This is an expanded version of a post that originally appeared on the blog EngagingPlaces, which regularly shares news, ideas, and opinions about connecting people to historic places. Special thanks to Max A. van Balgooy, President of Engaging Places, for writing this post for Arrrrducation!
Maymont, a Gilded Age estate that’s now a public park in Richmond, Virginia, has an extensive exhibit on the domestic servants in the first half of the twentieth century. To continue to collect stories about and remember the many people who work in domestic service, the exhibit includes a small area that invites family, friends, and neighbors to share their memories with a label that reads:
In creating this painting–a symbolic tribute to the individuals who worked as domestic employees at Maymont–I felt special gratitude to my own loved ones. My grandmother, mother, two aunts, and three uncles were all once employed on the Dooley staff.
Was there a significant person in your life who worked in domestic service? Is there still?
In developing this exhibition, we’ve heard several warm remembrances from friends and visitors. Some mention a parent, grandparent, or friend–others offer stories of a beloved family employee, such as a cook, nursemaid, or handyman.
Would you also like to pay tribute to a particular individual?
Feel free to jot down a few sentences in our book of memories. Full names are optional.
Doris Walker Woodson
Board Member, Maymont Foundation, 2003-2006
Visitors can record their stories on paper, which are slipped into plastic sleeves and placed in a three-ring binder that other visitors can read.
What a smart idea to invite visitors to meaningfully participate in the experience and continue historical research at the same time! If you’d like to try your hand at engaging visitors by inviting them to share their memories of a place, event, or person, here are some suggestions:
1. There are many ways to collect memories so you can choose what’s most appropriate for you and your visitors. A three-ring binder is a simple discreet method of collecting comments and requires little space and maintenance. If it’s too discreet, consider a bulletin board (also called a “talk back board”) to post responses written on cards so many contributions are visible at a glance. The advantages are that this visibility can be more attractive to visitors, you can present different questions on different cards, and you can organize the cards by topic or perspective. The downsides may be more maintenance to ensure cards are visible (hence some museums use evenly-spaced clips secured to a board rather than thumbtacks) and it may look messy and cluttered (which could be good or bad, depending on the location). If you don’t have much traffic, the board can appear blank and forlorn, so choose a size that will ensure it’s at least two-thirds full. If you’re incredibly busy, you may need to rely on electronic technology to collect memories on computers or tablet, which gives you the added advantage of also collecting photos, audio, or videos of the contributors. Of course, this increases the costs and maintenance significantly, so perhaps you’d only provide this for a very special event. No matter which method you choose, be sure it’s something your visitor will use. With some testing in advance, determine if your instructions clear and encouraging, if visitors find it easy or difficult to participate, and if they found it an enjoyable and enlightening experience.
2. Memories can be powerful, controversial, and selective. Anticipate the range of emotions and issues that may be raised from various perspectives on the topic you’re exploring. It may be fairly narrow if it’s an exhibit about quilts but if it’s about racial segregation or the Civil War, it will be broad. Weigh the impact on both the current participants and future readers, and determine how much you’ll moderate or facilitate the conversation (for example, does the museum respond to postings? Does the museum encourage discussion or stay out of the conversation?). Like a blog, you may have some standing rules that harmful or inappropriate comments may be removed or edited or that the statements made are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the museum. No matter what, you’ll want to figure out ahead of time how you’ll treat the revelation of a story that others might consider private, controversial, or offensive. It’s difficult to anticipate the possibilities, but perhaps a shared memory mentions alcoholism, suicide, mental illness, or murder; it recalls vivid details differently from what others remember; or raises a sensitive issue, such as sexual abuse or gun control. Sensitive issues are rarely encountered, but it’s better to figure out now if it’s something you’ll remove, edit, or relocate and under what circumstances (e.g., if the individual affected is mentioned by name, if the exhibit can be viewed unsupervised by children under 13) and be sure to discuss the guidelines with your frontline staff so they can help monitor the situation.
3. Consider what happens afterwards first. Don’t wait to figure out what to do with all the memories you’ve collected until the end. If you can make some decisions now, it’ll help you later. For example, you’ll need the author’s permission before their memories are published online or in a book. The assumption is that the information collected will only be used in the manner in which it was presented, so if you’d like to use it elsewhere, you’ll want a statement explaining potential future uses and how the author will be identified or credited. Ideally, this statement should appear on the document submitted by the author so there’s no misunderstanding that they didn’t see the sign on the wall or a notice posted in the front of the notebook. Secondly, you may want to follow up on particularly valuable information by including space for a phone number or email address. Finally, determine if these materials are disposed at the end of the exhibit, go into the exhibit files, or become part of the collection itself and catalogued. Again, consider the impact on the participants as well as the museum.
Collecting memories from visitors can be a powerful way to engage them at your site, and with a few precautions, it can be even more effective. Wishing you much encouragement and let us know if you tried it at your museum!