An image of a building sitting on a green lawn under a blue sky behind a purple banner that reads “AASLH Online Course Museum and Education Outreach” with a white icon that reads “Small Museum Pro!”

Online Course: Museum Education and Outreach

An AASLH Small Museum Pro! Online Course

Course Description

At their heart, regardless of type or size, museums are engaging, dynamic places of education. This AASLH online course, Museum Education and Outreach, is about how we can facilitate visitors’ meaningful and memorable experiences in the informal environments of museums. The program looks at the larger umbrella of programming at sites and explores the large concept of who our audiences are, how best to connect with them, and what is needed to develop various methods.

This course requires regular check-ins, sharing and commenting on peer work, and participation in scheduled live chats. Participants will help shape the flow of the course in addition to providing resources and insights on each other’s work. Assignments are made weekly to allow for regular feedback and dialogue. While work can be done at your own pace, meeting deadlines is encouraged to maximize the experience. Throughout the course you will develop a toolkit of strategies, policies, and documents ready for immediate implementation.

  • Week 1: Defining the Museum / Museums and Memory
  • Week 2: Interpretation Strengths, Weaknesses, and Best Practices
  • Week 3: Audiences and Identifying Your Key Ones
  • Week 4: Education Program Planning, Management, and Evaluation
  • Week 5: Organizing of Museum Education and Outreach
  • Week 6: Community Partners and Funding
  • Week 7: Leading Staff and Volunteers
  • Week 8: Action Plan for Future Programming at your Museum

Details

COURSE DATES: March 2 - April 26, 2020

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: November 1, 2019 - February 23, 2020; 25 participant limit

REGISTER HERE

Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, instructor-led, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 weeks

PARTICIPATION STYLE: Bi-weekly one-hour online chats - schedule to be determined by the instructor at the start of the course - if you are unable to attend a chat you can read the transcript and then post your thoughts/questions in the General Forum; weekly readings and assignments; final course assignment. Students should expect to spend approximately 5 hours per week on the course.

MATERIALS: One required text: The Museum Educator's Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques, Second Edition, Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann and Tim Grove, 2017. (Texts are NOT INCLUDED with your registration. You must order the book separately from the book seller of your choice.)

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course (80% or higher) will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

Participant Outcomes

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • describe the characteristics and learning needs of various museum audiences;
  • summarize what we know about learning in museums;
  • assess the strengths and weaknesses of interpretive techniques and program approaches;
  • utilize a system for planning, operating, and evaluating museum educational programs;
  • access resources to assist you in future development of effective learning experiences

Who Should Take This Course

This course is a beginning level course designed for professional staff and volunteers of historical organizations and libraries with historical collections who have little to no experience with developing education programs and goals for museums. Successful participants should be ready to look past traditional methods and challenge themselves to work around site-specific hurdles.

Instructor

Tanya Brock is one who tends to take leaps and jumps rather than the straight path. Her career has spanned museum education, visitor services, exhibit planning, historical research, educational program consultant, and community partner liaison. Whether teaching food preservation classes or designing and running the nation’s first functioning historical brewery or running a brewpub co-op, her passion has always been centered on food—its power to unite and act as a storyteller for communities.

Her education is a patchwork of cultural anthropology, food preservation, heritage interpretation, and museum administration. This background has built a foundation of various perspectives from which she draws from when designing programs. Over a 20-year period she has worked with audiences of all sizes, ages, and backgrounds yet believes at the end of the day, it is the guest who drives the conversation and the experience.


Webinar: Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations

Webinar Description

For individuals with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorders and their families, accessing community arts, civic, and cultural events can be challenging and at times, feel incredibly overwhelming. The uncertainty of new situations – will they feel overwhelmed, will their child have a melt-down and need to leave as soon as they arrive, will they be judged by other people – can be enough to deter an individual or family from seeking experiences that could be enjoyable and enriching for their child and for their family as a whole.

This webinar series is a two-part series. The first webinar will highlight an overview of neurodiversity, accessibility, and inclusion as well as a focus on autism spectrum disorders and respectfully communicate to and about this population. The second part of the series will include lessons learned and practical applications from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and recommendations for actionable first steps to increase accessibility and inclusion at your organization.

