Workshop: Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming and Exhibits at History Institutions

Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming and Exhibits at History Institutions

An AASLH Workshop

Workshop Description

This workshop provides a broad overview of public programming and exhibits with a focus on active learning. Themes are based on The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques, coauthored by one of the workshop instructors.

Keeping visitors at the forefront of our thinking, participants will explore a wide range of topics including audience types, volunteer management and training, tour techniques, active learning with people of all ages, developing/updating exhibits, demonstrating relevance, marketing, evaluation, planning, and collaboration. Case studies and interactive activities provide excellent opportunities to engage with fellow participants and our host site. Attendees will leave the workshop with information, ideas, and materials they can take back to their organizations to adapt and apply.


FORMAT: On-site group workshop

LENGTH: Two days

DATE: September 23-24, 2019

LOCATION: James J. Hill House, St. Paul, MN

MATERIALS: Workshop materials will be provided upon registration and in-person at the event.

COST: $230 AASLH Members/$345 Nonmembers

** Save $40 when you register by August 23, 2019 and use promo code EARLYBIRD19 at checkout! **


Who Should Attend This Workshop

This workshop is ideally suited for early-career museum educators, curators, volunteer managers, museum studies students, or dedicated volunteers who play a role in education, interpretation, exhibition planning, and/or public programming. Mid-career professionals can also benefit from revisiting the content covered in this workshop to help update and rethink programs and exhibits and gain insights on how to train and support newer staff.


Tim Grove recently started a new consulting business after twenty years at the Smithsonian. He focuses on education strategy, exhibition development, and increasing relevance. He is author of 4 books including The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques. The 2nd edition of the book was recently published.

Alexandra Rasic is the Director of Public Programs at the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, CA, and a member of AASLH’s Council. In addition to working with the public in a variety of history organizations as a volunteer, she worked as a freelance corporate archivist for over a decade in Los Angeles.

Why Focusing on Visitors Should Be Part of the Exhibit Planning Process

Many of us have played a role in creating a program or exhibit that we thought was going to be a home run, only to see it received with less than stellar attendance or low engagement. Sometimes you know exactly why you fell short, but sometimes the answers can be multifaceted and unclear. Maybe you chose the wrong day (anyone ever schedule a program on Rosh Hashanah or Super Bowl Sunday?), maybe you explained the offering poorly, maybe the subject did not resonate with people.

Midway Village, Rockford, IL
Midway Village, Rockford, IL

Some of these reasons could be mitigated by paying more attention to your current or desired visitors. Often due to lack of time or resources, we feel that we don’t have the time to do things like front-end evaluations, surveys, or prototyping, or we don’t have practical experience with these tools, but they are not as difficult to incorporate into our day-to-day routines as you might think.

More than ever before, our field needs to focus on understanding what makes visitors tick, and how we can be working harder to understand their needs, wants, and desires. This does not mean that we throw out our institution’s mission, vision, or values, but that we see where we can meet in the middle, where we can begin to do broaden our appeal and make visitors feel more comfortable.

Focusing on Visitors Workshop
Focusing on Visitors Workshop

If developing public programs and/or exhibits falls under your bailiwick of responsibilities, join us on March 31-April 1 for the AASLH workshop, Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming & Exhibits at History Institutions, at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware. Along with exploring the above mentioned subjects and tools, attendees will discuss:

  • active learning and techniques for interaction
  • volunteer staff management and training
  • creating/revamping exhibits
  • collaboration
  • communication
  • and online engagement.

Come learn new tricks, add to your current tool box, and expand your network of supportive colleagues.

Alexandra Rasic is the Director of Public Programs at the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, CA, and serves as co-faculty of this workshop with Tim Grove.


Are You Still on the Fence?

