Smithsonian seeks ranchers' stories for archive, exhibition

May 6, 2013

Ranchers tend to be closet historians. Step into the living room of a family that’s been running cattle for a few generations and chances are you’ll spy the fruits of some amateur historian’s labor— yellowed photos of horseback ancestors, rusty branding irons, a grandparent’s saddle or bridle, maybe even the odd historic document, deed or letter, framed and hung. Decaying wagons, tractors and implements often populate yards and pastures, a silent testimony to technological development.

Deposited in living rooms, attics, sheds and bone yards across the country, these ranch family relics of past days compose a kind of hidden record documenting the industry’s evolution over the past centuries. But while ranching artifacts and ranch family histories have generally been invisible to the public, this may be about to change. The National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is actively soliciting cooperation from ranchers to contribute stories, photos, artifacts, and ephemera for an upcoming exhibit that will feature agriculture as a major component of American business and technological progress.

“Modern ag is absolutely fascinating, and I think that most people agree that food has become a topic that everyone’s interested in,” said Peter Liebhold, chair and curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the museum. “I think that peeling back the story of food— how it’s produced, where it’s produced, who the people are that are involved in its production—is really critical.”

Coming at a moment when “telling our story” has become an ever-present buzz word in ag circles, the Smithsonian’s decision to allow the ranching community to come forward and submit its own information as part of the national historical record represents a sterling opportunity for people in the cattle business to share their lives and their industry with a public that has largely slipped its agricultural moorings.

The exhibition is to be merely one element of the American Enterprise project, a $20 million effort to examine America’s history through the lens of American business, starting in the 1770s and running through the present day. In addition to agriculture, manufacturing, finance, information and communication, and retail and services will be featured in the 8,000-square-foot exhibition, which is slated to open in May 2015.

Most ranchers will immediately perceive that although much has changed in the livestock industry over a couple hundred years, astonishingly many things have remained nearly as they were in generations past. Although plenty of ranchers now use tablet and smart phone apps to manage data and track the weather, and enjoy highly advanced technologies for cattle breeding and selection, at least in much of the West, ranching still depends on horses, cowboys and the kind of old fashioned physical labor and livestock savvy that can never be replaced by an efficient robot or clever gadget.

It’s just this kind of thing—examples of stuff in ag that has changed, contrasted with stuff that’s stayed the same—that excites Liebhold, who feels that in ranching, “the combination of old and new is very, very interesting.”

The problem was, when he and fellow curators began assembling materials from the Smithsonian’s vast collection for the exhibit, they realized the museum was painfully lacking in examples of recent history and technological developments in agriculture.

“We realized that we had done a pretty good job in collecting agriculture in the 1830s and even up to the 1930s, but that after World War II, things really started to taper off,” said Liebhold. “We realized our modern collections related to agriculture were very slim, and I’m sad to report that they were even slimmer when they came to ranching.”

This revelation led Liebhold and his colleagues to initiate a novel and somewhat unorthodox project in the field of museum curation; instead of sending forth a small cadre of “experts” into the field to hand select examples of agricultural development, they took a lesson from Wikipedia and other “crowd-sourced” information gathering projects, and have asked the agricultural public to provide the stories and artifacts themselves. This idea became the basis for the Smithsonian’s new Agricultural Innovation and Heritage archive, a largely crowd-sourced depository of stories, artifacts, photos and ephemera from American agriculture that, as it expands, will serve as a pool from which items for the American Enterprise exhibition will be selected.

To populate the archive, Liebhold and his colleagues are using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in hopes that through spreading the word, ranchers will step forward and share their stories.

“I think it’s really important that the ranching community be involved,” Liebhold emphasized. “We’re interested in doing their history and what we’re asking them to do is to help us do their history. That means sharing their story; I think the personal side of it is really key.”

To someone occupied with the daily business of managing a herd of cattle, the archive and exhibit may sound like a nice idea, but who has time to sift through photos and commit family stories to writing? Lack of time, of course, is the rancher’s ever-present predicament. But this opportunity may simply be too good, too unique, to pass up. Living as we do in a time when some groups of people are diligently trying to spread misconceptions about ranching, being able to deliver a straight story, straight to the Smithsonian, is akin to being given a pen and being asked to write a page directly into a history book. This element is not lost on Liebhold, who appreciates the struggles ranchers have had to reeducate a frequently misinformed public.

“The Smithsonian is the national museum. It is the whole country’s museum. This is the nation’s memory,” says Liebhold. “There’s a lot of pretty marginal information on agriculture today, certainly in terms of cattle. I think getting a more balanced view out there to let people see what’s really going on versus what some folks are claiming is going on would help people see a richer and more accurate picture.”

The National Museum of American History is seeking stories, photos, documents, and artifacts from ranchers and farmers for its Agricultural Innovation and Heritage archive. (Photos and documents don’t have to be originals.) Submissions can focus on family stories, histories and traditions, or can be about new technologies that have changed the way you do things on your ranch. Submission information and a full set of instructions can be found at: http://ameri itage — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent,