It will come as no surprise that I’ve visited a lot of city museums lately, both in the US and in Europe. Patterns are emerging. Today I want to discuss one in particular: the permanent city history exhibition. Almost every city museum has one, and they are remarkably similar. They are almost always chronological in nature, starting with prehistory and native communities, and winding up somewhere around 2000. The following topics are covered, more or less in the following order:
- Early development and trade
- [Insert fire/flood/famine]
- [Insert war here]
- Industrial revolution
- [Insert more war and disaster]
- Labor issues and social ills (at this point we’re somewhere in the late 19th century)
- [More war]
- Famous local products and people
- The time we hosted the World’s Fair/Olympics
- New Immigration and ethnic diversity
- Hooray for our city!
Such treatments of city history, on one hand, are admirable. On some level, every member of the general public should have a basic grounding in the sweep of history over time, and in the forces that shaped each of these cities from nothing more than a defensible position near a developing trade route, to modern metropolises. I’m all for an educated citizenry. But I see so many visitors with their eyes glazed over as they try to make it through case after case of the same old story, and I’m not sure how much knowledge they walk away with in the end. I’m interested in whether there might be a different approach. I wonder if the chronologically organized, permanent city history exhibition is even necessary (maybe it is—I’d like to hear arguments for and against). It seems to me that perhaps what’s most interesting to visitors is not what a particular city has in common with every other city in North America and Europe, but instead, what sets it apart.
At the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, I really liked a brief audio piece on Pittsburgh accents. At the McCord Museum, in the Simply Montreal exhibition, there was a creative display about Montreal’s extreme winter climate, with historical artifacts ranging from snow shoes, to fur hats, to bed warmers. Not to be outdone, the Helsinki City Museum currently has on display at the Sederholm House an entire temporary exhibition about night in Helsinki, so fitting for a city that spends months every year in darkness.
So again I ask, is the chronologically organized, permanent city history exhibition necessary? Is it a core duty and responsibility of city museums? If it’s necessary, is there a way to make it more interesting, and more digestible? If it’s not necessary, then what can we replace it with?