Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Last week, I replied to a question put to historical archivists about Chicago’s Field Museum selling off its rare book collections. I responded, using the recent experience of the Jesse James family:
Many think archives and institutions are forever. The fact is, they are subject to failure as anything else. This sad realization hit home in recent years for the family of America’s iconic outlaws, Frank & Jesse James. Their experience prompts the question, is there any reliable custodian for history’s meaningful remainders?
Over the years, the James family had made donations of their property, homes, artifacts and relics. The family placed their trust in Clay County, Missouri, and its governing commissioners. As the economic climate fluctuated like the weather across decades, the enthusiasm of the politicians and their governing body for preserving the James family’s donation grew stormy. Donations that the family made became lost, never to be retrieved.
When the historic home of Jesse James’ daughter burned down, an investigation proved the county was responsible and negligent, the county took the insurance money and ran. Instead of restoring the burned hulk, or replicating it, the county announced it intended to use the land for an animal shelter.
What lessons has the James family learned? History is best preserved by those best able to respect and maintain it. Reliance upon government or political bodies is tenuous. Time itself is preservation’s enemy. Money for permanent preservation will always be a factor. If, at all possible, it is best to self-insulate by self-insurance or underwriting. A particular endowment also may not last or endure forever, but it’s the foundation that gives history improved prospects for survival.