historical Society did that with their exhibit a few years ago, “Vietnam: The Veterans' Experience.” Not only did the exhibit have boxes of facial tissue and a notebook in which to write memories available, but ACHS also partnered with the Veteran’s Administration. The VA was able to provide a hotline, training for staff and volunteers, and counselors that would be present at major events (opening, closing, etc.) The outcome? Veterans who were entitled to services received the services they were due.


In order to integrate and be a force for public good, local historical organizations need to be responsive to ever-changing conditions. Local history in Minnesota was built for that because local history organizations are supposed to pay attention to current events so that each might be recorded as it happens.

Responsiveness means that exhibits, programs, and publications should not shy away from current events. Flooding seems like it is a near-constant rite of spring, why not prepare items for consumption that relate to what is happening right now? Or, as in the case of the Wadena County Historical Society, after the June 17 direct hit tornado last year, WCHS undertook an oral history project with Wadena residents. The oral history not only captured history that future researchers will need and public policymakers will use, but by offering this service WCHS fostered a public good by becoming a place of public healing.

Helping people heal can be measured and tracked. Using those kinds of numbers will establish the compelling reasons that supporting local history will make sense to the broadest number of people.

Finally, responsiveness means paying attention to public capacity to support our missions. Even if local history does all as stated above, money and space that money might buy are finite resources.

A number of years ago local history services staff helped plan a new storage building for one organization. That building was designed to meet the needs of the organization for another ten years. Approximately six months after opening, the president of that organization beamed with pride and said, “You know how we thought it would take ten years to fill that building? We did it in just three months!”

History is a winnowing process – not everything that is old must or even should be saved. Those things that possess historic significance and integrity must meet a high threshold for that rare honor of being preserved in perpetuity. To be successful in the future, local history organizations need to reduce the pace of space consumption.

The pace of space consumption can and should be tracked nationally so that local organizations can use those statistics as a measuring stick. We must be careful not to use that to prompt a race for the fewest accessions in a year, but rather to determine what an appropriate pace might be. Hopefully over the course of time the annual fluctuation in accessions will relate closely to the benchmark.

What will make local history worthy of support is when it can prove how integral to the community local history can be, demonstrate the force for public good local history really is, and measure the stewardship of the community and its finite resources. If local history continues to rely only on altruistic assertions, it will continue to experience the adverse conditions and frustrations often voiced. Being able to do one or more of the above won't make life a bed of roses for local history organizations, but it should lessen frustrations by a significant degree.

For more on measuring what we do, see Data for Dollars, Alignment for Dollars, and Hanging Chads of Performance Measurement.

Relevant Warehouses

By: grabitsdm | March 23, 2011
Phillip Torrone offers some insight into what he believes the future of public libraries may be. He begins with an overview of the current state of affairs that is drawn from published sources, and this is quite useful. He then points out other lending options that have existed since the 1970s and may be growing. His assessment after all is written for the e-zine "Make."

His blog post calls to mind the admonition that so go public libraries, so also go museums. Historical organizations most often operate research libraries, which have some similarities to public libraries, but important differences.

There are some important differences, too, in the data. Whereas he estimates 9,000 public libraries in the United States, the American Association of Museums estimates approximately 17,000 museums. Whereas public libraries circulate most of their warehoused collection, museums generally do not circulate their collections - library, archives, or three-dimensional. Whereas public libraries generally facilitate access to a very broad spectrum of knowledge, historical research libraries are often highly focused.

However, with the advent of iPad, Xoom, Kindle, and other means of electronic reading, it is not hard to see public demand for access to historical collections through download. Digitization costs something, as does maintaining the digital files created. With historical research libraries often supported far more minimally than public libraries, how the cost of digitization might be absorbed is hard to imagine. It's probably unlikely that the going rate of 99 cents per downloaded book will cover costs.

What Torrone points out, however, is not only applicable to historical organizations operating museums and research libraries, but it is what successful organizations have long been doing. Namely, people want to be able to do something at the organization. This is why the Local History News e-newsletter has a permanent feature called "Do History Here," highlighting events at local historical organizations. People want to be participants - so what kinds of things will local historical organizations have to offer in the future?

The future is an undiscovered country. Certainly public libraries are forging a path into that wilderness ahead of historical organizations. That's fine, just so long as historical organizations pay attention to lessons learned.

So, do you think the warehouses of historical evidence will become obsolete? How might historical organizations ensure relevance of their collections?