Minnesota History: Building A Legacy

Building Capacity to Keep History Alive: Afton Historical Society

Gowns on display

“Brides Through the Ages” was one of the first “proper”
exhibitions done by the Afton Historical Society (AHS),
thanks to Legacy funds. Photos courtesy AHS

One of the hopes for the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (ACHF) was that its grants would build capacity in smaller history organizations. “Capacity building” is an important concept in the nonprofit world. It refers to activities that improve and enhance an organization’s ability to achieve its mission and sustain itself over time.

This has definitely been the case with the Afton Historical Society (AHS). A series of project-based grants from ACHF has laid the groundwork for AHS to apply for federal funding that will hopefully ensure that thousands of artifacts in its care will survive for another century.

Since 1985, the historical society has operated the Afton Historical Museum, located in the former Congregational church building (1868) in the Historic Village of Afton. The museum has accumulated about 10,000 artifacts, including textiles, children’s toys, books, photography, maps, military artifacts, and original documents but needed help keeping track of them all. When Stan Ross became president of AHS in 2006, he turned to MNHS for advice on what to do so that Afton’s collection could be properly inventoried, stored, and displayed.

To implement MNHS’ advice, the Afton Historical Museum received seven small and mid-sized Legacy grants totaling $72,857 between 2010 and 2014. The series of smaller grants gave AHS volunteers and staff the time they needed to build their capacity to meet professional standards, learn how to apply for grants, and how to administer grants awarded. Afton Historical Society reached a new capacity level, one where they are comfortable applying for federal grants.

The grants funded creating a collection inventory, upgrading the collections catalog from paper to Past-Perfect Museum Software, entering records into a database, preparing a full catalog description for 823 priority museum artifacts, engaging the services of a museum registrar to provide full access to the catalog to the public, and partial “rehousing” (proper storage) of the collection to ensure the items will last another 100 years.

An added benefit of the projects is that museum displays, which had remained static for years, will be refreshed regularly, adding to the visitor experience. Good exhibits are supported by proper storage capacity.

“Brides Through the Ages,” went on display at AHS this summer as a direct result of the inventory/catalog projects. “We found a series of wedding dresses hidden in the basement, dating back to the late 1800s,” Ross explained. “The exhibit we created was one of our first proper exhibits for the public.”

In December 2014, the society submitted a $150,000 grant request to the Institute for Museum and Library Services. The proposal is for specialized shelving and drawers for the collection, as well as to create the proper environment for preservation: temperature and humidity control, ultraviolet protected windows, and sealed floors. If the museum receives the grant, the improvements will begin in mid-2015 and take six months.