Historypin & Museum on Main Street

In this blog post we’re looking at two entirely different public history initiatives which both have digital, storytelling, and spatial components: Historypin and Museum on Main Street.


Historypin is a digital crowdsource project started in 2010. The concept is organized around the concept of a “pin” which is basically an identified location— either generally or a precise address. When you create a pin, you identify a location on a map with an uploaded image relating to that place. Pins can be organized into collections and tours. The interface seems fairly simple for creating pins, collections, and tours, but if you have any questions, their Getting Started page is great!

I made this profile to make a pin before realizing I don’t really have a historic photo to upload. But you can see the menu panel to the right of ways to get started!

Major organizations like BBC and Google as well as the National Archives and Library of Congress have partnered with historypin. For an example of an organization that was highly active but independently so (without much community interaction) a good example is San Francisco Public Library. SFPL joined in 2012, and it says their last pin was in 2016. They created:

  • 2603 pins
  • 10 collections
  • 8 tours

Because SFPL made some pretty long tours, I took a look at those to see how pins can be organized by this function. On a “tour” the user virtually walks through the city and from pin to pin. Wherever a pin has been dropped, you can see the associated photo on top of a street image from google maps. The slider at the top of the screen allows you to change the opacity of the image to see the streetview behind it.

I have to say I don’t love how this tour interfaces? I felt like it was kind of clunky and confusing? There wasn’t much clear hierarchy, and I couldn’t figure out how to learn more about the pin or find comments.

From this screen, I thought I’d be able to see more details about and interact with the pin, but you actually have to click the link to the permanent pin to learn anymore. Once you’re visiting the pin’s actual page you can interact with the pin in the comment box. I rarely found any interaction in the comment boxes which was disappointing.

One of the more active collections Historypin prompted me to look at was People’s History of LGBT+ Life in Britian. On this page you can see there are more contributors, including community members who share their photos. I also found more comments in this collection. After poking around this collection and seeing more interaction and contribution, I wondered about the value of this kind of site for more active communities like the LGBT+ community. Working with the queer community seems like the right fit for this kind of digital history endeavor because you can see it growing a community which is otherwise not always visible or place-based. It made me think especially of Haley’s cool project. (Another fun collection to look at was People’s History of Pop. There’s also a collection called Green Book Travelers, but there aren’t many uploaded images for the pins. Rather, they’re just marking the locations, which is interesting in a different way while still being spatially-oriented.)

Critique: To be honest, I was getting a little bored while I tried to find good pages to share with the class until I found the LGBT+ collection. After reflecting on that experience, I think Historypin is a good exercise in thinking carefully about the most effective uses for these kind of digital history projects and about who the audiences and communities are. If it’s hard to find really good examples and really good collections, then what does the ratio look like of useful and highly-interacted-with collections to unviewed collections? How do you evaluate the usefulness of the site and its contribution to the field?


Museum on Main Street is part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. Their mission is to “ provide access to the Smithsonian for small-town America. Museum on Main Street engages small-town audiences and brings attention to underserved rural communities.” What do they do, you wonder?

What does Museum on Main Street Do?
These tidbits provide good stats on why MoMS sends their exhibits into small towns.

I looked at the exhibition called Crossroads to learn a little more about what these exhibitions are really like. This page teaches you more about the exhibition, themes, the tour schedule, and further resources. The Exhibitor Resources page shows a bit of the backend of how MoMS is trying to create a network of resources for their exhibitions and for their partners.  

The concept for the exhibitions from Museum on Main Street is a fairly  top-down way to do this kind of local and community oriented history which presents an interesting model and an interesting dilemma about how to do this kind of history. The participatory storytelling component is considerably more community-based and still spatially oriented, but a little less so. I thought they might have really great social media that navigates some of my questions about how they work with and elevate the local communities they’re working with, but I was disappointed.

While I love this picture, I think that MoMS’s social media could really do some interesting work talking about the communities the exhibits are currently visiting and the programming around them. This could maybe provide a national platform for that discussion and their local partners. Instead they’re just showing off Bob and advertising for the exhibit which they don’t even mention the current location of (Florida).

The MoMS project also has a story collecting function which started in 2011. The Stories from Main Street initiative focuses on life in small-town America and is an effort to digitally collect stories, photos, text, and videos. Here is one example in which a woman named Jenna tells a story about encountering whales. It’s short and truly wholesome which I imagine is the point. The page includes a transcription of her story and a video of her telling her story. I wondered what kind of stories MoMS was looking for and what the end-game is when I found this vaguely informative and idealistic blurb:

A great story tells us about YOUR American experience. It could be a special memory from your childhood, an oral history from your grandparents, an anecdote about family life, or a story about a local gathering spot in your community. Help us uncover and celebrate what makes YOUR community unique by sharing your story today!

The site includes a fully searchable database, so I would assume you could use these stories for local and community-oriented research. I think this aspect of the MoMS project is rooted in some key topics for this class: storytelling, participatory projects, and it is both spatially- and community- based while providing access to “the museum” (in the broad/ vague/ institutional sense of the word).

Critique: I did a little digging to see if there was any discussion of MoMS in The Public Historian and there was one article, “Creating Teaching Opportunities and Building Capacity Through the Museum on Main Street Program,” by Ann E McCleary which pointed out how the program helps build the capacity of state and local institutions and to “raise the quality” of the public history endeavors. McCleary argues that MoMS intentionally avoids top-down organizing by making sure the local institution has ownership over the final product. She also points out that exhibitions tend towards celebratory and safe topics but that there is room for nuanced discussion within that topic through the details. I wouldn’t really expect much more from the Smithsonian and from a project seeking a nation-wide audience, but there is definitely room for improvement. (For example, I wonder if the “Water/Ways” exhibit or programming is talking about the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan while the exhibit is on display a half hour drive away from the city?)

Anyway, while that is a bit off topic, at the root of that argument is that “place” matters! For both Historypin and Museum on Main Street, as digital history folks, we can think about how these projects fit into the field and how they are maybe not the best solutions, tools, and programs but lead us to ask questions about what a better solution, tool, or program would look like. What do you think about these projects? Particularly those of you map-lovers making maps for your digital projects— do you think Historypin looks useful for you?

Works Cited

Ann E. McCleary, “Creating Teaching Opportunities and Building Capacity Through the Museum on Main Street Program,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 1, 2014): 71, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.71.

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