How crucial pieces of Northwest history are being preserved via Facebook

Dec 1, 2021, 11:03 AM | Updated: Dec 2, 2021, 11:25 am
Facebook history...
The Black Heritage Society of Washington State credits Facebook for spurring the recent donation of a Multimixer once used at Bishop Drugs in Seattle. Samuel (L) and Alexander Bishop founded Bishop Drugs at 507 South Jackson Street in 1937. (Image of drugstore courtesy Wing Luke Museum; image of Multimixer courtesy Black Heritage Society of Washington State)
(Image of drugstore courtesy Wing Luke Museum; image of Multimixer courtesy Black Heritage Society of Washington State)

Facebook has been justifiably taking heat lately from whistleblowers and politicians for its role in spreading misinformation about elections, and for its algorithm that rewards conflict and negativity. But lost in all of this is the fact that groups concerned with local history – especially not-for-profit museums, archives, and historical societies – have come to depend on the social media platform perhaps more than any other type of arts or cultural organization.

There are a few key reasons why local history is a near-perfect fit for Facebook – even before the pandemic, but especially during the pandemic – as is helpfully illustrated by a somewhat lengthy introductory anecdote.

In the early 2000s, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle – where, full disclosure, I served as deputy director from 1999 to 2006 – was operating, like all museums, in the pre-social media age. MOHAI’s holiday exhibit in 2000 was focused on the old Frederick & Nelson department store, and featured artifacts and photos from the museum’s sizable Frederick’s collection.

A volunteer named Roger van Oosten came up with a brilliant idea to supplement MOHAI’s artifacts and photos, and suggested that we invite people to bring their personal vintage Frederick & Nelson Santa photos to the museum to add to the display. Santa photos, as many people know, are believed to have been invented at Frederick’s in 1944.

MOHAI staff thought maybe a dozen families would take part, but local newspapers, radio, and TV picked up on the story – again, this was in the days before social media – and helped spread the word of the museum’s call for photos far and wide.

“People came in droves, pictures in hand — it just grew and grew,” wrote Roger van Oosten in an email earlier this week. “I walked over and I was shocked. The photos had spread throughout the whole museum. The museum … was packed, with people laughing and smiling at the photos.”

When it was all said and done, more than 200 people had dropped off their precious Seattle Frederick & Nelson Santa photos, dating from the 1940s to the 1980s. The personal photos made the gallery glow, and thousands of people toured the holiday exhibit that year, with countless hundreds pausing to view each photo.

In retrospect, Roger’s idea – and all those willing participants – helped MOHAI create a pre-Facebook Facebook post: MOHAI “posted” its official Frederick & Nelson photos; MOHAI’s “followers” “posted” their photos; and, finally, other people viewed and then “liked” those photos and added “comments” in real life.

Nowadays, for example, MOHAI can post an official archival photo of the Space Needle on the museum’s Facebook page along with some facts about its design construction. Then, Facebook users can “like” that post, add a comment about their love for the iconic landmark, and maybe even post their own family photo of visiting the Needle during the World’s Fair.

This might be obvious, but it’s this mixture of official and amateur images, official information and memories that creates a dialog. This dialog shares information and engages the public, and meshes with the basic mission and goals of most history groups – more than nearly any other type of organization, because everyone is a historian of their own life.

KIRO Radio reached out to several local history groups to test this theory and learn how Facebook is being used, circa 2021. Many of these groups have their own websites, some do not, and both devote sizable time and resources to keeping their Facebook pages up to date and populated with new material.

Julianna Verboort is the marketing and communications director for the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. She says that she’s aware of the negative algorithm and the trolls that can occasionally pop up in the museum’s Facebook posts, but Verboort says those realities are not a factor for them – they’re not simply trying to pile up likes and shares.

“I don’t appreciate that negativity draws the most attention, but I also am fortunate to be in a position where I’m not trying to generate negative content so that I can draw a lot of attention,” Verboort said. “What I want to do is be of service to the people who have an interest in history.”

Cyndi Fraser is treasurer and the main Facebook person for the Lake Stevens Historical Museum in Snohomish County, east of Everett. Fraser says her group uses Facebook for sharing basic information about their programs, but because of the realities of gaps in local journalism, she has intentionally made the society’s Facebook page something of a witness to local current events – such as construction of a new Costco – but with an eye to serving future historians, too.

“We saw that there’s a value to it, and then especially with COVID, it was just vital [to track local news],” Fraser told KIRO Radio. “It was a way to keep everybody informed about current events, which will someday be history.”

“Because we lost our town newspaper several years ago, there’s no way to document the history that’s going on,” she added. “And that was a big impetus to keep posting things on here and try to make sure you have things that, in the future, people will wonder, ‘hey, what happened with this?’ because there’s no documentation.”