Details

DATES: PART I: January 7, 2020 | PART II: January 23, 2020

TIME: 3:00 - 4:00 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $30 AASLH and Texas Historical Commission Members / $50 Nonmembers (Texas Historical Commission members should contact THC for a discount code)

REGISTRATION: Registration includes both Part I and Part II of the AASLH Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations webinar series.

REGISTER HERE

We will record these events. Access the Recorded Webinars in the AASLH Resource Center after the event has passed. Registrants of this event receive complimentary access to the recordings in their Dashboard. 

Closed captioning is provided for these events.

Related Events

AASLH encourages participants to also attend Neurodiversity in Museums: Crafting Community for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder presented by the Texas Historical Commission on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm EST. Please note that registration for the January 15 webinar must be completed separately through the Texas Historical Commission and is not included in your AASLH registration.


Webinar: Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations

Webinar Description

For individuals with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorders and their families, accessing community arts, civic, and cultural events can be challenging and at times, feel incredibly overwhelming. The uncertainty of new situations – will they feel overwhelmed, will their child have a melt-down and need to leave as soon as they arrive, will they be judged by other people – can be enough to deter an individual or family from seeking experiences that could be enjoyable and enriching for their child and for their family as a whole.

This webinar series is a two-part series. The first webinar will highlight an overview of neurodiversity, accessibility, and inclusion as well as a focus on autism spectrum disorders and respectfully communicate to and about this population. The second part of the series will include lessons learned and practical applications from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and recommendations for actionable first steps to increase accessibility and inclusion at your organization.

Details

DATES: PART I: January 7, 2020 | PART II: January 23, 2020

TIME: 3:00 - 4:00 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $30 AASLH and Texas Historical Commission Members / $50 Nonmembers (Texas Historical Commission members should contact THC for a discount code)

REGISTRATION: Registration includes both Part I and Part II of the AASLH Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations webinar series.

REGISTER HERE

We will record these events. Access the Recorded Webinars in the AASLH Resource Center after the event has passed. Registrants of this event receive complimentary access to the recordings in their Dashboard. 

Closed captioning is provided for these events.

Related Events

AASLH encourages participants to also attend Neurodiversity in Museums: Crafting Community for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder presented by the Texas Historical Commission on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm EST. Please note that registration for the January 15 webinar must be completed separately through the Texas Historical Commission and is not included in your AASLH registration.


National Park Service Visitation and American Engagement with History

Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, Kinderhook, New York.

By W. Maclane Hull, graduate student at the University of South Carolina and 2019 AASLH research intern, and John Garrison Marks, Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives, AASLH

Are Americans still interested in history? This simple question elicits passionate responses, but it remains remarkably difficult to answer. Recent articles on visitors’ negative reactions to discussions of slavery on southern plantation tours highlights some Americans’ unwillingness to confront honest interpretation and hard truths about the nation’s past. Other stories argue that visitation declines at prominent history institutions like Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, and Gettysburg National Military Park reveal that American historic sites have “lost their allure” and that “the American story is losing its pull.” Other studies have shown that Americans have difficulty answering history-based questions from the U.S. citizenship test. Collectively, such stories leave audiences with the impression that Americans are increasingly disinterested in learning about the nation’s past.

And yet, these stories, particularly those focused on visitation, demonstrate a tendency to select a limited number of data points from long-established sites and ask them to stand in for the wider field. An analysis of all National Park Service sites that have a primarily historical function—all of the National Historic Sites, Historical Parks, and Battlefields in the NPS system, along with the Memorials, Monuments, and other sites primarily focused on human history, rather than natural history or the environment—reveals that, since 1979 (the first year for which data is available), the average number of annual visits to such parks and sites has increased considerably. While average visitation to these sites experienced peaks and valleys during the 1980s and 1990s, it has been increasing fairly steadily since the early 2000s. The 2010s saw substantial growth until 2016, when visitation began a sharp decline. Despite that decline, however, average visitation in 2018 was still higher than it was in the beginning of the decade, and the 2010s feature higher average visitation numbers than any previous era. From 2014 through 2017, NPS history sites averaged more than 500,000 annual visits, the first time in the data visitation surpassed that threshold. While some NPS sites, like Gettysburg, Colonial National Historical Park, or Valley Forge, have experienced declines, others, like the Boston African American National Historic Site, Lincoln Memorial, or Pearl Harbor National Memorial, have seen consistent increases.

