Inner workings of a George Nelson for Howard Miller clock, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

History Is Infrastructure

Inner workings of a George Nelson for Howard Miller clock, 2018.
Inner workings of a George Nelson for Howard Miller clock, 2018.

The museum where I work sits on a high bank of the Mississippi River overlooking the confluence of a creek with a bridge. The riverbank is severely eroding and we are looking for natural solutions to that erosion so as not to endanger the museum building. In discussing this erosion with someone who deals with protecting the river, it was suggested that we talk about how this erosion will affect the bridge. Why? Because governmental units tend to favor projects involving infrastructure.

Hmm. A bridge and road are infrastructure worth protecting, but a local history museum is not?

Wait a minute …

Those of us who work in local museums and county historical societies know how much people in the community depend upon our resources to study their family history, learn the history of their businesses and communities, and assist them with preservation projects. The content of our museums also provides the rich stories that draw visitors to our communities. Our collections show just how unique our local communities are.

This history IS our infrastructure, just as much as any road or bridge or sewage system. Heck, when a governmental unit plans a new road or other infrastructure project, we at county historical societies are contacted for the impact that project will have on any potential historic sites that may be affected prior to the infrastructure being built. (We throw around the term Section 106 a lot in regards to this work because Section 106 is part of the National Historic Preservation Act.)

Could this step be skipped? Just not check in with historians before infrastructure is built? Sure, on a philosophical level, but it’s to the community’s detriment if digging starts and a burial or other archaeologically significant site is uncovered. Now work has to halt, potentially to be rerouted, and there’s a PR nightmare to deal with. These sorts of consequences are not fun. Also, at this point, skipping a Section 106 review for a project that has federal funding is not legal, so it can’t be skipped even on a philosophical level.

In order to do a Section 106 review, a community has to have the historical documentation to examine what used to be on particular sites. Who holds a lot of this data? County and local history museums.

See how history and museums are part of infrastructure? We’re just as important as roads and bridges, which often can’t get built without us.