As Michael Crichton once said, “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
As a volunteer for our local history society and museum, I am out in the community businesses looking for donations and memberships. It is somewhat intimidating to be out soliciting for funds while there are so many other worthwhile organizations knocking on their doors seeking donations for the food banks, child care, environment, health care, and local community members in need of fundraisers. Everyone thinks it’s nice what the historical society does, but they are not sure it is necessary.
History is marginalized in our country. Children are not expected to learn it in schools, community leaders rarely look to it to inform today’s decisions, and national leaders select and distort facts to support their positions. Sure, some people visit historic sites and history museums; and many more watch history-based movies. For them, engagement in history seems to be an occasional pleasant pastime, not something especially relevant to their lives.
In contrast, those of us who are active in the practice of history – whether as paid professionals or volunteers – believe that history is central to our lives, and that it ought to play a greater role in the lives of our communities and nation.
Recently I was introduced to the History Relevance Campaign. Their one-page value statements reminded me why history is relevant, even essential, to our current and future innovators, motivators, leaders and caretakers.
No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory: family stories, tribal traditions, civic commemorations. In a word, no place is a community until it has some history.
A place without history is simply a financial transaction. I give you money, you build me a house. I go shopping in your store. In spite of the language of developers, who call their residential developments communities, and their malls “town centers,” without history these places are not communities.
A community needs stories, traditions, memories, memorials.
It is this sense of place that connects people, whether newcomers or life timers, to a particular place. This sense of place enables us to reach across generations, and can unite different cultural groups.
Our pioneer ancestors that settled in this area overcame language barriers, forests and rocks in the fields, isolation, deaths from limited medical help or from wars they fled from in their homelands, and many obstacles. Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Belgians, Americans and more came together to create this beautiful area we call home today. From their legacy we will learn to overcome our obstacles today and in the future.
I urge all of you to not only become members and donate to this most worthy cause, but to engage with your local history organization. Share your family stories and histories. It is what makes us a resilient community.
I encourage all historic organizations to endorse the History Relevance Campaign and engage with them, as the WI Historical Society has done.
Susan Armour, volunteer, Sister Bay Historical Society
Baileys Harbor, Wis.