Likewise, the total number of visits to NPS history sites is much higher today than it was in 1979. NPS history sites totaled just over 56 million visits in 1979, compared with more than 109.5 million in 2018—a 95 percent increase. Over that same period, the total U.S. population has only grown about 45 percent, while the global population has grown about 72 percent. Additionally, unlike the average annual visitation, total visits has grown fairly steadily over the entire forty-year period for which data is available. That so many more people are visiting a growing number of history sites within the National Park Service seems to suggest a robust public interest in American history.

This data, along with other data recently analyzed by the Humanities Indicators, present reasons for optimism for history institutions, with both average and total visitation to NPS history sites growing over time—signaling a continued or growing interest in the nation’s history. The data raise several new questions—what is the proportion of unique visitors to repeat visitors? How has the number of international visitors changed over this period?—but this more complete view of visitation trends differs significantly from the story of perpetual decline that has been repeatedly told regarding visitation to America’s historical sites.

The data also suggest that interest in history might simply be changing, rather than declining. For example, while it is true that visitation to some of the larger institutions such as Colonial Williamsburg and Gettysburg has fallen in the past few years, this may be less a result of Americans becoming disinterested in their history (as some commenters claim) than it is a result of Americans becoming interested in different kinds of history. According to the NPS data, seventy-four sites have opened since 1979, with forty-eight of them opening since 1989 and thirty since 1999. Many of the NPS history sites opened since 2000 involve African American history (Brown v. Board NHS; Little Rock Central High School NHS; Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial; Tuskegee Airmen NHS; Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers NM) and women’s history (First Ladies NHS; Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality NM; Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front NHP; Women's Rights NHP), as well as the history of Indigenous people, Latinx people, LGBTQ people, and immigrants in America. This same period has seen some of the strongest visitation growth of any period for which data is available. This could suggest that as the National Park Service’s sites and interpretation have grown more inclusive of a broader range of histories and more representative of the nation, an increasing number of Americans are visiting.

NPS data suggest that Americans are not ignoring historic sites, but rather visiting those that tell more relevant and engaging histories. They suggest that Americans’ interest in history, and in visiting historic places, remains as high as ever. It also raises new questions about who is visiting and why, which others in the field (like Colleen Dilenschneider and Susie Wilkening) are able to address with an increasing level of specificity. Analysis of nationwide trends like visitation requires a broad lens and the use of the best data we can gather. As more institutions make their data available, and as organizations like AASLH expand their research and their ability to survey the field as we approach the nation’s 250th anniversary, we will improve our understanding of how Americans view history.

 

For more on visitation trends at U.S. history organizations, check back with AASLH the week of November 4th, when we will publish the results of our National Visitation Survey.


Museums and Creative Aging

By Bill Tramposch, Aroha Senior Fellow for Museums and Creative Aging, American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums, with the generous support of Aroha Philanthropies, has launched an initiative that will be of great interest to AASLH members: Museums and Creative Aging. It is a two-year effort seen to be but an initial foray into the combining of research in the "creative aging" field with the huge potential that research has to inform our work in museums and historical associations throughout the country and abroad.

What is Creative Aging?

The term has a number of definitions and, from this author’s perspective, is not quite the best descriptor at that. Creativity can occur at any age, and creative aging examines ways in which to make the very best imaginative use of our older adult years.

One-third of Americans are over 50 years of age, and with every passing day more than 10,000 of us turn 65, with the fast growing demographic being women over 80.  An increasing number of medical professionals believe that many children born today will live to see their 100th birthdays and beyond. Not only is it wise for us to take full advantage of these years, but science is discovering more daily about the propitious health implications of engaging our minds and imaginations in ways that build identity, community, and self-worth. Doctors, in the UK especially, are now prescribing museum visits to patients who suffer from depression and a sense of alienation.

Aroha Philanthropies, a Minnesota-based charity, has joined with the American Alliance of Museums in an effort to build enthusiasm for the potential of creative aging partnerships in our field which includes, of course, museums, arboreta, historical societies, aquaria, etc.  For the next two years it is my pleasure to be what AAM calls the Aroha Senior Fellow for Museums and Creative Aging, and the task ahead will be fourfold:

  • To raise awareness about the pervasive and negative effects of ageism;
  • To instigate change by using the AAM’s extensive network and diverse platforms to disseminate information and tools museums need to implement age-inclusive practices in all areas of operations, including programming, marketing, and hiring;
  • To promote evaluation and research that contributes to our growing body of knowledge on creative aging, and encouraging application of the latest research findings on the benefits of museum participation;
  • And to foster partnerships between museums and organizations devoted to creative aging.

