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HISTORICAL SOCIETY OR HISTORICAL COMMISSION?


I was reminded recently about a fairly common point of confusion about the two organizations in town that have to do with history: the Harvard Historical Society and the Harvard Historical Commission. So, I thought I would compare the two organizations to try to clarify their common aspects and their different aspects.

The common aspects are that both have missions that are associated with preserving Harvard history. The two often work together in their missions for example, in researching the history and inventorying the historic buildings of the town.

However, here are the differences:

The Historical Society is a private, non-profit organization while the Historical Commission is a part of our town government.

The Historical Society has a broad scope to its preservation mission: the Society is interested in anything that helps clarify the history of Harvard including documents, artwork, craft-work, farm implements, garments, fire-fighting apparatus, artifacts of commercial enterprises, houses, monuments, burial grounds, areas. The Historical Commission is focused on historic ‘assets’ or ‘resources’ which include buildings, structures, areas, or objects.

The Historical Society is interested in accepting from anyone, any article or artifacts that are associated with Harvard’s history or which teaches some aspect of that history. The Historical Commission is interested in helping any owner of a historic asset, with advice on preserving the asset. If the asset is within one of our two historic districts, the Commission is directed by law to prescribe specific preservation measures to the owner. A process is in place to review the owner’s proposal for the repair or preservation work and to accept, modify or reject the proposal.

Finally, as noted in Jack Purdy’s excellent comment below, there is one more very significant difference between the two organizations: its finances. The Historical Society depends entirely upon private donations through memberships, cash donations and otherwise for all phases of its operations; it receives no government funding. The Historic Commission, on the other hand, being an arm of Town government, gets some of its funding from government sources. It is important to note however, the many well-managed Historic Commissions in the Commonwealth generate most if not all of their funding requirements through donations and fund-raising actions. By law, the Historic Commission is authorized to receive donations.

Jack continues in his comment “Why is the accurate and wide dissemination of this difference so important to the Historical Society? Because those who are not aware of this difference too often assume that HHS gets some or all its funding from government tax receipts, thereby reducing its need for private donations. This misunderstanding seriously reduces the membership and donations pool available to HHS.

Here’s more about the Historical Society from the “About Us” page on their website.

And here’s more about the Historical Commission from our “About Us” page.

2 thoughts on “HISTORICAL SOCIETY OR HISTORICAL COMMISSION?

  1. You neglected to clearly explain one of the most vital operating differences between the two organizations: Funding. the Historical Society (HHS), as you know, but many people, particularly new-comers to Town, do not, depends entirely upon private donations through memberships, cash donations and otherwise for all phases of its operations; it recieves no public/gov’t funding. The Historic Commission, on the other hand, being an arm of Town Gov’t, gets most, if not all, its funding from gov’t sources. Why is the accurate and wide dissemination of this difference so important to the Historical Society? Because those who are not aware of this difference too often assume that HHS gets some or all its funding from gov’t tax receipts, thereby reducing its need for private donations. This mis-impression seriously reduces the membership and donations pool available to HHS. I hope you will see fit to clearly explain this difference on your otherwise excellent web site.
    Jack Purdy, member of the HHS Board of Directors

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    • You are absolutely right, Jack. I don’t know how I missed making that point. Having participated in more than a few fund-raising and capital funding campaigns for the Historical Society, I am certainly aware of that difference. I have modified the posting to add that important distinction. I did also add that a well-run Historical Commission could run on its own funds because by law, it is authorized to receive gifts and donations from the public, or to manage its programs so as to be self-funding.

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