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.
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.