Picking up where I left off last week, let’s now turn our attention to the content-based themes that emerged in our work with students this past summer.
Throughout the summer, the students latched onto stories at the museums they visited, the stories of the Hempsted Houses, and the creation of stories for their Open House. These stories bring us our next three themes: emotional connections, relevance, and meaning.
Emotional connection came in multiple ways. First, the story of Joshua Hempsted and AdamJackson, and teasing out the nuances of northern slavery in the early eighteenth century, clearly resonated with the students as it formed the core of much of what they produced at their open house. But there was another story of New London slavery that sixteen-year-old Kimmy in particular was extremely affected by: the story of Zeno, a 9-year-old girl beaten to death by her master . . . who got away with the murder. This video clip shares Kimmy’s reaction:
During the open house, Kimmy shared this story to visitors as a counterpoint to the relatively good treatment Adam Jackson may have received from the Hempsted Family, expressing shock and dismay that a child had been treated so egregiously (shock and dismay that the historical record does indicate was felt by New London residents of the eighteenth century).
The open house provided reactions from another perspective as well: the visitor reaction. During the open house, as I shared in a previous post, some of the students did what I would call a mixture of first-person interpretation and museum theatre. They had stories they wanted to playact, certainly, and visitors watched them, but visitors also had opportunities to interact and engage with the students. The stories they shared through this method were rather emotionally fraught, and visitors responded to that. In post-visit interviews of adult visitors, time and time again I was told how the palpable emotions of the students affected them, and engaged them much more deeply in the stories of the house. The emotions proved to be an amazing catalyst for connecting with the stories, and for vividly remembering the experience even several weeks afterwards.
The day after the open house, I myself put it my own way when I said to a colleague “I think the house was . . . happy. It certainly has not been as alive as it was last night since probably the nineteenth century, the last time children lived in the house.” Which underscores my earlier point about historic house museums today being rather sterile,personality-less places. We need to bring the messiness of emotions and the human condition back into these houses and make them, once again, homes, if they are going to be relevant to visitors today.
It also brings us to the next theme: relevance. Throughout the summer, students kept returning to the theme of relevance. Why should they care about a slavery story from 300 years ago? What does it matter to them? To their community? In particular, fifteen-year-old Roy often talked about this, thinking about the relevance of history and linking it to connections that people need to feel, as he does in the video below:
Some students, however, were not so vocal about their need to find relevance. In fact, fourteen-year-old Seth was not an overtly active participant in our work with the students this summer, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t engaged. Turns out, relevance was something that was rather important to him, as seen in the following video:
So there are now two forms of connection that need to be made: emotional, which can help trigger empathy, and relevance, which makes it important. But there was a third phase that was also important: meaning. What meaning did the students now see in the stories of the Hempsted House, and the house itself? To find out, let us return to our videos, this time to eleven-year-old Eliza:
It was amazing to see how, for Eliza, the house, and the stories it represented, came to mean New London for her. The house went from being negligible to representing her community. Isn’t that something we all strive to have happen in our history museums? And Roy. Well, Roy simply astounded us with his deep insights, day after day. His search for meaning was much more intentional than for the other students, and he found it.
Ultimately, when we share messy, compelling stories about the people who lived in or near our historic properties, ones that engage the emotions and engender empathy in visitors, we create more relevant and meaningful experiences, thus fulfilling our missions in the best way possible and better assuring sustainable futures for ourselves as we make greater impact with our visitors and in our communities. Because ultimately historic house museums are not about the architecture or the Queen Anne chairs, as impressive and beautiful as they are, but the stories that make a difference in the lives of our visitors and our communities, and about those visitors and local residents taking ownership of the stories, and even the properties, for themselves.
Over the course of the summer, it was extremely gratifying to watch the students, most of them minorities, take ownership of the Joshua Hempsted House. It did become “their” house, and in their minds, it became less of a sterile historic house museum experience and more the home of people they had grown to care about. It also became a different place in their landscape and even more importantly, their psyche, as one last anecdote illustrates. At the beginning of the summer, eleven-year-old Eliza, the subject of the fourth video, told me that she thought the house was scary. On the day of the open house, Robert and I caught her and her friends playing hide and seek in the house. A sea change had taken place, as these students made the house their own; it wasn’t scary any more.
But the events of this summer are not easily replicable on a day-to-day basis, especially with limited resources and staff. Yet historic house museums must make these changes, and embark on a new strategy to engage visitors, or obsolescence lies in the future of many historic house museums. Focusing on these five themes, and building on the need for those compelling stories, entails a new model for historic house museums. This new model encourages staff interaction with visitors without guided tours, and will likely require historic house museums to violate long-held taboos about touching to create a more multi-sensory, immersive experience rooted in the messy human experience of all of us.
In coming posts, Robert will explore more about how Hempsted Houses will be implementing changes to create a different kind of experience for visitors. I will be shifting gears to share some of the most interesting findings from our Connecticut Cultural Consumers panel of museum goers.
We’d love to hear what you think! To comment, click below where it says how many individuals have commented on this post (e.g., “no comments,” “1 comment,” etc.).
Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors. She is leading several phases of audience research for this project.