Early Bird registration for AASLH’s annual meeting in Louisville, KY, comes to an end tomorrow, July 24. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to sign up, or to send some of your staff, let me share three things that keep me coming back almost every year:


  1. The diversity and quality of workshops and sessions! Every single session and workshop proposal was reviewed by a committee of your peers who are actively talking the talk, and walking the walk. Program committe members came from institutions great and small, from all over the nation, and from a variety of departments (collections, education, administration, etc.). These people debated, made deals, and strengthened sessions that they knew would resonate with you. They were also encouraged to turn down sessions that didn’t quite cut the muster, and suggest last-minute additions if they saw any serious gaps. This program did not just come together. It was thoughtfully crafted and I love seeing how things change every year.
  2. The value! Early bird registration for AASLH members is $250. I have yet to find a professional meeting that I find more useful and reasonably priced for people working in the field of history. Days one and four provide attendees with opportunities for focused professional development (such as the CEO Forum and workshops focusing on things like the care of photographs, management, interpretation, safety, and technology). Days two and three are filled to the brim with sessions, which are the heart and soul of the meeting. On top of that, each day a variety of tours and/or events enable people to explore the host city at a reasonable cost. I also believe that the payback for institutions that send their staff to the annual meeting is something to be considered. The meeting inspires and motivates staff, and it exposes people to new tools, programs, and methods.
  3. The people! I attended my first AASLH annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2003, just as I was taking on a position of greater leadership within my institution. I remember being impressed by the people I met and how I saw people interacting with one another. Attendees were engaged and excited, they were welcoming, they wanted to help you make connections—and they still do! I was so motivated by the experience that I started looking into more of what AASLH had to offer me and my institution. In 2004, I attended the Seminar for Historical Administration (now known as Developing History Leaders @SHA); in 2006, our organization participated in the Performance Management program (now known as Visitors Count!); and by 2007, I started volunteering on a committee. Now, a great plus of attending the annual meeting is reconnecting with colleagues I have known for over a decade, and meeting new ones. People drive our organizations, and you won’t find a greater bunch to get to know than those who are fellow members of AASLH!

Alexandra Rasic is Director of Public Programs at the Workman and Temple Homestead Museum in City of Industry, CA, and serves on the 2015 AASLH Program Committee.

Sharing What Matters

I recently came across a Facebook post from a friend who loves history, but does not make a practice of posting about his experience with guides at historic sites: "Hanging out at Grant Wood's studio where he painted most of his major works. For the record, volunteer docents really rock when they show passion and demonstrate real knowledge. — at Grant Wood Studio."

I knew that John was a history geek...but it struck a chord that he posted a comment about how impressed he was by the interpreter. Why? What was so good? I decided to ask him a few questions. 

wood tour July 2014
Sharing her passion for Grant Wood’s studio. Can anyone name this mystery woman?

What made you post this on FB?
A lot of my friends like to travel and visit museums or historic sites, though not very often in Iowa, and I wanted to promote the studio and the people who run it. I also have a number of friends who work or have worked in museums, and I knew they would understand the thrill of finding a really competent and passionate docent. 

What about your interpreter made him/her so special?
This interpreter was a working architect, and could really speak about Wood's studio with some knowledge and understanding of the materials, design, and experiential aspects of the space. I did not know this before the visit, but Grant Wood remodeled his studio rather extensively based upon his time in France. He was also very poor and had to barter and innovate his conversion of a hay loft into a Parisian salon. The interpreter helped us to understand why and how Grant Wood made the changes he did. 

Did the fact that they were a volunteer matter? If so, why?
Yes, I think it does, because the person is working from a point of love and excitement about the space and former occupant(s). My father and I arrived halfway through the last tour of the day. Rather than leave us hanging, the interpreter lingered after the close of her formal tour to recap what we missed and answer the barrage of questions we had about the wonderful building. I've been to a lot of museums and more than once I've been told "too bad" or "come back next time" by a less than enthusiastic employee.

Do you prefer self-guided or guided experiences when visiting historic sites?
I prefer having both as an option. Sometimes a site needs interpretation that can't be conveyed due to inadequate signage or its particular history, but at the same time I can rebel against tours that seem inefficient, over-hurried, or significantly above/below my level of understanding. 

What is you most memorable visit to a historic site, and why?
Wow, that's a hard one. If I had to pick one, I would choose the private tour I received of Monticello with a group of world-class architects and landscape architects (I was their driver for the day and allowed to tag along). Senior staff guided us through the public and private rooms of the building and grounds, many of which are never shown to the public, and I really enjoyed the interplay of the interpreters, conservation specialists, and contemporary designers as we moved through the estate. Their combined interplay allowed me to see aspects of the site that I would have otherwise missed, such as the angle and textures of the terraced hillside to the dimensions of rooms. If only this group had collaborated on a book! There are others which are memorable due to their associations with family or friends, but the Monticello tour seems to rise to the top whenever the question is asked.

I think many of you reading his answers nodded your head or sighed as you went down the page. John certainly reminded me of a few things:

  • Being accommodating goes a long way. He and his dad showed up late for the last tour (gasp!). But they weren’t turned away. They were welcomed and the site got a little promotion out of that simple gesture.  Sometimes we make decisions that suit us more than our visitors. We think visitors need to experience things from start to finish. Not every site can make this accommodation, but many can, and should. Better to get a little, than nothing at all, right? And it made them feel special.
  • Speaking of feeling special, John’s most memorable visit to a historic site was SUPER special. We can’t give all visitors the VIP treatment, but we can make them feel special by creating and advertising things like “special” tours (behind-the-scenes, tour with a conservator, tour with someone who lived/worked in the house, etc.).  Not everyone has iconic objects in their collection that continually draw visitors from near and far, but we can make visitors feel like a million bucks when they are at our sites, and they will spread the word. Where I work, we’ve toyed with the idea of surprise VIP tours. The idea being that once a month you take a group who thinks they are here for a “regular tour” and you do something really special with them. (If anyone is doing that, please share!)
  • Who visitors are with when they visit museums matters more than we do. We should be asking groups who come together why they came and use that information to cater to interests or build rapport. Maybe mom grew up in the neighborhood and wanted to bring her kids back for a visit. Maybe friends are in town and they like interesting architecture. Maybe dad was looking for a something free to do with his kids. All of these scenarios provide interpreters with an opportunity to share something interesting about the museum or its offerings.
  • Visitors like choice, and they can “rebel” if they don’t get it. Rebellion can take many forms. It can be as simple as expressive body language (being fidgety, looking disinterested, etc.), asking to leave, or NEVER COMING BACK and having that be what a bored/disgruntled visitor tells his or her friends…and maybe even shares on Facebook!
  • My favorite take-away from John’s comments is what he had to say about the volunteer docent. The woman was working from a point of “love and excitement”—and it showed. Interpreters can make or break an experience, and when they are good—WOW—what a treat! Within reason, interpreters should not be afraid to personalize their tours. Tell visitors why a certain room is your favorite, tell visitors why you think that carved beam you just passed is worth a second look, and tell them why you volunteer. Obviously John learned a lot about his interpreter and the space he visited, even coming in late to the experience.

Well done, docent, and thank you John Floyd for sharing your insights with us. (I owe you a martini the next time I’m in Portland.)



Focusing on Visitors: An Investment in Your Organization’s Future

People in our field are actively engaged in conversations about relevancy. Why? Because we need to rethink the way we do things.exploration Many history museums, historical societies, and related institutions are struggling to survive, stand out from the crowd, and make meaningful connections with visitors. Part of the reason is that many of us have become stuck in our ways—not because we are lazy—we are far from that as a field—but because we are overwhelmed. We don’t spend enough time thinking about visitors’ needs and wants. We have not thought enough about how we need to change the way we do things to better relate to and engage current and potential visitors.

What can you do to create advocates for history and your organization? How do you rethink what you’ve done day in and day out (for years, or even decades!) with a fresh set of eyes? And how will you train staff to better focus on the needs of visitors? These are just a few of the things that we’ll discuss at Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming and Exhibits at History Institutions, a two-day workshop taking place on April 3 and 4, at the Governor John Langdon House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

We know it can be hard to justify taking time off or sending more than one staff member to participate in professional development opportunities, but whether you are a first-time museum educator, tour guide, volunteer manager, or mid-career professional, this workshop will be time worth spent.

Through interactive activities and case studies, you will learn more about audience types, volunteer management and training, tour techniques, active learning with people of all ages, developing exhibits with visitors in mind, technology, evaluations, planning, and working with others to create programs. Participants will have an opportunity to tackle some of their greatest challenges and concerns as they work with instructors and colleagues. Better focusing on visitors can transform your organization. Join us in Portsmouth to set the wheels in motion!

Alexandra Rasic is the Director of Public Programs at the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, CA. She also serves as co-faculty of this workshop with Tim Grove.