One thing that’s not clear to Cyndi Fraser (or to anyone else, for that matter), is if the material she and others have posted on Facebook will still be there, and still be accessible five, 10, 50, or 100 years from now, and, if so, how and by whom will it be easily accessed. If it is accessible in 2121, a Lake Stevens Historical Museum Facebook post about the COVID-19 pandemic or even about that new Costco – along with the range of comments from followers – unquestionably will be a priceless resource to future historians.

Back in the present of 2021, Fraser says there’s also a purely practical side to how the Lake Stevens Historical Museum uses its Facebook page to stay connected to its followers by posting content, including images and information about such classic Lake Stevens stories as the sunken locomotive or the oft-stolen chicken from the Chicken Drive-In.

Because the city of Lake Stevens is in the process of reinventing itself and tearing down civic buildings, Fraser says, her group lost its city-owned museum building a few years ago.

“Now we’re in storage in an old fire station and everything’s boxed up,” she said. “Facebook was kind of our only way to really get information out there, to tell people that we’re still alive [even though] we don’t have a museum right now.”

Lake Stevens Historical Museum isn’t the only organization with artifacts in storage — even museums that still have their own buildings typically have far more artifacts than they can display at any given time. And many of those artifacts originally arrive as donations from private individuals.

Artifacts making their way to particular museums pre-date Facebook by decades, if not centuries, of course, but Facebook has become a factor, sometimes even indirectly, through Facebook pages not run by the museums themselves but that are devoted to local history, to specific geographic or social communities, or to specific history-related topics or subject areas.

Emilie Miller is senior curator at Hibulb Cultural Center on the Tulalip Reservation near Marysville.

“There was a Facebook group called ‘Family Treasures Found’ and someone had shared a photo that they found at a garage sale or something, and [they were] looking for more information on it,” Miller told KIRO Radio. “So they posted it to that Facebook group, and that Facebook group moderator contacted us because it turned out to be a Tulalip photo, and it was a photo from 191[4]or something.”

With the connection made through research conducted by a Facebook user in far-off Minnesota, the Tulalip photo found eventually its way “home.”

“The woman who found it at the garage sale ended up donating it to us,” Miller said.

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. She told KIRO Radio that Facebook gets all the credit for the recent donation of a rare artifact from Bishop’s drugstore, a Black-owned pharmacy and soda fountain that was in business in Seattle on Jackson Street between 6th and 7th from the 1930s to the 1960s.

“It’s a soda fountain mixer,” Johnson-Toliver told KIRO Radio, made by Multimixer. “The family saved one of the original machines from the pharmacy, and they saw [on Facebook] that we were interested in the Green Book.”

Bishop’s, says Johnson-Toliver, was listed in the Washington pages of the Green Book around 1940, along with other businesses that were known to serve Black travelers. The Black Heritage Society and Washington State History Museum are jointly presenting an exhibit about the Green Book in 2022, so the donation is well-timed.

Johnson-Toliver agrees that finding and preserving artifacts like the old Mixmaster is especially critical for groups like the Black Heritage Society that focus on segments of the population who may have been ignored by larger history institutions in the past.

She also sees Facebook as a kind of social weather instrument – at least among the older demographic that seems to most use Facebook these days – as well as a way of getting the kind of instant feedback that helps a volunteer like herself feel inspired and energized.

“It’s a way for you to take the temperature of what’s happening out there,” Johnson-Toliver said. “Posting the smallest piece of history or the biggest piece of history – when you see that little heart pop up, you’re like, ‘Yeah, somebody gets it, they love it!’”

“It kind of keeps you going,” she said. “It’s like ‘OK, I got to get more.’”

Aside from the mysteries that swirl around algorithms and other factors that influence which Facebook posts are seen by which Facebook users, there are still plenty of other specific questions about the future of Facebook and how museums and historical societies will continue to interface with the platform and the materials they have shared there.

Some also wonder about the legal or “historical record” implications of comments made on museum and historical society posts – do those need to be vetted for accuracy and corrected if necessary, or do they count merely as opinion? And, if so, do there need to be obvious disclaimers somewhere? And what about usage rights to photos, videos, or other materials that followers post or share that might be exactly what a curator is searching for to include in an upcoming exhibit or publication? How will that usage – or possible donation – be negotiated in a fair and transparent manner?

In the meantime, whether it’s a vintage Multimixer or a Frederick & Nelson Santa photo, pre-Facebook social media mastermind Roger van Oosten is not convinced that the ubiquitous social network is a satisfactory substitute for the experience of just walking through a museum and seeing artifacts and old photos in person.

“Facebook can never replace a good museum,” van Oosten wrote. “Why not? Social media is transactional. A museum is experiential. Scrolling through 200 pictures (which, frankly, many would not do) is a far less interesting time than seeing them up on the wall.”

Either way, it’s clear that local history – and the photos, artifacts, and especially the people that are essential to helping tell a community’s stories – might just have a future.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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How crucial pieces of Northwest history are being preserved via Facebook