Conceptualizing Rural History

Last week a co-worker who is currently reading up on the history of her city asked me if I had ever been interested in the town history of where I grew up.  This simple question had me stumped.  The majority of my life I have lived outside of town, and didn’t readily identify with a closest town.  I had no real town history to speak of.

 I grew up on a concession road, part of a rural township that had very little in terms of central services. The majority of the houses on my road were farms with kilometers of fields separating neighbours. How does one explore a community’s history when the vast majority of area residents live outside of what most people see as traditional community?

Rural communities are not void of history, but often these histories are recorded and remembered in different ways.  Very few rural areas have written historical accounts or a dedicated ‘town’ museum.  Many rural communities once had vibrant churches which recorded much of the area’s history, but with many of these churches closing due to low attendance rates that recorded history is in jeopardy of being lost.

In the case of farming communities there are years of family history tied into the history of the land.  Looking at land registries and deeds of land can tell the story of a family.  For example, the original McCracken homestead owned by my family was traditionally passed down to the eldest son who then carried on the work on the farm.  However, if you look at nearby land records you can see that often the younger sons would buy farm land nearby, and continue to expand the family farm that way.

Stories of barn raisings, helpful neighbours plowing a field when someone’s tractor broke, and calf-cow picnics and many other stories make up the fabric of rural relations.  Oral histories can provide depth to otherwise forgotten relationships and connections.  Rural history definitely exists, one might just have to look beyond published sources to find it.

Community and Relevancy in Rural Museums

The latest issue of Curator: The Museum Journal was recently posted online.  This issue contained a number of interesting approaches to issues in the museum field.  One article I found particularly interesting was Rhianedd Smith‘s “Searching for “Community”: Making English Rural History Collections Relevant Today.”  The article can be read online here

Smith’s work focuses on rural history museums in the United Kingdom, however her logic and the trends towards more active community engagement are applicable in Canada and in the museum community at large. The tendency of smaller museums to represent a single interpretation of the past is fairly common.  Many institutions struggle to include interpretations that will be representative of a culturally diverse area.  In Canada this may be in part be due to overarching Euro-Canadian history which has long been the dominate force in small museums.

So how does one make a rural or local heritage collection relevant to a wider audience? Smith provides case examples of some actions that have worked – outreach to a wider range of donors, focusing on the human element, using digital technology to reach a broader audience.  More strikingly, Smith highlights the need for flexibility.  There is no one size fits all outreach initiative that suit all organizations, however it is imperative that organizations look towards new programming and interpretation options.

Photo credit: Marion Doss