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Local History Exhibit Ideas

Local history is about more than creating a sense of community pride. It is also about making discoveries in your own collections that illustrate historical themes on a personal basis for your visitors.

There are many different ways to incorporate local history into your exhibition schedule. Here are some ideas to get you started:

War Letters

In my career as a museum curator, I have done an exhibition called “Letters Home: Stories from the Front” at two different museums. Both times it was extremely popular.

Search your archives for letters written to or from soldiers and sailors during wartime. Broad historical themes are played out locally through these letters. Select especially poignant passages and put them into context of local, national and world events.

Truly include your community by soliciting veterans and their families to share their letters for the exhibit. In the past I’ve received letters written in code (so the serviceman could circumvent the censors and communicate where he was stationed), a marriage proposal and a Christmas list. One World War I letter asked about the flu epidemic back home, and a Civil War letter talked about the paper and stamp shortage – one letter was actually written on blank discharge papers!

For a simple interactive, make color copies of a variety of letters and postcards. Place the letters in blank envelopes. Build or purchase a wooden cubby hole shelf and invite your visitors to select a letter to read. Include official letters informing the family of a soldier’s death, a newsy letter from home, a sad letter. Evoke as many emotions as possible. And place a box of tissues nearby.

Business and Industry

Create an exhibit called “Made in [Your Town]” to highlight businesses and industries in your community. Search your collection for things that were made right in your town, city or county. Include archival images of the factories, catalogs, advertisements and ledgers.

Ask your members to contribute artifacts and information about family members who worked for these companies. Consider an oral history project to document workers’ experiences during World War II, strikes or layoffs. Don’t forget to include small businesses too – the “Mom and Pop” establishments that people remember fondly.

Health Care

Partner with local hospitals to tell the story of health care in your community. Every hospital has a story to tell. Most museums have at least one piece of old, creepy medical equipment to display. I’ve exhibited an iron lung and a direct transfusion machine (right from the donor’s vein into the patient!).

I was able to order leeches from a company called Leeches USA to talk about the history of medical treatment. Leeches were used to “bleed” people who were sick, which was often not successful. Leeches are used in modern medicine to prevent coagulation after reattachment surgeries. The leeches came with a graphic brochure that I used as a simple interactive: the photos were placed beneath doors with a warning that they might be disturbing to some guests.

Photography Contest

Build your collection and include the community by hosting a themed photo contest. Exhibit the winners in a special exhibition of historical photos. Ask your community to search through their old photos for images of local businesses, landmarks, fashion – whatever you’d like to highlight. Include some of your favorite photos from your museum’s collection too. Include a section called “Then and Now,” or use that theme to organize the entire exhibition.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
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