This past Friday, historians and history advocates from around the state of Minnesota gathered for Minnesota History Whatever, a day of deep conversations and lively exchanges of ideas. Together they shared successes, failures, and questions encountered in their work “doing history.”

One particularly interesting session I went to asked, “what insights can we bring to the rural/urban divide in Minnesota?” According to participants, Minnesota used to be a very united state based on the co-dependence of its different regions and industries. But, as in most, if not all, states, a divide between urban and rural has existed for a long time and is only growing. One need only to look at recent political trends and statements to see the evidence.

This session asked those of us in museums to examine this divide and find ways we are uniquely suited to bridge growing divisions. Every museum can find value in asking questions like, ‘where do we see signs of an urban/rural divide in our museums and communities?’ and ‘how can we lessen such divides?’

Here a few of key take-aways from the session:

  • Examine our own misconceptions – examine what it means to be rural vs urban and when stereotypes fly in the face of these definitions. For example, not all small museums are rural and not all rural museums are small – but so often we mentally connect the two. Another misconception that comes up in museums is that rural stories don’t require the attention to nuance and personal voice that other stories do.
  • Understand the divide – ask questions such as, ‘when did the divide start?’ ‘why is it growing?’ ‘what is at the root of the resentment and stereotyping?’ ‘what binds the different groups together?’ This inevitably involves a lot of listening. Hard listening. Listening without an agenda to fix but to learn. Listening even when we disagree with the other person.
  • Build trust – multiple times in this session rural museum professionals raised the issue that people need to enter rural worlds without expecting everything to be the same as in a city. For example, if someone walks onto a farm in a nice suit, refuses to walk around in the barn, and constantly breaks out the hand sanitizer, why would the farmer trust their story to this person? Building trust requires entering each other’s worlds without disdain and disgust.

So, what were some concrete solutions for museums?

  • Create partnerships – Museums survive on partnerships. So let’s use that structure to help heal rural and urban divides too. Just think of all the problems that could be solved in both institutions if urban museums partnered with rural ones.
  • Bear the burden of trust well – Museums are among the most trusted sources of information in America. That trust is a responsibility to fulfill as much as an opportunity for deep relationships.
  • Provide nuance to all stories – Let’s stop assuming we know the rural narrative and add nuance to all the stories in our institutions.
  • Build understanding to new perspectives – Museums are all about sharing stories and opening people up to new perspectives. So let’s harness that to build understanding between visitors of different worldviews.
  • Embrace commonalities – A helpful part of this session was when participants brainstormed things that connect all Minnesotans. If we have lost sight of the co-dependency between rural and urban areas, let’s start sharing what binds us again. For Minnesota, our major natural resource of water is critical to agriculture, industry, survival, environmental rights movements, and recreation in all parts of the state. Each state has their own connectors.
  • Instill a sense of place – one participant mentioned a dream project in which every student had to investigate the history of the land on which they lived – going back through previous renters or owners, farmers, governments, and Native Americans. Just imagine the respect this would instill for the land and the people that came before.

How is your museum suited to meet this divide? Through different stories of places and objects, discussions of natural resources, investigations of the stories and perspectives of art, …?