Starting in the 1970s, American history museums have undergone a shift away from seeing themselves collections-focused historical societies acting as “temples to the past.” In the face of broader political challenges—civil rights, increasingly multicultural urban audiences, and the “culture wars” of the 1980s, public historians have sought to reclaim their institutions’ relevance by seeking to share their authority and mission with those “publics” they serve.

While secondary literature on public history has generally agreed that museums pulled off this shift—and museums themselves have touted successful exhibits and outreach—this essay uses a specific case study to complicate the narrative. The Chicago History Museum, a metropolitan history museum founded in 1856 as the Chicago Historical Society, turned to oral history as both a collecting and a community engagement practice in the 1990s and early 2000s. At a moment of museological transition, the museum sought to match its city’s transition towards multiculturalism. This essay reads oral history archives created by the museum in a new light: within their material history as collections. I argue that the oral history archives of CHS’s exhibition projects are valuable sources not just of the urban history the museum intended to capture but also the institutional history of public museums themselves. This method suggests new paths forward for understanding public history strategies and community history.