Small Museum of the Month: The Cambridge Historical Society

Our featured small museum this month is the Cambridge Historical Society in Cambridge, MA. On the front page of its website, the Society invites guests to “be a part of one of the most revolutionary historical societies in the country.” A closer look at the Society’s offerings justifies this claim.

On the programming front, the half dozen “History Cafes” that the Society holds annually provide an opportunity for participants to explore past, present, and future aspects of a contemporary issue. Inspired by the international Science Cafes, the History Cafes feature a speaker or two on a particular topic in combination with an audience-driven conversation. Typically including twenty to thirty participants, which balances lively discussion with personal interaction, the Cafes typically take place in local restaurants and bars that carry the Society’s mission beyond its walls to reach people in familiar settings. According to Executive Director Marieke J. Van Damme, one aspect of the Cafes’ success that the Society is particularly proud of is its ability to attract a variety of age groups.

2017 May History Cafe Lamplighter (19).jpg

Each year, the overall theme of the Cafes changes. Last year, each discussion focused on an aspect of the question “Are We Home?,” and this year, the central issue is, “What Does Cambridge Make?” Not only does the Society ask its participants these questions as they relate to the past, but it facilitates discussions that carry these questions into the present day.

The Cafes close with a game that invites creativity and humor. Speakers ask a question and then read the responses they receive out loud. They then ask another two questions, with the participants often putting more thought (and sometimes more wit) into their answers with the knowledge that they will be shared with the group. This activity caps the event on a high, more lighthearted note.

The game also serves another purpose. All of the responses are kept in the Historical Society’s archives, thus providing a record of how Cambridge residents were feeling about a specific issue at a specific time. “Before the game,” Van Damme explains, “I let people know that this is one way they can participate in the history of our city.”

2017 July History Cafe North Cambridge Joe Galusha tour (5).JPG

The handful of Cafes that are held annually culminate in a fall symposium that further examines the year’s theme and its significance in the past, present, and future. The programming has received praise from its participants and other professionals alike, with last year’s fall symposium receiving an AASLH Leadership in History award.

The Historical Society’s commitment to engaging residents in critical reflection on the past, present, and future perspectives of current issues makes it a dynamic institution. Programs like the Society’s History Cafes and its annual fall symposium invite audience engagement that goes beyond the stereotypical physical (and chronological) boundaries associated with historical societies.

Photo Credits: Cambridge Historical Society

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