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.

Education Crash Course at Locust Grove Workshop

Last month, I attended my first AASLH workshop, "Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming and Exhibits at History Institutions." My attendance was made possible by receiving AASLH’s diversity workshop scholarship. The two-day workshop was held at historic Locust Grove, in my city of Louisville, Kentucky.  The instructors, Alexandra Rasic of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum and Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum, facilitated a crash course on education, public planning, and exhibits, with a focus on visitors at different kinds of history institutions. Participants discussed the issues and challenges we face in providing relevant and meaningful programs for a variety of audiences, and worked through concepts presented in the book The Museum Educator's Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques.

I chose this workshop for professional and institutional development. I am the head archivist for the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, an organization with a rich history. The sisters arrived in Louisville in 1858, and owned and staffed schools (preschool to college) until 1990 in Kentucky and other states. The Ursuline Sisters of Louisville’s archive is connected to the Sacred Heart Schools (pre-kindergarten to high school), and is located on the campus. The sisters sponsor Sacred Heart Schools at Ursuline Campus. I attended the workshop hoping to learn how to better advance the mission of the archive (interpreting the history of the Ursuline Sisters) and how to attract a more diverse population to our archive. Additionally, I hoped to learn how to strengthen our relationships with our current visitor populations (students, teachers, alumni, and researchers).

I learned a lot in two full days!  It was a very diverse group, which included people from various sized institutions and states, including Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Washington D.C.  For both days, we combined large group discussions with focused small group activities. The small group activities focused on real life situations that were important to my site, such as training volunteers, brainstorming interactive exhibits, and connecting to audiences and finding relevancy at our sites.

We covered various topics the first day, including defining museum education, discussing general topics in museum education, and planning at our sites. We defined museum education according to the three professional standards of accessibility, accountability, and advocacy.  The group began to dive into museum education and discuss general issues we thought were important to succeed, such as our expectations for visitors, relevancy, and active learning. Next, we discussed planning, including getting to know visitors, creating more opportunities for conversation, reaching different audiences, and understanding barriers to visitation. Lastly, we talked about the role of volunteers at our sites including management, recruitment, and training.  At the end of the day, we went on a tour of Locust Grove, hosted by two staff members who also participated in the workshop, so we could see how the principles of museum education were carried out at this eighteenth-century farm site and National Historic Landmark.

The second day focused on learning about the educational uses of interactives. We started by defining good interactives (those having one clear learning objective), then we discussed different museum apps and examined the importance of using social media at our sites. My favorite small group activity of the day was brainstorming interactive exhibitions for a particular audience. It was exciting to plan an exhibit with team members from such different sites, and also interesting to hear how other groups planned their exhibits with the goal of designing for diverse audiences. We also brainstormed about rethinking public tours, including ideas like taking down the ropes at historic sites and highlighting children during the tour.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at this workshop, and would highly recommend attending a workshop in the future if you can. The experience helped me to grow professionally, and is helping me to improve my site by being a better leader and utilizing the ideas and methods from the workshop to further the mission of my archive. I am honored to have attended the workshop, and to be a part of the AASLH community.

Relevancy, Fun, Engagement: Focusing on Visitors at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House

Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky

What do Locust Grove in Louisville, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati have in common? One, they all had connections to cholera. But more importantly, they all possess a strong desire to take a fascinating historical tidbit and demonstrate its relevancy today.

Relevancy persisted as one of the major themes of the mid-March AASLH Workshop, Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming and Exhibits at History Institutions, which I was able to attend thanks to a New Professional scholarship. As I look back on my notes, I see “relevancy – fun – engagement.” Those ideas permeated our discussions, our thoughts, and our interactions. While the room was filled with an eager group of museum educators representing diverse historic and archival sites, the larger questions loomed. “So what?” and “Why should we care?”

These questions are especially pertinent to our museum today. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House, an Ohio History Connection site, is on the cusp of a major renovation and expansion project. Harriet learned about abolitionism and gained the experiences she needed to write the pivotal anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while living in Cincinnati. Our museum now has the opportunity to create modern exhibits and innovative ways of storytelling which embody the spirit of social justice and writing to make a difference.

