Old Sturbridge Village: An institutional history of a cultural artifact

Laura E. Abing, Marquette University


Each year, millions of people visit outdoor history museums throughout the United States. For many visitors, these museums are a major source for understanding the American past. Assuming this educational responsibility, the outdoor history museum and its development within the field of public history is worthy of study in its own right. Furthermore, this responsibility renders the outdoor history museum accountable for the various ways it interprets history. Interpretations immediately reflect attitudes among a museum's benefactors and staff, which ultimately demonstrate changing societal concerns and interests. It is, therefore, possible to view the development of the outdoor history museum as a means to study twentieth-century American history. In other words, the outdoor history museum can be considered a cultural artifact, reflecting the society that created it. Institutional histories of individual outdoor history museums offer an effective way to evaluate the educational impact of, and to appreciate the history inherent in, these cultural artifacts. Few book-length studies of specific museums exist, This dissertation provides a history of Old Sturbridge Village, a museum depicting lifes in nineteenth-century rural New England. It is located in south-central Massachusetts and is physically smaller than museums including Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Greenfield Village in Michigan. Nevertheless, Old Sturbridge Village is no less representative of a cultural artifact with an educative function. From its opening in 1946 to the present, this museum has reflected historical trends while developing its educational presentation. The Village's archives reveal how interpretation has ranged from patriotic overtones (evident in the throes of tbe Cold War) to emphasis on the ordinary in the past (stemming from a recent intellectual trend involving social history). This dissertation shows the importance of the outdoor history museum by tracing the development of only one of these institutions. The genre's relevance can be established fully through other institutional studies, which would allow comparative analysis. This work represents a starting point for a needed and interesting study of public history.

Recommended Citation

Abing, Laura E., "Old Sturbridge Village: An institutional history of a cultural artifact" (1997). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9811372.