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What happened to the Junior Membership program?

by Tobi Voigt, Detroit Historical Society on

I was recently pouring through old minutes from the Detroit Historical Society to write a blog for AASLH’s 75th anniversary next year. As can be expected, the slate of programs offered in 1940 were traditional: lecture series, demonstrations of spinning and weaving, etc.

1950s brochure cover for the New York State Historical Association's Yorkers program.

1950s brochure cover for the New York State Historical Association’s Yorkers program.

Then I stumbled upon a program I hadn’t known about. In August 1940, the Detroit Historical Society began “a project long desired by the membership” to create a junior membership program. It was described as such:

Purpose: To encourage historical study and to contribute to the understanding and appreciation of Detroit history, past and present.

To promote an opportunity for young people from various walks of life to meet in an informal social spirit for the discussions of problems vital to city life.

To build a unified group of future citizens, conscious of their opportunity and responsibility in connection with the future development of their city.

Membership: All capable young people of teen-age who are interested in this activity are eligible for membership. Dues: fifty cents a year.

I haven’t read further in the organization’s history to learn what became of the Detroit Historical Society “Juniors,” but it reminded me of another junior membership program that no longer exists: the New York State Historical Association’s Yorkers program.

Also started in the 1940s, this junior membership program worked through membership chapters across the state. According to a mid-1950s brochure:

“A Yorker chapter may be formed by organizing five or more students with an adult sponsor. Each chapter member receives a subscription to THE YORKER, bi-monthly magazine of the junior historians, a membership card, a gay felt emblem reminding him he is one of an army of 7,000 students of the story of the Empire State. He may write for THE YORKER, may enter any of the Historical Association’s three museums free at any time, whether coming with a student group or individually.”

Yorker chapters (which included boys and girls) were encouraged to:

“go on pilgrimages; present assembly programs, plays, radio scripts; assemble collections of historic books and objects; participate in essay and other contests; make historical murals and sculpture; assist local historians and in historical celebrations.”

The chapters had regional and state officers and gathered each spring for a convention.

Yes, these junior membership programs were clearly a lot of work. And I know they folded for some very valid reasons, but I absolutely love the concept. For years I have been pondering how the junior membership program can be reinstated/reinvented.

Firstly, we are always quoting that statistic that says “If a person doesn’t visit a museum before age 12, they aren’t likely to become adult museum visitors.” Could a junior membership program encourage students to get involved and then become life-long patrons?

Secondly, we talk about the decline of social studies and history in public school curriculums. These junior programs had an extracurricular academic component. And better yet, they had the students out DOING history. For the Detroit Historical Society, at least, they saw historical study as a way to develop informed citizens and future leaders. Can a new junior membership program help us make history relevant in the lives of kids today?

I love that programs like National History Day have stepped in to fill the void, and my organization supports that year-long, school based program as a contest coordinator. But I still find myself wondering if individual museums and historical societies can create their own special program. If we created a new junior program, I’d be sure participation in National History Day would be included as an activity.

What are your thoughts?

Does anyone have a junior membership program? Please consider writing a blog about it!

Did you have one that didn’t work well? Please share your lessons learned.

Is anyone else out there as intrigued about this concept as me, or am I quickly becoming as antiquated as junior memberships themselves?

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