Monday, November 25, 2013

Why History?

When I was a (very) young director of a historical society in New York State, I often wrestled with the question of “why.”  Why did my historical society matter to my community?  Why, for that matter, is history important?  Why does it deserve financial support in a world beset with challenges? 

To be honest, I still struggle with these questions, and I still don’t have answers. 

For this project, we wanted to gain a better understanding of why regular museum goers and cultural consumers value history.  For most of the Connecticut Cultural Consumers in our panel, this was not a topic they had given much (or any) explicit thought to, despite their engagement with history and history museums.  But our thinking was if we could push them for some answers, we might gain a better understanding of the value of history and why it does matter to individuals and communities.

First off, to be clear, not all of our panelists were history buffs.  Some were, absolutely, but others were less enthusiastic (though none of them were anti-history).  And most related their interest in history to their prior history experiences, primarily during childhood and very early adulthood.

To begin with, history presented didactically, and very factually, by teachers turned off a good chunk of our panelists from history.  As Ginny shared with us:

“When I was a student I did not enjoy history because it was presented in terms of conquests and domination, of dates, of treaties, battleships, and shifting boundary lines.  But the boundary lines were always drawn on a map, never presented as things that shifted within people's hearts. We weren't given a lot of information about how ordinary people lived and how historical events or circumstances affected them.  It seemed that there were a lot of names and dates to memorize, but little to connect to as a human being . . .”

Or, as Kat shared in more dramatic language:

“’History’ has always conjured images of the three misogynist history teachers/professors I had the misfortune to encounter in high school and college  Boorish and banal, they made the subject as pedantic as possible; I memorized what was necessary and spat it back as required.”

Ouch.   And I fear how many of us nodded our heads, remembering a teacher or professor just like that

But what did happen in their lives that sparked an interest in history?  For many, it appeared to be family stories, a history “mentor” of some type (typically a parent or grandparent, but not always), and family trips to museums and historical sites.  Lanette encapsulated this phenomenon perfectly as she wrote:

“. . . many children are lucky enough to be guided at an early age by a ‘history mentor’ . . . I think that we as children, who spend our first years getting our bearing on just exactly where we are, appreciate the way these very special story-tellers expand the boundaries of our young lives.”

Lanette also brings up another concept, one that in our research throughout this and earlier projects has proven crucial:  stories and storytellers.  As Ginny, who we quoted first, wrapped up her comments with:

“It seems that I am interested in the personal and human aspects of history, and also in the stories of people who perhaps were somewhat invisible to the people who traditionally wrote the history books.”
For many of our panelists, especially women, historical fiction provided a gateway to the world of history.  Historical fiction provided a stark contrast to what they were likely encountering in school, and helped them become interested in the stories of history itself, particularly of women, children, domestic life, and other subjects that are not traditionally covered in the classroom.  
Our panelists also shared with us what they feel makes for an engaging history experience today.  The common themes were:
  • Multi-disciplinary.  History that includes art, music, foodways, even science and technology.
  • Original objects.  As mentioned in the last post, original objects lent themselves to a more immersive, authentic experience that also provides a tangible link to the past
  • Hands-on.  While most panelists viewed hands-on experiences in museums as being for children, when they talked about engaging history experiences today they still talked about having the opportunity to do something as well as see and understand things.  That something just has to be substantive.
  • Immersion.  The feeling that they had left their regular lives and were in a different time and place.  They felt this particularly strongly at historic sites.

These themes all together better enabled them to connect with the past, see its relevance today, and value history as an important tool for understanding who we are, where we come from, how our lives, communities, and societies evolved to what they are today, and for understanding each other.  After all, as many of the panelists wrote, history is “everywhere” and without understanding it, we can never understand others or learn from our mistakes.  

And it is that personal understanding, that ability to have the cultural literacy to understand where others come from, that empathy, that seems to be so important in the case for history.  So important that my next post will explore it a bit more deeply.

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.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Museums?

Knowing that our Connecticut Cultural Consumers panelists were just that, cultural consumers who enjoy museums, we decided to kick off the panel with a direct question:  why museums?  They could fill their leisure time with a myriad of other activities.  What drives them to choose museums?  

The results were heartening.  As Diane put it:

“Museums are like books once can browse thru according to interest or curiosity. New discoveries might appear at any point. They provide variety. In an unstructured experience, the restless or bored can move on. They excite & satisfy curiosity.  All objects, place & people have stories. Everyone loves stories. Museums are filled with those stories. I like the museums that let me ‘hear’ the stories, add my individual imagination, experiences & reflections, have fun & better understand myself, others & the world.”

