But healthy institutions don’t neglect their past — they understand it both as a resource and an opportunity. Corporations may need a historian to research the origins of a trademarked symbol or to defend them against lawsuits. An orchestra may realize that its trove of fading black-and-white publicity photos offers a way to engage audiences. Organizations, including military groups, may find that their funding, and future, is bound up with public opinion and that history can be used to shape those views. Other entities may simply discover that the stuff that has accumulated over the years is inherently interesting and resist the impulse to discard it.
And thus, we have a class of museums that aren’t the name-brand, big public museums that usually sit in a city’s downtown, giving it a sense of civic purpose and pride. The institutional or in-house museum is a large, formless category, ranging from the casual display of a few documents in a publicly accessible space to a designated, formal, fully researched and designed exhibition building. From a simple glass case in a law firm lobby, with old photos and award certificates, to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, which has become one of that city’s top tourist destinations, the museum function takes different forms in different institutions. But they all raise important questions about what it is museums do, and what rules (if any) should govern the way they present their past and which narratives they emphasize.
Visit these in-house museums:
Can institutions be trusted to tell their own stories? Yes, if they learn how to think like museums. That means approaching their history with detachment and a critical eye, insulating in-house historians and curators from larger institutional pressure, and accepting the possibility that the organization’s past isn’t always pretty. Organizations that examine their past honestly may find the experience as transformational as psychotherapy: a reckoning with secrets, an acceptance of hard truths, a greater awareness of connections between current problems and past traumas.
Honest and forthright efforts to tell institutional stories can also have unexpected effects. An exhibition space can change the way the public relates to a building and, by extension, to the group that occupies it. It is an invitation to enter, and often groups that think of themselves as open and transparent forget that without that invitation, the public will pass them by, indifferent to or intimidated by their presence. Nor does it require a professional historian to teach us lessons about the past. An old group photograph, pulled from the files, may tell us things about who was deemed worthy to join that group or participate in its governance.
A museum space also can be a safe place for conversations that might otherwise be too volatile or disruptive for a group. It can be a place to talk about an organization’s fundamental purpose, or how it has grappled with exclusion or bigotry in the more recent past. It can be a place to measure the gap between the institution’s sense of itself and how its own people — its workers, members or subscribers — view it. And it can be a place to challenge leadership, subtly or directly, through carefully constructed arguments about the past.
For this special museum section, our critics and writers visited a variety of in-house or institutional museums, including a corporate museum, as well as museums devoted to the military, arts groups, law enforcement, a hospital and a religious body. They included fully immersive experiences with the latest exhibition technology and small, ancillary spaces that are at best quasi-public and sometimes well-kept secrets. Some of these “museums” might not really deserve to be called museums at all; others preserve quirky or overlooked aspects of history that couldn’t survive in any other context.
The overriding lesson, however, is that the value of these spaces depends less on the types of organizations that sponsor them and more on the integrity of their design and purpose. There is no monopoly on truth-telling, but it is the rare, farsighted organization that understands that telling the truth about its past and purpose is essential to public trust now and forever.