A two-year period is not an extensive period of time, but with collaboration and enthusiasm for the potentials, a good deal can be done.  We urge members of AASLH to acknowledge and embrace the impact that a seismic demographic shift can have upon our work. Taking time to become acquainted with the current literature in this still-nascent field of creative aging will prove both stimulating and profitable in many ways. From my brief experience as fellow, I am continually impressed with how each author’s research and writing in creative aging serves as an open invitation for museums and historical societies, etc, to become involved.

With this in mind, we are focused on five outputs between now and May 2021:

  • Weekly blogs: The AAM website carries a weekly blog on topics related to creative aging and actively seeks guest bloggers. So, if you have thoughts or programs you wish to highlight, please be in touch with me at [email protected]. These blogs can be found under the masthead Ad Summa (onward/upward);
  • Museum magazine: The October 2020 issue of the Alliance’s bi-monthly magazine will be devoted completely to the topic of museums and creative aging, with articles from leading authorities in the field;
  • Annual meetings: The San Francisco AAM Annual Meeting (May 2020), and the Chicago AAM Annual Meeting (May 2021) will include sessions on creative aging. These sessions will be lead by leaders in the creative aging field, coupled with museum leaders who have experiences to share with colleagues;
  • National convening: From November 4-6, 2020, the High Museum in Atlanta will be host to a national convening on creative aging. Keynote speakers and follow-up sessions will explore ageism, the demographic context, the positive health benefits of creative aging programs, funding, and evaluation to name a few. We will also have ample opportunity to see exemplary creative aging programs in action. Watch our weekly blog for more information on this convening.
  • Capstone report: All key aspects of the two-year Aroha/AAM initiative will be summarized in a capstone report which we intend to have completed by the Chicago AAM Annual Meeting. This report will be available online through AAM.

Please take some time to explore the communiques coming from AAM; look into the excellent work of Aroha Philanthropies as they pursue excellence in creative aging programs through a bevy of cohort museums; and chime in if you yourself have ideas and perspectives on this exciting topic. You will find it quite addictive a topic, and I believe you will agree with me that the research from this field is so perfectly oriented towards our work.  We live in the midst of an "age of aging," and the opportunities to enhance programs for older adult audiences is huge!


Online Course: Museum Education and Outreach

Museum Education and Outreach

An AASLH Small Museum Pro! Online Course

Course Description

At their heart, regardless of type or size, museums are engaging, dynamic places of education. This AASLH online course, Museum Education and Outreach, is about how we can facilitate visitors’ meaningful and memorable experiences in the informal environments of museums.

This course requires regular check-ins, sharing and commenting on peer work, and participation in scheduled live chats. Participants will help shape the flow of the course in addition to providing resources and insights on each other’s work. Assignments are made weekly to allow for regular feedback and dialogue. While work can be done at your own pace, meeting deadlines is encouraged to maximize the experience. Throughout the course you will develop a toolkit of strategies, policies, and documents ready for immediate implementation.

Participant Outcomes

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • describe the characteristics and learning needs of various museum audiences;
  • summarize what we know about learning in museums;
  • assess the strengths and weaknesses of interpretive techniques and program approaches;
  • utilize a system for planning, operating, and evaluating museum educational programs;
  • access resources to assist you in future development of effective learning experiences

Sample Curriculum

  • Week 1: Defining the Museum / Museums and Memory
  • Week 2: Interpretation Strengths, Weaknesses, and Best Practices
  • Week 3: Audiences and Identifying Your Key Ones
  • Week 4: Education Program Planning, Management, and Evaluation
  • Week 5: Organizing of Museum Education and Outreach
  • Week 6: Community Partners and Funding
  • Week 7: Leading Staff and Volunteers
  • Week 8: Action Plan for Future Programming at your Museum

Texts Used

Required:

Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann and Tim Grove. The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques (2nd ed). The text is NOT INCLUDED with your registration. You must order the book separately from the book seller of your choice.

Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 weeks

PARTICIPATION STYLE: Bi-weekly (every-other-week) real-time online chats; weekly assignments; final course assignment

MATERIALS: One required text (see below)

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

COURSE DATES: September 9 - November 1, 2019

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: July 1 - September 5, 2019; 30 Participant limit

REGISTER HERE

 

Who Should Take This Course

This course is a beginning level course designed for professional staff and volunteers of historical organizations and libraries with historical collections who have little to no experience with developing education programs and goals for museums. Successful participants should be ready to look past traditional methods and challenge themselves to work around site-specific hurdles.

Instructor

Tanya Brock is one who tends to take leaps and jumps rather than the straight path. Her career has spanned museum education, visitor services, exhibit planning, historical research, educational program consultant, and community partner liaison. Whether teaching food preservation classes or designing and running the nation’s first functioning historical brewery or running a brewpub co-op, her passion has always been centered on food—its power to unite and act as a storyteller for communities.

Her education is a patchwork of cultural anthropology, food preservation, heritage interpretation, and museum administration. This background has built a foundation of various perspectives from which she draws from when designing programs. Over a 20-year period she has worked with audiences of all sizes, ages, and backgrounds yet believes at the end of the day, it is the guest who drives the conversation and the experience.


Putting Visitor Research Data to Work at the Colony of Avalon

colony-of-avalon-4

The Colony of Avalon is widely recognized as the best preserved early English colonial site in North America. Located in the rural community of Ferryland, Newfoundland, the colony was established in 1621 by Sir George Calvert (the First Lord Baltimore) as a place where Protestants AND Catholics could live and worship in peace.

Today, the Colony is our region’sanchor heritage attraction and boasts a visitor centre, giftshop, re-created 17th century kitchen and gardens, and an on-going professional archaeology program that just completed its 25th season!

With every scrape of an archaeologist’s trowel, stirring of a pot, or planting of a seed, we’re coming a little bit closer to understanding the history of the Colony and the lives of the people who lived here. And we encourage our visitors, both on-site and on-line, to join us in this process through programming like Archaeologist for a Day and the Great Colonial Cook-Off.

We have amazing staff, a dedicated board of directors, and super supporters. Together, we’ve achieved some great things but, like every community-run organization, we also have real challenges. We know there are things we could and should be doing better, but which should we prioritize and how do we convince funders and donors to lend their support?

colony-of-avalon-5

In 2015, the Colony took part in AASLH’s Visitors Count! program to better understand how visitors experience and perceive our site. It's been just six months since we received our Visitors Count! survey report. Here's the low down on what's happened since then.

First, our survey results clearly showed that the biggest factor in determining visitor satisfaction at our site is whether visitors have a personal interaction with our archaeology field crew. Unfortunately, due to budget limitations, our field crew is only on-site until mid-August, which is the peak of our visitor season.

colony-of-avalon-1

This summer, armed with our survey results that clearly demonstrate the benefit of having archaeologists on site, the Colony was able to secure a donation from a private donor which covered the entire cost of extending our archaeology season until our closing date (September 26).

Next, our survey results also showed that the Colony ranked lower than average on dependability of information received. This was a real surprise (and a real concern since research is a core part of our mandate and our branding is "Real history in real time").

So we did a bit of extra probing of our visitors and discovered that this result was at least partially due to the costuming of our interpreters in our recreated 17th century kitchen.

When we initially established the kitchen in 1999, we researched and commissioned historically accurate period clothing. However, as the years progressed and that clothing wore out, it was replaced by not so authentic items made by staff and local volunteers. While this clothing filled a need (and fit the budget) its obvious inaccuracies led visitors to instinctively perceive our interpreters as being less informed and having less historical authority. Simply put, they judged a book by its cover.

Armed with this information, we applied for and recently received grant funding to research and produce new, historically accurate clothing for our kitchen interpreters.

colony-of-avalon-6

Visitors Count! has made a real difference in our organization … and we’re just getting started!


Community Members as Co-Creators at the Detroit Institute of Arts

It’s really exciting to have this opportunity to share how the Detroit Institute of Arts is re-thinking its interpretive practice, specifically in terms of community engagement. In “The Spirit of Rebirth,” we believe this new model will make us more relevant to our visitors, new and returning. And we also anticipate that it will contribute to important conversations around best practices that are happening in the field right now—and that will certainly be taking place at the Annual Meeting in Detroit this September.

 

Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by Andrew Jameson.
Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by Andrew Jameson.

