Black and white clock on a wall, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

The History Enterprise Is More Than Just Museums

A good friend of mine, fellow historian, and colleague in the museum field, David Grabitske, uses a term that encompasses the entire history field: History Enterprise.

David is currently the Site Manager for the Texas Historical Commission, but he previously served for almost a decade as the State History Services Manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. As the History Services Manager (we in Minnesota knew his department better as Field Services), David traveled all over the state, checking in on museums of all different types and sizes. He got to see our back rooms, including the state of our collections, measured light levels, asked about our environmental contrals (temp & humidity), and was curious about the cost per square foot to operate museums.  He attended conferences and meetings all over the United States and spoke to history colleagues from many different quarters.

If anyone knows the variety to be found within the term “History Enterprise,” it’s David.

Having seen that variety myself but not had a good term for it, I’ve adopted it. (Thanks, David!)

So, what can be classified as a History Enterprise?

History museums are the most obvious choice. In Minnesota alone, there are over 500 museums, the vast majority of which focus on history. Art museums, which highlight the works of artists, can also be considered history museums because they normally present the history of artists along with their works.

In my own life, it was through studying art history in college that I began to make sense of world history. Manifest Destiny meant nothing to me as a subject of high school history classes, but when I saw the giant landscapes showing the vastness of the natural world in contrast to the smallness of a human figure overlooking it all, Manifest Destiny suddenly became clear.

Along with art museums, you’ll find history museums that run the gamut of topics, from historical societies that  cover the history of a geographic area (one for each of Minnesota’s 87 counties) to specialty instutitions focusing on fishing, the Ojibwe, military service, spies, computer technology, Swedish heritage, science, the news, music, or SPAM.

Most museums are set up as nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations dedicated to education, however, there are for-profit museums, as well, such as the International Spy Museum. Corporations can also operate museums, with the SPAM Museum run by Hormel Foods in Austin, MN, being an example.

Fun fact of the day: Did you know that aquariums and zoos are also part of the museum field? That’s because they have living collections they are trying to preserve. While they concentrate primarily on keeping their collections healthy within the present, zoos and aquariums also impart some history of the species they are preserving.

If museums were the only thing represented within the History Enterprise, we’d have plenty to keep us busy.

But wait … there’s more!

I could probably expound upon the following until midnight tonight, but let’s go with a list format so you can see the complexity of the History Enterprise.

The History Enterprise includes:

  • House museums
  • Historic preservation organizations
  • State parks, national parks, and national landmarks
  • History classes in K-12 and college, including teachers & professors
  • The National Register of Historic Places
  • State Historic Preservation Offices
  • Organizations that support other history organizations (American Alliance of Museums, American Alliance for State and Local History, Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museum, etc.)
  • Documentary films & television shows with a history focus
  • Genealogical organizations
  • Archaeologists
  • Anthropologists
  • Geologists
  • Historical researchers, writers & publishers
  • Businesses that provide support & supplies for museums (shelving, speciality boxes, consultants, restoration services, etc.)
  • Museum employees, including curators, tour guides, program directors, etc.

Those are some of the most obvious History Enterprises, but also consider:

  • Antique shops and vintage stores (clothing, furniture, housewares, etc.)
  • Renaissance fairs
  • War re-enactments
  • Costumers
  • Art galleries
  • Video game designers

When you start looking at how history is directly used by these sectors of society and realize that it bleeds into many other sectors, as well, you can see that the History Enterprise is very large, indeed.

What else would you add to the History Enterprise? Feel free to expound upon how your favorite History Enterprise uses history within the comments.