The way Americans grow food and other agricultural products has changed a lot in the last 70 years. Curator Peter Liebhold answered questions about the museum’s new initiative to archive these changes.
Why is the museum launching an initiative to collect agriculture stories from the public?
The Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive is an exciting experiment for the museum. This is the first time that the museum has tried a collecting effort using social media. Usually, curators identify specific individuals and work directly with them to collect artifacts and stories. By reaching out through the web, we can reach thousands more people—and make the process more public. We'll get greater diversity and build a more accurate, nuanced story of American agriculture.
The initiative is especially important as we develop the upcoming American Enterprise exhibition, as agriculture is one of five economic sectors explored in it. As we researched the topic, it became apparent that we lacked material that documented the many innovations that have fundamentally changed American agriculture.
Why turn to the public to share their stories?
Reaching out to the public via the web is evidence that the museum is embracing 21st century tools. We are stepping out of the curatorial comfort zone and inviting public access.
Frankly, this is a bit terrifying for curators. Will we be overwhelmed with responses? How do we maintain rigor? The answers to these questions are unknown, but if we don't try them, we can never succeed. We are excited about the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive and think it might be a new way of doing public history for this museum.
What kinds of material do you hope the public submits?
Collecting museum objects is a black art. It is always hard to say what you are looking for in advance but fairly easy to say when you have found it. Curators look for icons; intrinsically interesting objects that represent great moments and esoteric ideas. For the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, we mostly hope to collect stories—insightful, introspective, and told in the first person. We want to bring history alive and make it personal.
We also hope to collect photographs, ephemera (letters, documents, trade literature, etc.), and oral histories. With the 2-D material, we don't even have to collect the original as high quality scans will work. We don't expect to collect big objects—tractor and combines are fascinating, but take up a lot of space.
How will the museum use agriculture stories submitted by the public?
The American Enterprise curators will use the material as they prepare the exhibition. There have been many books and articles written about agriculture, but this initiative will bring forward different perspectives than those that historians usually flog. History is complex and letting the public participate can be revealing.
For example, a peer recently told me that the Farm Crisis of the 1980s and accompanying Farm Aid concerts was the point where farmers stood up and said, 'we don't want to be big, we want to stay small.' I spoke to a number of farmers and their individual stories were revealing. They weren't as concerned about being big or small as they were interested in quality of life. That kind of knowledge comes best through personal stories.
Additionally, this archive will be useful for students, researchers, and the public. As an open archive, it can be used by a variety of people for any number of purposes. Museums have learned that people want access to primary material—and they can use it in unpredictable ways. We love history and want to preserve the story of American agriculture and make it widely accessible.
Why is it important to preserve these stories and photos?
Many aspects of history are ephemeral. Things like silver cups and letters from famous people often get saved. Photographs like a person hoeing a soybean field or the story of someone who grew 30-pound watermelons only to discover the public wants personal sized watermelons are less likely to be kept. If future generations are to understand how we made decisions, then they need a fuller story.
Peter Liebhold is the chair and curator of the Division of Work and Industry. Don't forget to share your story with the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive.