The National Museum of American History is collecting stories about American’s experience with the land. They are calling it the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive and are currently asking people to share their agricultural stories through their website. Here is a taste of a short Q&A with curator Peter Leibhold at the museum’s blog:
Why is the museum launching an initiative to collect agriculture stories from the public?
The Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive is an exciting experiment for the museum. This is the first time that the museum has tried a collecting effort using social media. Usually, curators identify specific individuals and work directly with them to collect artifacts and stories. By reaching out through the web, we can reach thousands more people—and make the process more public. We’ll get greater diversity and build a more accurate, nuanced story of American agriculture.
Why turn to the public to share their stories?
Reaching out to the public via the web is evidence that the museum is embracing 21st century tools. We are stepping out of the curatorial comfort zone and inviting public access.
Frankly, this is a bit terrifying for curators. Will we be overwhelmed with responses? How do we maintain rigor? The answers to these questions are unknown, but if we don’t try them, we can never succeed. We are excited about the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive and think it might be a new way of doing public history for this museum.
What kinds of material do you hope the public submits?
Collecting museum objects is a black art. It is always hard to say what you are looking for in advance but fairly easy to say when you have found it. Curators look for icons; intrinsically interesting objects that represent great moments and esoteric ideas. For the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, we mostly hope to collect stories—insightful, introspective, and told in the first person. We want to bring history alive and make it personal.
We also hope to collect photographs, ephemera (letters, documents, trade literature, etc.), and oral histories. With the 2-D material, we don’t even have to collect the original as high quality scans will work. We don’t expect to collect big objects—tractor and combines are fascinating, but take up a lot of space.
The initiative is especially important as we develop the upcoming American Enterprise exhibition, as agriculture is one of five economic sectors explored in it. As we researched the topic, it became apparent that we lacked material that documented the many innovations that have fundamentally changed American agriculture.