This is the first of a two part look at the Northampton Historical Society, a century plus old institution in Northampton. In this piece we focus on the story of the Historical Society and it’s role in the larger Northampton community. In part two we will look at how the Historical Society is using technology to bring itself into the 21st century and beyond.
GUARDIAN OF AN EVOLVING IDENTITY
The Northampton Historical Society sits just across the street from the post office on Bridge Street. It's a century old institution in a town under constant flux. In the words of it’s current director, Nancy Rexford, it stands for Northampton as it’s “guardian of a changing evolving identity.”
"Children and grandchildren of the early settlers felt that their culture was under attack. [...] America has really outgrown that. [...] We don't want to be that."
A private non profit organization which has existed since 1905 and possibly earlier, the Historical Society is a multi-building property on Bridge Street, across from the post office. Keeping the physical buildings in good shape is a herculean task in and of itself, but add to that the task of keeping the central mission of the society relevant in a quickly changing world and the job seems truly daunting.
"My concept of what our role is in this day and age is that we provide structures within which people can save their own history, in a way that's meaningful to them," says Rexford.
Recently, thanks to front page discourse on CPA funds from the city of Northampton, The Historical Societies financial situation has become a story of it’s own. Due to dwindling funds and support, this 100-year-old non-profit organization is in danger of fading into the past it seeks to protect.
BUSY BUSY BUSY
But there’s more to the Historical Society's story then just it’s recent hurdles. With three buildings and a barn and an extensive permanent collection of artifacts and clothing dating back to the late 1600’s the Society is never at a loss for work. As the exuberant Rexford is quick to point out, support has been growing, thanks in some part to the recent press.
“I'ld like to see lots of people involved in ways big and small. Helping us with the deed research on Northampton Timelines, certainly coming in to see lectures and exhibitions. Maybe working on a bit of family history. Doing an oral history of a grandmother and letting us having a copy. Sharing a few family photographs.”
With multiple, shifting gallery shows, an ongoing film series an upcoming archeological excivaion and art exhibitions in conjunction with The Northampton Center for the Arts and APE gallery, there’s lots of great things happening at the Historical Society.
A LOOK AROUND
I recently sat down with the Societies director, Nancy Rex to talk about the history of the Northampton Historical Society as well as how it sees itself as part of Northampton’s dynamic and ever shifting community. In the video interview above we took a look at the exhibitions the Society is currently hosting as well as some of the projects they are working on.
“There are a lot of ways in which people can use us as a way of leaving their own historical record. You don’t really have to leave it to someone else. You can take a part and be your historian and leave your own history.”
In this first video segment we also took a look at what led to the formation of Historical Societies not just in Northampton but around the country and why, in order to stay relevant with a multicultural present, Historical Societies must transform from citadels protecting a past under attack into a dynamic resource for current community members to tell their own histories.
In our next installment we will look at ways the community can get involved directly. We will also explore how the Northampton Historical Society is building bridges into the 21st century through it's massive digital interactive map project called Northampton Timelines.
For more information visit www.historic-northampton.org