I try to live a life without regrets. Indeed, I have narrowed them down to just three. That is, until earlier this week. When I read The Baltimore Sun headline, “Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground won’t be reopening,” my first thought was, “Crap! I was going to go there to do research!” I waited too long. Making the common mistake of assuming a museum will always be there, I missed my opportunity to photograph vehicles and research military relics at one of the preeminent military museums in the United States. I have to add one more item to my “regret list.”
Museums aren’t “forever”
The other day, my partner asked me, “How long did you work in museums?” It took a bit of thought before I could answer her, but finally said, “I was paid to work in museums from about 1980 through 1994, so about 14 years.” Then she asked, “How long have you been publishing?” Again, I had to narrow the time frame to just being “paid to publish.” “I guess, about 20 years,” I finally concluded. “So you have been in publishing longer than museums,” she stated. “I guess so,” but my thoughts carried me back many years.
Wrapping up a history and German degree at the University of Wisconsin back when MTV began airing music videos, I was fortunate to be hired as an intern by the La Crosse County Historical Society. My director took a keen interest in my career and recommended pursuing graduate studies in “museum science.”
After being admitted to the Historical Administration graduate program at Eastern Illinois University, I delved, headfirst, into becoming a “museum professional.” What a time it was! Museums had plenty of money, community support and a sense of purpose.
Several institutions recognized the opportunity and invested their resources into expansion. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that the cracks began to appear… the Internet was delivering information directly into peoples’ homes lessening the sense of community involvement or the need to “go to the museum.” But the economy was still strong… museum directors sailed their institution toward a glowing horizon.
By 2000, well before our economic breakdown of 2008, museums were feeling a very definite shift in public attitude. Institutions had expanded programs, built new structures and invested in staff… but where were the customers?
Now, bare in my mind, I was a museum guy, so I am not pointing fingers or laying blame that I don’t share myself. But what appears to have happened is many museums coasted. As they expanded, they took their eye off the ball. And what was the ball, you ask? Well as any collector knows, it’s the stuff!
SHOW ME THE RELICS!
I am probably a bit harsher than the average museum visitor. I have a very short attention span for lots of labels and very few artifacts. Let’s be honest: Until 3-D printing becomes so cheap and easy for me to “print” a full scale Tiger Tank or Vietnam firebase, the number one reason for me to visit a museum is to SEE STUFF!
I don’t visit a museum to read some curator’s interpretation of history. I can google almost any historic event and have plenty of facts and opinions to read in about 5 seconds. Even museum videos and movies are tired and behind the times… YouTube offers way more historic footage that I can view on my computer or telephone without ever having to pay a museum’s “admission fee.”
If I am going to jump in a car and drive to a museum, it better have something to offer me that I can’t get with a mouse click. And just what do museums have that I can’t download (yet)? Relics! Show me the stuff!
When I read the Sun’s announcement that the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) Museum wouldn’t be reopening, however, I gulped. I couldn’t blame anyone… I became complacent. I believed one of my favorite museums would always be there. And therein, lies the conundrum that all museums face today.
Who’s Gonna Pay for Preservation?
I am willing to bet many of you went on a class trip when you were in the fourth or fifth grade that included a visit to a state museum of some sort. It is a rather safe assumption (and a good bar bet) because most curriculum calls for the study of state and national history when a child is in the fourth or fifth grade. When schools still had money, they generally concluded the study with a trip to the State Capitol to see where “history was made.” Now here is the big question, however: If you did visit a state museum in fourth or fifth grade, have you been back for a second visit?
Chances are, many of you have not been back. Don’t feel bad. Something in our training has conditioned us to believe museums are always going to be there. So, when we grow up, have families and want to take our children to the museum, we can point to items we had seen 20 years earlier and really sound smart when we explain them to our kids.
This pattern worked well for many, many years. About the time I was first getting into museum work, a shift was occurring, however. Museum staffs began to realize that leaving items on display for decades probably wasn’t the best approach. Silks began to crumble, furniture dried up, firearms and swords rusted and a host of insects gorged themselves on various fabrics. To extend the life of the artifacts, museums began to pull items off of display. In the best cases, they replaced the items with similar pieces. In the worst, museums filled the void with labels, reproductions or a sign stating, “removed for preservation.” Well-intentioned museum staffs buried the relics deep in the dark, cool recesses of storage.
So, when people returned 20 years later with young kids in tow to see some “favorite relic” (in Green Bay where I worked, it was a skeleton!), they became confused. Thoughts of, “What good is having stuff in storage if all you do is put a sign in the display case?” were common. Museum directors didn’t seem to hear such concerns. Their attention was on expansion, not the relics.
Community support for museums took a deep plunge. The unthinkable began to happen: Trying to stay afloat, some museums sold their collections. Some consolidated. Some tried to redefine themselves as “education” or “activity” centers. Still others put themselves in “mothballs”—a suspended animation to wait for a time when community desire for a museum would return. The grim reality played out as we witnessed many museums fail during the last few years.
Some biggies that have impacted the militaria world include: The Victory Museum sold off the bulk of their military vehicle collection to make up for gross money mishandling; The Harrisburg Museum soon to have its collection sold at auction; Fort Snelling Military Museum closed after the Army realigned its bases; and now, the Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum, not reopening after base realignment and lack of funding. The list is much, much longer, but please permit this to suffice to illustrate my point: I can’t blame my neighbors, the “government,” conservative or liberal extremists or anyone else for the closing of these three favorite museums of mine. If there is blame, I must share it.
Okay, I usually stuffed a $5 bill in the donation box when I went to each of these, but that was the extent of my “support.” For years, I told myself, “I should really join the Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum Foundation,” but never did. After I had a great visit at the Fort Snelling Military Museum, I thought, “I really should write to my congress person to let them know what a jewel we have in Minnesota,” but never did. And when the Victory Museum sent me literature asking me to join their support group, I put it on the stack of “bills to be considered.” (That stack is never touched other than to periodically shred it back to a manageable size.)
Museums are not “forever.” They are a business dealing in a very specific commodity: History. They are a lot like an ice cream stand. We don’t need an ice cream stand in our neighborhood, especially every day. But, boy, when you want a treat or give a kid a thrill, you are darn glad that it is there and open. The only way a museum is going to be open when you decide it is time for a visit is by having money to operate. If you value an institution, become a sustaining member today—it is a commitment, not a one-time contribution.
But, with all that said—all my preachy interpretation of why museums fail—the fact remains: APG Museum won’t be reopening. In existence since 1924 to display, study and preserve the evolution of military weaponry, I thought it would always be there. So, whenever I thought about visiting to do a day or two of research, it was easy to say, “I can go next year.” Now, all I can do is add it to my personal list of regrets and try to avoid making the same mistake in the future.
Actively support your museum,
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader