As a young professional and the brand new executive director of a small town history and art museum, I was looking at the 2015 Annual Meeting for ways to attract younger audiences to our institution.
While reflecting with a colleague on the many sessions and speakers, I realized the issue of social justice kept emerging. Representatives from President Lincoln’s Cottage, for example, drew parallels between slavery in the past and modern human trafficking through an exhibit and programs. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights took a similar approach by combining art and history to inspire dialogue and critical thinking about difficult contemporary issues.
Common wisdom for museums to attract millennials is to offer programs with alcohol. Now, there is nothing wrong with this notion. Our museum is located in Bourbon County, Kentucky after all, and most of our evening events have an open bar. Other museums have successful wine and craft beer tastings specifically targeting this audience. Are there other strategies, though, that are just as effective and more relevant for our communities?
As I often heard at the Annual Meeting, museums are already demonstrating the power of possibility by using exhibits and programs to address today’s problems. We can use a historical lens to look at these issues, pull in a younger and more diverse audience, and make a real difference in our communities.
The leaders of one session began a conversation about diversifying AASLH’s membership and leadership. One participant suggested that AASLH and museums write critical histories as a form of community repentance. With race relations and immigration being such hot topics, can museums encourage and facilitate communities to investigate and repent for past sins?
It seems that more museums are encouraging people to talk freely about their community’s past. Dr. James Klotter not only praised Wendell Berry for being Kentucky’s conscience, he seemed to suggest that historians could do the same. As museum professionals, we are trained to handle and catalog artifacts properly, to research primary sources, and to read secondary sources critically. Should our role also include becoming community organizers, therapists, or maybe even secular ministers in our communities? If so, what should our training involve? What would future sessions providing this kind of training look like at the Annual Meeting?
I find it reassuring that my career choice can make a significant difference in our communities and, as evidenced by the sessions at the Annual Meeting, many other museum professionals seem to feel the same. Thanks to those who, through the AASLH Small Museums scholarship, gave me the opportunity to be inspired by all the exciting and important work other museums and history organizations are doing across the country.
Leah W. Craig is the Executive Director of the Hopewell Museum/Historic Paris-Bourbon County in Paris, Kentucky.