I have started to think about how to translate the relevancy issues permeating throughout the workshop to our historic site. Two big takeaways were evident. First, we have to be cognizant of different learning styles and design exhibit and presentation areas to actively engage visitors in the discovery process. Second, in the planning process, we need to invite many people with a variety of perspectives to assist in the construction of these visitor experiences. This second point is particularly difficult because we currently have very limited staff. However, we do need to consciously engage others in the process to make sure that those “why should we care” questions are asked. During the workshop, this teamwork approach was exemplified when my group brainstormed an exhibition about commercial aviation.

When considering my own house museum, I have started to generate ideas for active learner engagement. Two future “exhibit spaces” will cover the topics of Catharine Beecher and the Green Book.  Harriet’s oldest sister, Catharine – a resident of the Beecher House in the 1830s and 1840s – wrote books on domestic economy. Therefore, instead of simply discussing her ideas regarding household management, we need to demonstrate those ideas, let people try them out, compare those actions for cooking, cleaning, and household arrangement with standard practices of today. In this manner, visitors will be encouraged to make connections with their own lives and evaluations of nineteenth-century housekeeping. Interactive and immersive experiences, based on documentation from A Treatise on Domestic Economy, could allow participants to think critically and evaluate changes in housework between the nineteenth century and now.

Likewise, instead of just stating that the house was an African-American boarding house and tavern in the 1930s that was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, we need to provide a visceral experience of what it meant to worry about what accommodations were available to African Americans during this time. We can use an inquiry method to get people to come up with their own possible solutions to combat segregation in the past, then have them extend that problem-solving mentality to come up with ways to combat problems in society today. One learning component could include a simple exercise that asks participants to list a word they associate with “Green Book” before the program experience and then again after the encounter.

Baby Charley Stowe’s cholera-induced death in 1849 had concrete effects on Harriet. Her own grief fueled her empathy towards slave mothers who frequently lost their children through slave auctions. Maternal loss encompasses one of the plot lines of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and permeates the novel. We can make numerous connections between the dreaded nineteenth-century disease, common throughout the Ohio River Valley, and similar societal health and welfare issues present today. Placement of settlements, race and equity, technology and innovation, family and public health, loss of infrastructure, epidemics – the list is endless. Have you taken for granted that drink of water you had today? Are you really healthier for having washed your hands? Why should we care? Stay tuned.


Check out our full calendar of upcoming workshops, webinars, and online courses here.

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.


Renew and Refresh

Sometimes two days away from your normal routine can help generate fresh ideas and reinvigorate the mind. If those two days Museum Educators Manualare spent with history professionals from a variety of organizations, all gathered for the same reason, the result can lead to great new contacts and a network of colleagues struggling with the same issues. They might help you look at challenges in a whole new way. They might even help you solve a problem or create a brilliant new program. The upcoming workshop Focusing on Visitors: Public Programming and Exhibits at History Institutions, taking place April 3 and 4 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a great opportunity to get away and take a look at some of the many strategies for reaching different audiences.

Five seasoned museum educators, including me, wrote a book several years ago titled The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques. Our goal was to produce a practical reference that could serve staff at many types of institutions. We had accumulated many tips over the years and wanted to share them with the field. I wrote a chapter about the role of educators on exhibition teams. How can educators contribute to making exhibitions more active experiences that will engage a greater number of visitors and address their various learning styles? I have seen first-hand that cultivating a mindset that places emphasis on visitors needs and learning styles can result in a more powerful and accessible product.

Creating an active learning environment, whether an exhibition, program or tour, takes effort. It requires the recognition that visitors learn in many different ways and that their motivations for a visit can be very different. We will talk about various approaches to engaging multiple audiences. No matter how many visitors come through your doors each year, if you don’t give them a reason to return, they won’t. Join us in Portsmouth for an exciting exchange of ideas.

Tim Grove is Chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington,D.C. and co-author of The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques. He serves as co-faculty of this workshop with Alexandra Rasic. See more at

Read a blog post Tim wrote about a visit to Portsmouth.