History salvage

I had checked the progress of the artifact rescue online, but I was still surprised when the truck pulled up in front of the historical society.  It was an old USPS truck, repainted orange with a brown running horse on it, the symbol of the New Pony Express.  It was accompanied by a distinct smell of fried dumplings.  Obviously there were enough restaurants open to fuel a biodiesel truck.  

It was surprising to see the mail being delivered in an official vehicle.  Usually the NPE system used traveling volunteers to deliver packages, parcels and other things that couldn’t be transmitted electronically (a ‘packet’ can’t carry weather collecting devices, or plows).  The NPE’s infrastructure was people and community mail drop nodes, not mail trucks, postboxes and postal stations.  Thus it was strange to have a delivery direct to the museum.

I had a new volunteer, L., a librarian displaced from the ReDS zone, who had been helping me research and organize materials for the putting-your-garden-to-bed workshop.  We both ran out to meet the truck.  The door opened and out spilled a driver, a young woman wearing an obviously handknitted hat with a pony on it, and a number of excited German shepards.  The driver grinned.  “Is this the Brown County Historical Society?  Delivery from New Orleans!”

An army of volunteers (and conscripts) had been rescuing artifacts, papers and even pieces of historic houses from the Gulf Coast.  I wondered about how the project was managed.  The National Trust still existed, but this kind of rescue, from the ReDS zone no less, required a lot of money, energy and time, not to mention very detailed tracking of “loaned” items and repositories. The rescued items were being transported to repositories that could take them.  I had signed us up, with the amount of cubic feet we had available for items and a description of our facilities.  I eyed the truck.  Whatever it was would have to live in the attic.

“This is a special Heritage Rescue delivery,” said the driver.  “We sent out a fleet of trucks from NoLa and Biloxi.  I’ve been driving up the Mississippi finding these things good homes–with the help of this crowdsourced loan and delivery tracking and mapping system.”  She patted a piece of electronics in her pocket.  “I dropped off some architectural salvage in St. Peter, but you’ve got the space and the environmental stability for this collection.”  

She rolled up the back of the truck.  “It’s the Jazz History Archives from Tulane.  Or what’s left of it.”  The boxes filled the truck to the ceiling.  L. and I jumped up and down in excitement.  “Do you need a place to stay?”  I asked the driver.  “We’re going to have a concert tonight.”


Fermenting culture

Tonight we have a sauerkraut workshop at the museum.  K. has come down from the mill to help, and brought the kids with her.  

When the out-of-town visitors stopped coming, and the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota visitors started coming by bike or by train, we jackhammered up the parking lot, did a lot of soil amendments, and began a historic garden.  With the rest of the grounds, that made about an acre and a half of growing space, which we used both for education programs on historic farming in the area, circa 1900; to feed me; and to grow food to process for trade goods.  Most of it’s planted in wheat, rye and corn, which goes to the local mill and brewery, but this year we’ve had a bumper crop of cabbage.  

We’re crowdsourcing the krautmaking by making it a historic skills workshop.  Since we’re a local history museum documenting the history of our communities in the Minnesota River Valley, much of our collections are agricultural.  We have a number of crocks that we checked for hairline cracks and that we’ve decided are part of our education collection, so we’re using them for production.  Our kraut shredders, however, are quite fragile, and some are rusty and need to be conserved (a vague hope for the future), so we’re just making do with knives.  Good metals are hard to come by these days–the scrappers have been through.  Our excellent collection of church cookbooks has come in handy.

To make sauerkraut, you clean cabbages well and chop or shred them finely.  Pack them in a crock with about 1 T salt per 5 cups of cabbage, more if it’s hot out.  Pound the cabbage into the crock until it gives up liquid, weight and cover.  When the kraut is done, in about a month, we’ll hot-water-bath can it.  To protect against ReDS, we’ve sterilized everything, mandated frequent handwashing among our 15 or so workshoppers (all locals so far; the refugees have been starting to trickle up here, but most are in the city, not in my small community), and also required everyone to wear a surgical mask.  You can’t be too careful when dealing with food, even lactofermented foods.

When we’ve canned the kraut, we trade it for energy, either hydropower from the mill, or wind energy from Southwest Minnesota.  Sometimes we can barter, sometimes we turn the kraut and other value-added foods to cash first by selling to a distributor.  We need to run the lights and the heat and the computers in the museum.   Like many local history museums, our museum has always been free to visitors, and there was an uproar when I tried to impose fees back when the economy first went south, so our exhibits remain a free public resource.  We charge for collections access and research, and sometimes for workshops on the history of technology.  We’re running on a shoestring anyway; energy is the most pressing expense.  There are no grants anymore.  

How can we monetize our museum services and still remain a public resource?  How can we be community hubs and stay solvent?

We’ll let these questions ferment as the kraut does.  Hopefully some answers will bubble up as it matures.  This is how we create culture.


Does history have a future?

I’ve been living at the museum for the last six months.  I tell my staff (by which I mean my old neighbor who comes by occasionally to check in and run the place while I get food) that it’s to protect against looters, but  I find it comforting to be surrounded by the material culture of our past.  In the midst of our artifacts, I am reminded that humans, here in our county in southern Minnesota and across the world, have lived in highly unstable societies before, have faced famine, disease, tyranny, scarcity, and have survived.  Not only that, but they left records, photographs, harrows, evening gowns, telephones, tangible proofs of their lives.  

The stream of visitors has been gratifying.  Every day more and more people come and ask questions about farming and handcrafts.  I’m so glad I resisted the board’s pressure to deaccession all the duplicates in our plow collection.

I’ve been the director of the county historical society here for ten years and I plan to keep the museum open and history accessible to the public as long as I can.  But I don’t know how long me, the museum and public history in general can weather these challenges.  Luckily no one has found us important enough to hack, but I wonder if having our collections online will bring unpleasant attention–and how long we can stay connected.

June 2019
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