Corporate History as Public History? Why Public Historians Should Care About Corporate Museums

4 May

by Christina Carlson-

In the past few weeks in class we have talked about several forms of museums and the challenges associated with presenting history at a public museum. However, I believe there is another type of museum that we have not covered, and which actually may not belong in the realm of “public history” at all, but I believe is still important to address: the corporate history museum.

I define corporate history museums as museums which are put together, either directly or indirectly, by a for profit corporation in order to promote its history.  Corporate history “museums” may be as small as a display case, or as large as an entire building. All corporate history museums, though, exist for the purpose of presenting their company in a positive light by using artifacts, photographs, and other information from the company’s history.  Examples of this type of museum would be the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, KY, one of the many Wells Fargo Museums, the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, IL, or the Wood River Refinery History Museum.

The chief difference between a corporate history (presented by a corporation) and a traditional museum is mostly related to the way in which historical material is presented. Corporate history museums tend to be almost completely celebratory, with their primary purpose being to present themselves in a positive light in order to gain more business. Many times these exhibits are created by museum professionals who specialize in corporate history.

Why is it important for public historians to address corporate history museums and displays? For one, the trend of using a corporation’s past to promote business or to enhance the image of the company is becoming much more popular. Major corporations are increasingly turning to history to address current controversial issues over labor relations, exploitation, and environmental dangers. The History Factory, one of the largest consulting firms for corporate history displays, clearly reflects this mission on its homepage:

“The History Factory is a heritage management firm that helps today’s leading global corporations, organizations and institutions discover, preserve and leverage their unique history to meet today’s business challenges.”

The general goal of the corporate history museum is evident in this mission statement, and the desire to promote business is at the forefront of nearly every corporate museum.

It is also vital for public historians to address the growing field of corporate history because the themes presented in a corporate museum may run contrary to the ideas public historians want to convey. A corporate museum is not likely to present past labor issues and disputes or controversial environmental issues, while another history museum may wish to emphasize these corporate shortcomings. People who attend both corporate and non-corporate museums may find these contradictions confusing. If the Shell Oil museum tells about all of the great things the company has done for the community, how can another museum’s exhibit successfully question this narrative? After all, shouldn’t Shell know more about it’s own company than some outside museum? It is questions such as these that museum professionals outside of the corporate world will need to answer as corporate museums continue to grow in popularity.

Still, on a practical level, would it really be bad for a public historian to be involved in corporate history? After all, with the job market for historians on the decline, working for a major corporation might be a wise career decision in terms of job security. I suppose my personal response to this is that, had my primary concern in life been wealth building, I would not have pursued history in the first place.

For another look at the growing trend of corporate museums, see the American Association of Museums article “Corporate, Culture? One Part Education. One Part Sales. This is the Corporate Museum.”

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2 Responses to “Corporate History as Public History? Why Public Historians Should Care About Corporate Museums”

  1. Bridget Reddick May 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Hi, I’m a former corporate history and former employee of The History Factory. I’m also a friend of Dr. Manuel’s–he pointed out your post to me. You raised some very important points about corporate history museums and their agenda–I did want to add an insider perspective, as well.

    When I was consulting with a company about telling their story, we would almost always advise a company to address any possible negative stories from their past (such as labor problems, environmental screw-ups, etc.) as a way to tell their version of a known story. That’s not to say that the corporate story isn’t biased in their favor, but the difference between the way a company presents their own story and the way a public historian presents a similar story may not be as different as it might seem at first. Smart companies understand that hiding the truth isn’t as valuable as addressing it.

    • Christina May 5, 2011 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks for the inside perspective! I know there is a lot more to any story and I’m glad you left a comment. I think you are right about public historians as well. Any presentation of a historical narrative will be biased, as is evident even in my own short post here. It is good to know that the History Factory advises corporations to address their past shortcomings; I am sure some do this better than others. Thanks again!

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