Thoughts on Local Museums

You all know that I love museums. I love the large, the small, the renowned, and the obscure. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the local museum, an institution one can find in almost any town, regardless of the size. After spending a summer volunteering at the Shelton House in Waynesville, NC, I have a strong respect for the challenges our small local museums face.

There’s not enough manpower, expertise, and most of all, money. There’s lots of enthusiasm, especially for one’s own interests. I’ll speak for myself. I have lots of interest in clothing and textiles, but little in dolls and woodcraft. That’s why I was so thrilled that the wonderful director of the Shelton House allowed me to concentrate on the things I love.

I still have a bit of work to do in the Shelton House collection, but I am now turning my attention to the museum that is just down the street from me – the Shook-Smathers House in Clyde, NC. This house is also the home of the Museum of Haywood County History. It’s a fascinating place, and is one of the oldest houses in this part of the Appalachians. I’ve been tagging along on tours to see how our local history is interpreted, and it’s been interesting. The photo is of a visitor to the museum who is also a descendent of the builder of the house, Jacob Shook. I was so inspired by her enthusiasm upon visiting the house her ancestor built.

Over the past several years I’ve visited quite a few local museums in North Carolina. Some have been amazing, but others have left me scratching my head. There are several big questions. What is it about history that interests people the most? What do people want to see in a historical museum? And most importantly, what is important about the history of a region?

A common thread seems to be war, especially World War II, and here in the South, the Civil War. The veterans of WWII are dying out, and it seems apparent that every Boomer wants his dad’s uniform and war “trophies” displayed in the local museum. I recently visited two local museums, and both were filled with random war souvenirs and military uniforms. I had to ask myself, “Is this what I wanted to learn about these small Appalachian communities?”

You know that the answer is no. I know that the contributions of the people of Appalachia to the winning of WWII are important. My father fought in the Pacific, my father-in-law fought in Italy, and my mother-in-law worked for the military at home. I know their stories, and they are important. Their stories need to be acknowledged and preserved. But our history is so much more.

The same museum that gave us two Nazi flags and the Japanese rising sun, also had this circa 1800 coat of homespun fabric. It came with a through provenance, including who made it, for whom it was made, and how it was passed down through the family. It says so much about how fashion was important, even in a backwoods area, where women were still spinning and weaving and sewing in order that their families might be properly attired. I’m hoping it is noticed among the Confederate artifacts and the war souvenirs.

I want to give some context to the Japanese flag. This appears to be a Yosegaki Hinomaru, or a good luck flag, which was signed by the family and friends of a Japanese soldier going off to fight in WWII. These flags were often taken by Allied troops from fallen or imprisoned Japanese soldiers. In the case of this flag, it seems to also inscribed to an American Sargent, perhaps after being taken after a battle. At any rate, there’s no way for the visitor to the museum to know, as there is no interpretation of the object. In addition, there is a group, the Obon Society, which works to repatriate these flags to the families of the soldiers in Japan. How much more meaningful this flag would be to the descendants of a fallen soldier than it is as a random war souvenir.


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15 responses to “Thoughts on Local Museums

  1. Deborah Chowney

    You make a good point about local museums and too often they fail to realise that they are in the business of helping to give place and community a shop window. Family and community history is often overlooked, especially women’s roles in the community and here, in NE Hampshire, England, we have many tiny museums that fail to represent their communities and instead focus on an agenda or even seem to be more of an art gallery. We do have some good museums though and Milestones, is one that has worked hard to bring the past to life and inject fun / interaction into the telling of the area’s story. I hope this link works.


    • Thanks for introducing me to Milestones. How delightful!

