Monday, December 2, 2013

Meaningful History

In my last post, where I explored how and why the panelists from our Connecticut Cultural Consumers panel value history, it became clear that good stories were a catalyst for the most effective history experiences, and that they helped engage individuals with history in a meaningful way.

But what stories, and how?

First, some background from Reach Advisors’ broader survey work.  In general, when we ask people why they visit museums, they give us a variety of reasons and motivations.  Stories don’t generally come up as an answer, while gaining knowledge does.  (Note that we have never listed stories as a possible answer in closed-ended questions, while we have listed “gaining knowledge.”  But we have also asked open-ended questions in surveys about visiting museums, and that is where stories still don’t generally come up, while gaining knowledge does.)

So stories are not what come immediately to mind when museum visitors think about their museum visits, and why they visit.  When we ask museum visitors about their most meaningful visits to museums in the past, however, suddenly stories are mentioned . . . a lot.  Over and over.  It turns out that while visitors may not intuitively link stories and museums, and may not explicitly seek out museums for their stories, stories turn out to be an incredibly important method of connecting our visitors to our content. 

This certainly held true for our panelists in Connecticut.  Stories were a key mechanism for connecting them with people from the past, as Susan S. conveys when she says that “[the experiences] that made lasting impressions were those that let you into people’s lives . . .”

There was also a sense that the more that they learned about a certain place or time period, and the more that they heard stories that they connected with, the more that their empathy was engendered.  Engendering empathy, it turns out, is pretty important for the most meaningful, even transformative, experiences for our visitors.  Only by empathizing with others can we understand how and why history has played out the way it has, what it felt like to live in a different time, or just as crucially for today, how it felt, or feels, to live in a different place with different customs and world views (leading to greater cultural literacy, an extremely important knowledge base to have in this increasingly globalized world).

So how are we thinking about this for the Hempsted Houses?  We want visitors to have meaningful, even transformative experiences when they visit, especially as they think about the long-term ramifications of slavery, racism, and related social justice issues of the past and how they still affect individuals, communities, and society today.  To best enable that, the staff and interpretive planning team are turning around our thinking and focusing on the engendering of empathy as a primary goal, using compelling, empathy-inducing stories, and doing all of this in an immersive, evocative environment – namely the Hempsted Houses themselves. 

One method of engendering empathy, but by no means the only method, is to share stories that are more difficult to share, often of human trauma and resilience.  I’m going to explore that a bit more in my next post, but I wanted to leave you with a part of a much longer experience shared by one of our panelists, Andrea, who first visited a concentration camp outside Warsaw, and then traveled on to Israel.  Her comments beautifully encapsulate the value of connecting visitors emotionally with museum content . . . and changing their lives.  They are also a call to action.

“The next day, [after visiting the concentration camp,] we left for Israel, to visit the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial Museum. I think the creators and interpreters must have been led by hand in the Universe, as I couldn’t have imagined a more respectful, peace-filled treatment of a tribute to children taken by war in a most savage way. 
I left Israel for home with a new found appreciation for what the words ‘museum’ and ‘interpretation’ meant to me. I was changed by what I saw, felt and heard. Yes, admittedly, this subject has emotion as its core, but I now wonder - what can we learn from an experience like this, as keen and creative defenders of keeping museum experiences alive.

I did not ‘identify’ personally before I left for that trip, but the experience was executed in a way that pulled me in so that it became personal. What stories, people, places and things are parts of, or the background of, museum exhibits that could help make them become personal for the viewer?  . . . Museums do a great job with videos, books, interpretation notes, additional information on websites, but I think we need to look deeper – maybe not at the vehicle, but the message.”

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.

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