Every year, AASLH receives around 100 nominations for our Leadership in History Awards, which recognize organizations doing “Good History.” Our Awards committee spends a week poring over the details of these program and exhibits, reading about what made them stand out. At the end, we have a list of exceptional projects and a lot of important takeaways for other history organizations to apply at their own sites.
Part of doing local history is paying careful attention to local voices, including new voices. Here are lessons learned from our award winners over the last few years on how to meaningfully and powerfully engage local voices in exhibits.
1. Topic Selection
As simple as it sounds, topic selection is one of the major ways to show the community you are listening to them and are aware of their questions and concerns. Connecting the past with present issues and concerns helps increase interest in history by demonstrating its relevance.
The New Mexico History Museum did just that with their exhibit in 2014 on cowboys, called Cowboys, Real and Imagined. The exhibit explored the actual history of cowboys as well as the popular culture version, connecting historic cowboys with the current cowboys in New Mexico. The New Mexico History Museum involved a number of community partners, including modern cowboys, to ensure local voices and stories were being faithfully told.
2. Oral Histories
Stories about local people offer a unique opportunity to museums in that the sources for their exhibit are in their local community. As such, oral histories are a strong and connecting way to let people’s voices be heard. Leveraging people’s own voices to tell the stories of a community’s past and present is a powerful way to connect people to the exhibit.
For their exhibit Many Faces, One Community, Midway Village Museum reached out to local immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations, ethnic clubs, and museums to help diversify the voices telling the history of Rockford, Illinois. As a result, a number of Rockford residents who were immigrants or children of immigrants participated in an oral history project through the museum. The resulting stories represented people from 25 countries and were included in the exhibit as a powerful way of telling the diverse history of Rockford.
3. Engaging Schools
Exhibits which emphasize local voices often pair well with school curricula. The intersection provides opportunities for learning in both directions. Curators can collaborate with school teachers to develop dynamic exhibits which are age appropriate and engaging for students. They can also share curricula with teachers to help foster history education and literacy in the classroom.
Alabama Voices engaged with schools by sharing digitized objects and accompanying lesson plans with Alabama classrooms. In doing this they are presenting a diverse and inclusive presentation of a sometimes difficult history to the community at large. Local voices set the foundation for the exhibit and through the curriculum outreach it is returning to the local community.
4. Public Forums
In addition to exhibits, organizations can engage the local community through public forums. These offer people the opportunity to share their voices and be heard. This can also be a good welcome for people who have not traditionally visited the museum or who thought it had little relevance to their lives.
SubUrbanisms: Casino Company Town/ China Town accompanied their physical exhibit with a publication as well as a public forum. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum partnered with Connecticut College to host the forum. The organizers noted that it “br[ought] together groups who might not otherwise intersect, including museum members, academics, professionals, public officials, students, immigrant workers, and neighbors. SubUrbanisms fostered a public conversation informed by the residents’, region’s, and nation’s cultural and historical contexts, and encouraged visitors to reflect on their own values and assumptions associated with American suburban living” (SubUrbanisms). The public forum created an opportunity for a variety of local voices to come together to speak and to listen.
To learn more about the specific projects from the award winners, visit:
Alabama Voices –Alabama Department of Archives and History (Montgomery, AL)
Many Faces, One Community –Midway Village Museum (Rockford, IL)
Cowboys, Real and Imagined –New Mexico History Museum; Palace of the Governors; New Mexico Humanities Council (Santa FE, NM)
SubUrbanisms: Casino Company Town/ China Town –Lyman Allyn Art Museum; Connecticut College; Stephen Fan (New London, CT)