Over the last decade or so, the DIA has honed its visitor-centered interpretive practice: permanent collection spaces and special exhibitions are developed collaboratively by cross-departmental teams. At the core of these teams, curators and interpreters work as partners. Furthermore, audience research plays an essential role in how we work. We consistently test concepts and interpretation throughout the process with target audiences, letting their reactions inform how we refine certain ideas and experiences. Bringing diverse voices into the process has helped transform the DIA into "America’s most visitor friendly art museum," according to The Wall Street Journal.

However, while this approach purposefully listens to outside voices, it limits the scope of their involvement—in other words, we ask visitors to react to our work, but we haven’t included them more comprehensively in the planning process. This is changing. As part of a major project to reinstall our Asian collection, visitors are serving as “community consultants,” helping the project team brainstorm and shape early concepts for the galleries.

 

Four community consultants examine an interpretive element at the DIA
Four community consultants examine an interpretive element at the DIA

As the interpretive planner on this project, I’ve felt simultaneously stimulated, humbled, and challenged by the community consultants I’ve had the opportunity to work with thus far in the process. As short-term team members, they attend 1-2 weekly meetings at the DIA for 10 to 16 weeks, depending on which area(s) of the collection they are working. These are not voluntary positions—community consultants receive a stipend for their hard work.

During the sessions, we learn about and discuss objects from the checklist, hear from outside content experts, and brainstorm potential themes for the gallery. Everyone has an equal voice at the table. Again, the big shift is that now we are working alongside members of our community to co-create concepts as well as a shared vision for the galleries instead of solely asking visitors to react to work we’ve already done.

 

Playing with object groupings.
Playing with object groupings.

While our community consultants are likely to visit museums in their leisure time, they are not required to have any training in art or art history to participate. Rather, for this position, we value a variety of experiences, professional and personal. Making space for this diversity of perspectives to inform the stories we tell in the galleries is an essential step in helping all DIA visitors make personal connections with the art.

For this particular project, we selected individuals who are actively involved in one or more Asian communities in the area. As ambassadors, the community consultants will go on to promote the new Asian galleries among their personal networks. Asian visitors comprise just 5% of the DIA’s annual attendance of ~650,000, but the Asian population in the Metro Detroit area is growing and we aim to attract more Asian visitors to the museum through this reinstallation project. Our community consultants will play a critical role in this effort.

 

Visitor outcome brainstorm.
Visitor outcome brainstorm.

To date, we’ve piloted this new approach with four community consultants, who worked for 10 weeks early this spring on developing concepts for our Japan gallery. In August, we will be joined by a new group of seven community consultants, who will help us with concept development for the rest of our collection, which includes art from China, Korea, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. As you can tell from the photos, the experience has been highly rewarding, and we are excited for this work to culminate in 2018 when the Asian galleries reopen to the public.

The DIA is also excited to be stop on the Muse Cruise during the Annual Meeting! While the Asian galleries will still be a long way from completion, you will be able to visit our famous Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera as well as explore our new Ancient Middle East gallery, which opened in 2015. Enjoy!

 

DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons celebrates with the community consultants for the Japan gallery
DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons celebrates with the community consultants for the Japan gallery

______

For more information on the Muse Cruise and other events scheduled for the AASLH/MMA 2016 Annual Meeting, see the Annual Meeting homepage and the Preliminary Program


Should We Create the Same Digital Archives for Different Audiences?

RL front screen

As a part-time history Ph.D. student embarking on my dissertation (while working full-time at Ford’s Theatre—indeed, I don’t sleep much), few things thrill me more than searching for digitized primary sources.

I tend to use loose search terms, as I know that many digitized collections have minimal metadata, and then sort through the results manually to find what I need.

Wearing either my academic or my museum professional hat, I’m the not-oft-stated but oft-implied audience for many collections databases. My many, many, many years of training (I’m in something like 23rd grade) have prepared me to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But what of users who haven’t gone through years of professional history and museum training, like K-12 teachers? Should we expect them to use an online archive in the same way?

Just as we wouldn’t run the same type of public program for academics as we would for K–12 teachers (I hope), we shouldn’t expect everyone else to use the same type of online platforms we create for use by academics and fellow museum professionals.

This was perhaps the biggest lesson that became clear to us at Ford’s Theatre as we planned our Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection, which launched in March 2015. After we identified four (in hindsight, overly broad) target audiences during the course of a planning meeting (teachers, students, enthusiasts and scholars), we began an audience evaluation process led by Conny Graft.