These individuals often cited that same curiosity that Diane mentions, and most simply loved to learn, feeling that learning was a fun or enjoyable activity that was also extremely satisfying to the heart, mind, and soul. 

Additionally, the panelists enjoyed how museums provide insight into the lives of others, whether people of the past or people of other customs and cultures today.  There was an extremely strong sense of empathy among these panelists, trying to understand the lives of others and how our society ticks or evolved to tick the way it does. 

Although the panelists didn’t explicitly talk about the idea of authenticity, the idea of it permeated the responses of many.  They generally felt that museums provided experiences that could not be found anywhere else.  A few weeks later, having pored over their responses to several questions, I returned to this theme and asked them directly about one facet of authenticity that came up over and over:  original objects.  Why were original objects so important to them?  What difference did they really make to the experience? 

For most of these respondents, original objects represent truth and authenticity.  They also helped them connect emotionally with individuals from the past and the stories they had to share.  Once again, Diane spoke eloquently on this:

“In a museum, the authentic enables us to connect in a visceral or spiritual sense with the past. These experiences enhance the learning experience but they also provide an emotional understanding & connection that goes deeper & sometimes becomes part of who I am.”

Or, to put it another way, the objects have what I call cooties.  It is the idea that an object can become infected with, well, cooties of some sort, and then pass those cooties to others.  It is what makes Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk different than any other old writing desk, because Thomas Jefferson infected it with an essence that sets it apart.  It includes the essential qualities of authenticity, in that an object has to be the authentic object for it to apply, but it adds in an intangible and much more visceral, emotional response.  (I wrote about this concept at length for the Reach Advisors’ blog.)  

And for these panelists, that mixture of emotional connection that they felt with individuals from the past was a crucial part of a museum experience . . . but so was informational content.  The best museum experiences offered both, as the informational content provided depth and context and the stories and objects provided the emotional connection.

But there was more.  Interestingly, just like the students we worked with over the summer, the majority of our panelists wanted to retain control and autonomy over their museum visits, and they didn’t want to be forced into experiences they did not care for.  For some, this meant guided tours, for others it meant first-person interpretation, and for some it meant excessively hands-on experiences (which were largely viewed as completely appropriate for children).  They wanted choice.  And overall they had no consensus on what made for the best interpretive experience as they all had individual preferences.  Thus, the real consensus could be summed up as “don’t force me into anything and give me lots of options, please.” 

We must be mindful, however, that these panelists are representative of our most avid museum goers.  And while they are very similar to the broader public in their desire for control and choice, they also differed from casual visitors to museums, as well as non-visitors, in their visitation, their comfort in, and their ability to navigate museums.  They also had given much more thought to how a museum does what it does and, as we will begin to see in our next post, why history specifically is important. 

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.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Connecticut Cultural Consumers Panel

Recent posts on this blog have focused on the extensive work we did with students, but that was only one component of our research. 

For historic house museums, expanding audiences is imperative, and that is going to entail new methods of sharing the stories of the past.  But it is also important to better understand current history audiences, what really motivates them to explore history, what sparked that interest to begin with, and how much we can push the envelope with new interpretation methods. 

To find out, we delved into some significant qualitative work with 59 Connecticut Cultural Consumers, recruited from a list of survey respondents from a 2008 study Reach Advisors did with 24 Connecticut organizations for Connecticut Landmarks, and funded by Connecticut Humanities.  These individuals are all what we would call cultural consumers, and on the email list of one or more Connecticut cultural organizations.  They enjoy culture (including history), proactively seek it out, and support it. 

So let’s be absolutely clear.  This group is what I would call “the choir.”  They are the converted, and if you grew up in the South, like I did, you know that “preaching to the choir” means validating what they know and not necessarily converting any new individuals. 

But that’s OK.  In fact, we recruited them knowing that this is who we would have in our panel, and we balanced our research with individuals who are certainly not “the choir.”  Additionally, even the converted can tell us a lot about why people enjoy history, how they enjoy experiencing it and learning about it, and how we might do a better job sharing history with more people.

This group of individuals was amazing.  Each week we posed about two really substantive questions of them.  Meaty, sometimes hard questions that challenged them, made them think, and sometimes even changed what they thought they knew about themselves and their enjoyment of history.  They responded with extremely detailed, thought-provoking, lengthy responses that were, for us, enlightening, funny, sad, and tremendously useful.  We were extremely humbled by how generous they were with their time and thoughts. 

Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing some of the highlights from this wonderful panel. 

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.