Monday, December 9, 2013

Difficult Issues in History Museums

We all know that the past isn’t always pretty.  It wasn’t always “simpler” back then.  And it certainly wasn’t safer.  The “good old days” could be pretty bad, to be honest.  I’m pretty grateful to live in the 21st century. 

Learning about the more challenging and difficult topics of the past is, I think all of us in the history museum field will agree, important.  Those difficult topics inform us about why today’s world is the way it is (or, on a smaller scale, our local communities are the way they are).  Often, those difficult issues have relevance to similar issues of today, or they are still playing out. 

In the broader work of Reach Advisors, we have found that a sizable number of the nearly 5,000 most meaningful museum experiences we have collected from visitors are about difficult issues of the past.  War, strife, plagues, social justice issues, racism and civil rights, and more than any other, the Holocaust, appear in those experiences.  They may be difficult experiences, and emotionally challenging to deal with, but they seem to pack a punch . . . but one that visitors appreciate experiencing.

Because the history of the Hempsted Houses includes a slave history, and because we felt that issues of race and social justice are still playing out in New London, we wanted to gain a better understanding of how cultural consumers think about, and are receptive to, experiences that challenge them by delving into difficult issues of the past.  We turned to our Connecticut Cultural Consumers panel to learn more.

First, we specifically asked them about history museums tackling difficult issues of the past.  Their response was almost unanimous:  they feel that so long as the topic is mission appropriate then history museums have almost a moral imperative to explore those issues.  And to not do so would undermine their trust in, and the authenticity of, that history museum. 

But note that I specifically mentioned that the topic had to be “mission appropriate.”  That is, while it would be totally appropriate for the Hempsted Houses to share that slave history, it would be a stretch (at best) and totally inappropriate (at worst) for them to do a series of programs on the Holocaust, as compelling as that topic is.  The link to the mission isn’t clear to visitors. 

Although the panelists felt strongly that mission appropriate topics should be shared, many panelists had theoretical (and real) boundaries or limits.  They included:

  • A desire for facts.  They wanted the difficult history to be fact-based, and that opinions or a slanted interpretation would undermine a history museum’s authenticity and trustworthiness.  Yet when they talked about specific examples of difficult history in museums, they provided examples that are fact-based but also stake an opinion, such as Holocaust museums and sites.  The key seemed to be that the museum, when staking an opinion, did so clearly and transparently . . . and backed it up. 
  • Challenging is OK, but not confrontation.  The panelists felt it was perfectly fine to be intellectually and personally challenged to think differently and have their opinions questions, but they had little to no appetite for confrontation.  As Susan L. reminded us “For the vast majority of visitors to such a site, it is a social or recreational activity with an important intellectual connection.  To turn that into a forum of vastly different political views would undermine the enjoyment that is the driver of site visitation.”
  • Flexibility is important.  That is, how you present and discuss difficult issues makes a difference.  Several panelists specifically mentioned that, during a typical museum visit, they were not interested in hearing the opinions of strangers, regardless if they agreed with them or not.  If a museum was trying to turn a museum experience into a discussion or forum, they wanted the flexibility to opt out.  Instead, they valued discussing the experience with those they visited with far more.  The point?  They didn’t want to be trapped into something they did not come for, and they did want something of substance to talk about in the car as they left.  (Note that this does not preclude a museum having a discussion or forum . . . just not forcing visitors to participate or doing so as a special program.)

When it came to difficult issues that are unresolved today, the panelists were a bit more nuanced, and a bit more hesitant to endorse it than those of the past.  Like with difficult issues of the past, they felt that information should be provided in a factual, and unbiased (or at least evidence-based) manner.  Again, if the museum staked an opinion, they wanted it to be crystal clear why they were doing so, and for it to be backed up.

But even more important, and like with difficult issues of the past, they felt it should only be done if it is mission appropriate.  Some of them questioned the rationale of doing so outside of that mission, and judged museums as catering to political correctness when they presented difficult issues that strayed too far.  We also saw perspectives on the other side as well, with questions about whitewashing the past due to external political pressures.  There seem to be no easy answers.

Thus, the presentation of difficult issues of the past and today is challenging, but can also enable visitors to have deep and meaningful experiences with history.  Our takeaways are:

  • Do so if mission appropriate.
  • Do so in a fact-based way, backed up with evidence.
  • State a museum’s position clearly and transparently, and back it up as well.
  • Allow visitors to absorb your content in the manner they desire, e.g., privately, with their social group, or publicly with other visitors.  But don’t force them to choose a manner they may not care for. 

Ultimately, though, the majority of the panel felt that museums were excellent venues for intellectually and emotionally challenging content, if treated respectfully.  Two of our panelists made excellent cases for museums doing so.

First, Gail, who shared:   

“Museums are the ideal place for opening dialog. Museums should present info to make people think. Museums should ask questions & force us to question our belief systems so that we are always evolving. I would go so far as to assert that museums have this responsibility.”

And then Cindy, who said:  

“Changing of ideas and making one think should be the purpose of a museum.  Your world needs to be rocked sometimes!”

Although this post wraps up the series on the Connecticut Cultural Consumers Panel, what we learned in the panel, including what we have shared here and much of our other findings, will likely come up as other members of the interpretive team explore the implications and the new tactics deployed at the Hempsted Houses over the coming months.  

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.

1 comment:

  1. This is great stuff Susie, thanks for posting about it. AASLH has been engaged in earnest on this topic and have published two Technical Leaflets on the subject, both by our (now) Vice Chair Julie Rose of the West Baton Rouge Museum. Julie is also about to publish a book on the subject in our Rowman and Littlefield book series.

    For those who may be interested, here's a link to our resource page for Julie's first Technical Leaflet (and information on how to buy it)

    We'll have the second resource page up when the Leaflet goes to print.