 

Both during the planning process and after launch, Ford’s Theatre conducted videoconference focus groups with teachers, enthusiasts and recent museum visitors.
Both during the planning process and after launch, Ford’s Theatre conducted videoconference focus groups with teachers, enthusiasts and recent museum visitors.

We conducted focus groups with teachers and enthusiasts, and surveys of teachers, enthusiasts and scholars.

Ultimately, we identified teachers and students as our most important long-term audiences. We realized that much of the interest from enthusiasts would coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, but teachers and students would have interest in this resource year in and year out.

Do busy teachers have the same interest that researchers like me do in sorting through reams of lightly-interpreted primary sources to find the right ones for their classes?

As they told us, and as research efforts by the Minnesota Historical Society have shown as well, not so much.

Rather, teachers understandably don’t have time to sift, and also indicated that they prefer for a subject expert to give recommendations.

So pursuant to this, we made sure that the website includes several features that add interpretation and context—something that took a lot of extra work, but that we would argue is worth the effort.

There is an interpretive section of the website, with a timeline (not always the best interpretive method, but in this case, a way to show events and related primary sources in time), a map that displays a selection of primary sources, and short biographies of featured people.

We have a set of thematic “curated collections” to give another entry point.

We worked with a group of teachers to create teaching modules—the teachers told us that they trusted lesson plans created by their fellow professionals, and not as much by museum staff.

We’ve also used a tagging system, which has sometimes broken down in spite of efforts to maintain a controlled vocabulary. We’re working with our web developer on replacing a free tagging system with check boxes.

We’ve also started working with classrooms on transcriptions, since many of the items in Remembering Lincoln are as yet un-transcribed.

We’ve also encouraged—not always successfully—our contributing institutions to add rich descriptions to their items. In a focus group after launch, teachers indicated a strong preference for items with more interpretation.

 

Diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam, a teenager living in Boston who drew the look on her face when her father told her of Lincoln’s assassination. As an adult, Putnam was a portrait painter. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam, a teenager living in Boston who drew the look on her face when her father told her of Lincoln’s assassination. As an adult, Putnam was a portrait painter. Massachusetts Historical Society.

In the future, we’ll likely be going back to add richer metadata.

An important point about adding richer metadata: It takes a lot of time and counters the notion of “more product, less process” that is prevalent in archival work today. Instead of what others have told me is an average of 20-30 minutes per item, Jessica Ellison at the Minnesota Historical Society, who is preparing sets of richly-described primary sources for teachers, tells me she spends one to two hours per item, depending on how much research she needs to do.

But as Mike Lesperance, a principal at exhibition development firm The Design Minds (disclosure: where I formerly worked), put it to me in a recent conversation, interpreting collections items in this way is making them intellectually accessible to broader audiences. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as educators?

In addition to curated sets of primary sources and rich metadata, our research and that of others also indicate that teachers are looking for variety.

This is one of the unresolved questions that we still have with Remembering Lincoln. In our collecting—not nearly finished (so if your institution has materials, please let me know!)—we have aimed, not always successfully, for geographic and ethnic diversity. Indeed, in the extensive audience research and interpretation process, building the collection was one of the aspects that suffered, although we have 693 items as of May 31.

Still, how do we reconcile the desire for a larger variety of items with the desire for a more curated focus? We haven’t quite cracked that nut. Any suggestions from others in the field are appreciated!

David McKenzie is Associate Director for Digital Resources in the Education Department at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater WashingtonThe Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo. Follow him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.


Five Opportunities to Take a House Tour from “Meh” to Great

Since the AASLH offices were closed for Memorial Day, I decided to take my son on an outing–just the two of us. Nick is ten years old and just finished the fourth grade where Tennessee students get their first taste of American history. He is also a history buff, like his mom. He likes all kinds of history and visiting the Stones River National Battlefield in our town is one of his favorite things to do.

 

Bethany and her son at Stones River National Battlefield.
Bethany and her son at Stones River National Battlefield.

 

For this adventure, I decided to take him to a different historic site in the Nashville region where I have received great tours in the past. This site will go unnamed, but it is a historic house museum that was the epicenter of a major Civil War battle. I thought it would be a great way to kill a few hours and spend some one-on-one time with my youngest child and fellow history geek.