      Yes, so many do fail to represent their own communities. Considering how many millions of uniforms were made and issued during the past century of warfare, displays of them all begin to look alike. I do like the way the Shook-Smathers House has approached the issue. There is a “military room” wherein the focus is on the careers of three local people. One was a WWII military nurse, one features the letters home of a young man killed in Vietnam, and the other tells the story of a local man who fought in the Spanish-American War. So much more effective than anonymous WWII uniforms and captured souvenirs,


  2. Spinsjal

    I too love museums, small and large, community and city. I once said to a friend, without really thinking about how true it was for me, that I didn’t know a city until I visited it’s museum. I too would prefer to see items significant to local history (particularly textile) that is more local than war memorabilia. However, I think that people are absolutely fascinated by it, and to some extent I think that it may bring in a wider audience and their admission fees. I was in Honiton England a few years ago with a group of knitting enthusiasts, at the Allhallows Museum of Lace and Local Antiquities. Yes, there along with the traditional exquisite Honiton lace was the local WWII memorabilia. Granted, the war was much more “local” the British than for us, but sight of the spiked German “Pickelhaube” helmet is stuck in my brain. It was very out of place, being not 20 steps away from Wallace Simpson’s exquisitely tiny red lace adorned negligee! (I do agree that the Japanese flag needs to return to someone’s family in Japan).
    Thank you for the work that you do!


    • Spinsjal

      Oops, that should have been WWI in reference to Pickelhauben!


    • That is a mighty strange juxtaposition!

      I think in Britain it might be easier to give the local view of the two world wars because they were in the thick of it. I’m convinced that to make it relevant there has to be some locally focused interpretation. And that is what is so often missing.


  3. Andrea

    Thanks for this post. I have seen these Yosegaki Hinomaru in museums big and small both on exhibit and in collections databases. Some major universities have them in their collections and they are misidentified. Agree they need to go back to their descendants and the Obon Society is doing a great job of facilitating this but museums have to step up and start the simple process. They are being compared to human remains and are often the only remaining thing relating to a person and so I would argue should not be displayed at all.


    • Thanks so much for these insights, Andrea. I agree that they should not be displayed. As for the two I have seen recently in museums, neither the director at one, nor the volunteer at the other had any clue as to the importance of the flags. They had no record at all of how they came to be at the museums. Still, my suggestions that they contact the Obon Society were met with silence.


  4. Christine Seid

    Excellent insights on small regional museums. Appreciate your thoughts on keeping the enthusiasm but sticking to the mission and focus of the particular museum. Well said!


  5. KeLLy aNN

    I absolutely LOVE museums, of all kinds, and it doesn’t matter what the day is like outside, inside the museum is perfect. I have to say, my all time favorite was when the Jim Henson collection came to our LASM. I got to see the Mah Nah Mah Na muppets!! Score! Thank you for all you do. It truly is a work of love.


  6. Add me to the local-museum-lovers’ list. So many small-town museums are repositories for things that the donors don’t want to own but don’t want to throw away. It’s hard to set and keep to a strict policy of “only things from Our Town” so as not to alienate anyone. (“We’ll take it on the condition that we can do with it as we choose” may be practical but not tactful.) The internet has made it easier to identify objects.


    • I agree that small town dynamics play a huge part is the problem. People donate stuff, and then want to visit it, like saying, “Look! Grandma’s spinning wheel is in a museum!”

      And some of these museums just have a problem saying NO. One museum had 5 spinning wheels on display along with an entire wall of typewriters. One museum did tell me they drew the line at KKK items.


  7. Julia Sutherly

    An excellent rumination on the topic of small museum collections, and their need for focus and clear descriptions. One problem I’ve noticed is the lack of trained historians on many small museum staffs. This is a near impossibility for the budget of many places. To address this lack of knowledge of museum standards, are there any webinars or other training avenues available to the layperson to fill the gap? Also, thank you for calling out the presence of the Yosegaki Hinomaru. To hear the amazing textile historian Jo Andrews explain this delicate issue, listen to this emotional episode of her podcast, Haptic & Hue:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Julia, thanks for mentioning Haptic & Hue. That episode is amazing, and was my introduction to Yosegaki Hinomaru.

      I don’t know of any resources for the lay person. I have educated myself, mainly through dozens of museum visits, focusing on what works and what does not. To me it is amazing to see the difference between two NC small towns, of roughly the same size, located around 120 miles apart. One has a clear mission to tell the local history through artifacts and exhibits. The other looks like a hoarder curio shop where nothing is for sale.


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