With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Collaborating to Preserve Our Cultural History

The history we know is based on the documents that society has retained.  Ensuring an accurate understanding of modern society relies on the decisions we make at this historic time.  There is a need for organizations and citizens to consider the knowledge that we are recording and the legacy that we are leaving to our children.  Collaboration can help ensure that civilization is saving documentation that best reflects our times, providing an accurate indication of how we work, play, and function day-to-day.  The better the collecting efforts of cultural heritage organizations, the more authentic testimony humanity saves.  This will help us evaluate our successes and failures, propelling civilization thoughtfully and purposely into the future.

The “historical record” is the surviving written or otherwise recorded information that provides evidence or information about a society and its activities in a certain time and place.  One can find bits of the historical (or “documentary”) record in every institution and every home throughout civilized society.  Cultural heritage institutions work to preserve this material in a formalized way to help educate, communicate, and evaluate cultural values and mores.  Today, museums, libraries and archives struggle to make ends meet while trying to live up to the new challenges technology and globalization have handed to us, not always recognizing the fundamental value of thoughtful collection development.

Cultural heritage professionals no longer have the luxury of embracing an internal focus with little regard for other area organizations or institutions collecting similar materials around the world.  Organizations must see themselves as part of a cultural network, understand their niche for collecting, and efficiently explain that role to citizens.  Institutions should embrace a collaborative model to ensure the safeguarding of our history and to promote themselves as vital entities in a contemporary world.

To identify appropriate documents for the historical record, professional collection caretakers (including archivists, curators, and museologists) must work with non-professionals who create and keep materials.  Firstly, professionals operating in seemingly disparate fields must embrace a natural partnership.  Our repositories’ resources once sat side-by-side with similar methods for care that were not dependent on the nature of the material.  It would be beneficial to re-evaluate our cross-purposes.  Secondly, professionals need to make concerted efforts to reach out to others who may possess items that are important for us to identify and maintain for documentation purposes.  Many important items remain buried in homes and offices, inaccessible and left out of humanity’s story.

Collaborative efforts should occur among individuals from institutions that share a purpose of preserving cultural heritage, and should propel the recognition that these institutions retain documentation that is vital to our understanding of civilization.  Partnerships help build a community history that one can define within a geographical boundary or by subject.  Geographical boundaries can be local, such as within a town, or spread regionally.  Subject relationships can spread across the globe or among smaller communities.  The key to effective collaboration is working with the right partners who are willing and able to devote resources to efforts regardless of boundaries and focused on shared documentation goals.

Efforts to collect logically and efficiently should be a priority amongst all the work cultural repositories do.  Collaboration will help ensure the achievement of collecting goals and the further success of all institutional efforts.  Strong collections provide a foundation for developing programs, outreach, fundraising, and exhibits.  What an organization collects defines who they are and focused collecting allows repositories to build other activities around a logical core.

A collecting policy is a prime guiding statement for an institution’s purpose and a proper policy will define collecting goals based on the mission.  The policy provides a vision for the future and exists so that an organization operates without looming questions about what it does and why.  To begin collaborative efforts, all institutions should have collecting policies in place so that they can gain a better understand of their own behaviors, the priorities of their partners, and come together with an understanding of their role within a collaborative.  Such policies encourage cultural institutions actively to pursue appropriate collections.

Once partners acknowledge the desire to form a collaborative and affirm their mutual aspiration for focused collecting based on a shared history, they will do well to take a closer look at what they have in common.  The use of a community documentation strategy is beneficial in identifying collecting strengths, weaknesses and goals.  Creating a timeline that highlights all relevant events, people, places and topics for incorporation in collecting plans helps groups identify what they must collect as a partnership to ensure a thorough documentary record.  Partners enlist the aid of outside experts and potential non-professional collaborators who can help identify broad-ranging aspects of society that make up the human story.  Then, a survey of resources held by each participating organization allows the group to see how effectively they showcase the history they want to reflect.  A survey allows one to identify overlaps and gaps in the documentary record in order to move collecting efforts in a logical direction. 

A community documentation strategy allows us to try in a systematic way to gather items that are most vital to tell the story about our civilization and to create as complete an historical record as we possibly can.  However, there are additional benefits of systematic collecting, including an increase in organizational resources, expertise, and outside support.  One of the greatest benefits of collaborative work is a new sense of identity and shared cultural purpose that radiates from partnering institutions into the community.  Appreciation for our collections and the culture they embody awakens local pride and propels citizens to engage with important civic issues that will define our future as a society.

Cultural collections are the evidence of where our civilization has been and how far we have come.  Cultural heritage repositories that maintain these materials for posterity must view themselves as vital entities, bridging ideas across changing times.  Only through collaboration can we all effectively document the historical record, identify our niche and recognize an implicit cultural promise to protect society’s memory.  By collaborating on the historical record/cultural heritage, collaborators can help build a history that is diverse, balanced, and truly reflective of modern culture.