After the tour, all I could think about were the opportunities the site missed to move our visitor experience from just okay to great. My background prior to AASLH is that of an historic house director, and I work closely with our Historic House Affinity Community and our historic house workshops, so I know I am not the typical visitor at this historic site; however, the whole experience ended up leaving me frustrated.

As I was driving us home from the site, missed opportunities kept going through my head that would take this historic site tour from “meh” to great. I give you these five suggestions in hopes that you will think about how they apply to the tours at your site.

 

1. Listen to your visitors. This historic site has a sister site in the same city. They are operated under the same umbrella organization. The tour guide started by asking how many people have been to the other site. Only two out of the twenty-four on tour raised their hand. He went on to say that they tell a lot of facts about the battle at the other historic site, so he doesn’t go into that in depth on his tour leaving his visitors with a huge knowledge gap. He asked an important question, but did not change his approach to interpretation based on the information gleaned from his guests. Site interpreters must be flexible enough in their approach to meet visitors where they are in order to make them feel comfortable and for them to understand the history we want to share with them.

 

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2. Connect to something relevant to current events. To me, the cool thing about history is how it is always relevant to something going on today. My son and I visited the site that day because it was Memorial Day. The main story of that site includes numerous stories of men who gave their life on the battlefield surrounding that house. Memorial Day was never mentioned on the tour. I kept thinking as the tour guide talked about the great sacrifices of the battle, how he was missing a great opportunity to connect the history of the site to Memorial Day and its true meaning (not barbecues, but a time to reflect on the sacrifice of men and women in uniform).

3. Connect your tour to the place. This is a problem I encounter at numerous historic sites. What makes historic homes and sites powerful is the ability to connect place to history. So many historic sites give what Max van Balgooy, faculty for the AASLH’s Rethinking the Historic House Museum and Historic House Issues and Operations workshops, calls a “parking lot tour.” Tour guides recite facts and figures that could just as easily been told to us in the parking lot or visitors center. They fail to make the connection between the facts of history and the power of place. The tour my son and I took was at one of the most powerful historic places I have ever been. It was the centerpiece of an intense battle that raged all around the house while the family and neighbors huddled in the basement until it was over. I had one of my favorite tours of all time at this same site with a different tour guide who brilliantly connected the history of the house and battle to the place where I stood. It was a powerful experience that stuck with me for twenty years. The tour my son and I experienced too often drifted into facts and figures that could have been delivered in a classroom or at the library. During the battle, twenty-four family members and neighbors huddled in one room in the basement of the house. We had twenty-four people on our tour (I counted). It would have been such a powerful moment to crowd us all into that room and ask us to imagine the civilian experience during the battle. Instead, we were told we could go in there on our own if we wanted to.

 

Tour at Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE
AASLH workshop attendees on a great tour at Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE

 

4. Create a dialogue with visitors. The best historic house experiences result in a dialogue between interpreter and visitor. Adults (and especially children) do not like to be lectured at. They want to have chances to contribute to the conversation. Make sure your tours include opportunities for visitors to reflect aloud on their experiences, if that is something they are comfortable doing. Most historic site visits are taken as part of a social outing with groups. I felt I had to whisper or sneak time to talk to my son about what the interpreter had told us because there was no real time for guests to talk with one another because the guide did not leave breaks in his tour. A good social experience also improves visitor’s experience at your site.

5. Leave guests with a Call to Action. Guided tours offer a unique opportunity for us to end our tour with a call to action. The site I visited had numerous signs advertising a fund-raising campaign to restore the extremely significant outbuildings on the property. The tour guide also mentioned how the historic site saved adjacent land from being developed into condos by taking out a loan to purchase the property. These are great things to include, but I wish the guide had taken it a step further to tell us how we could be a part of these efforts to save the battlefield. I encourage you to think how you can incorporate calls to action into your tours.

After our tour, I took my son to lunch. I was frustrated with the tour after seeing all of the missed opportunities to recreate that great experience I had many years ago. I asked my son what he thought of the tour. He said, “It was good, Mom. I loved hearing about all the cool history.” So, despite all my criticisms, my 10-year old history lover left with a connection to the past. I hope the casual visitor who stumbled onto that tour because it was Memorial Day or because a friend dragged them there left with the same feelings. I suspect, however, they just felt “Meh” about the experience. I hope you will learn from this site and think about ways you can avoid missed opportunities and move your visitor experience from okay to great.

Bethany L. Hawkins is the Chief of Operations at AASLH. She can be reached at [email protected].