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

This workshop provides a broad overview of public programming and exhibits with a focus on active learning. Seasoned educators will direct conversations about museum education and the role of museum educators.

Participants will leave the workshop with information and materials they can take back to their organizations to adapt and apply.Through interactive activities and case studies, participants will gain knowledge and tools for a wide range of relevant topics, including 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 build programs.

The themes of this workshop are based on the publication The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques, coauthored by one of the workshop instructors.



Date: March 30-31, 2017

Location: Atlanta History Center | Atlanta, Georgia

Cost: $280 AASLH Members/$405 Nonmembers
*Get $40 off registration if you book by February 23, 2017!*


Who Should Attend:
This workshop is ideally suited for staff (first-time museum educators, tour guides, volunteer managers, and mid-career professionals), museum studies students, or dedicated volunteers working in all types of museums who are given the responsibility of education and public programming.

Click here for a sample agenda for this workshop.

tim-grove-2-final-smaller-fileTim Grove is the Chief of Education for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and co-author of The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful TechniquesThe 2nd Edition of the book is coming out this spring.

Alexandra Rasic is the Director of Public Programs for the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, CA.


History in Motion: What We Can Learn from U-Haul's Love for Local History

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word summer? Vacation? BBQs? The beach? How about moving? Every summer U-Haul estimates that 17-20 million people in North America move. I learned that after visiting their website a couple of weeks ago while sitting in summer traffic on Interstate 5 (thanks for driving, Phyllis!). The reason I visited their website was because of a graphic I saw on one of their trucks (see image below) . It featured a woman in period dress holding a lantern in front of an old house with a map serving as the background. Underneath her was the following: “Abolishing slavery decades earlier than the U.S., Canada became a haven for enslaved people seeking freedom. How did ‘conductors’ assist thousands? LEARN MORE ABOUT PATHS TO LIBERTY AT…”



Every time I see a *shout out* to history someplace I don’t expect to find it, I take notice, and this was no exception. I had seen U-Haul trucks with regional images before, but not any that went into detail about history. I was curious to know more. Whose idea was this? I guessed that a higher up at U-Haul had to love history, and I was right. Enter Shannon Myers, a member of U-Haul’s marketing team and coordinator of their SuperGraphic program.  She explained that CEO Joe Shoen is indeed a history buff, and a lover of geography, too.

The SuperGraphic program began in 1988 with the simple goal of giving back to the communities U-Haul serves throughout North America. Originally, trucks and trailers featured iconic monuments like the Statue of Liberty, but the program evolved over time, moving away from the iconic and more towards lesser known facts and stories. These are what U-Haul calls their Modern SuperGraphics. “Educating people about little known facts can have a great impact,” explains Myers, a history lover herself. When it comes to criteria for selecting what is worthy of a SuperGraphic (and there is a vetting process, which is why Big Foot has yet to make the cut even though he has been suggested numerous times!), the following points come into play:



Topics are usually related to regional curiosity, history, science, or mystery. (Humongous Fungus in Michigan? Who knew?) Myers does preliminary research on a subject, consults with experts, and makes proposals to a team of people from U-Haul’s marketing and art departments. Ultimately their CEO signs off on each selection.

Little or lesser-known subjects with a lot of meat on the bone are most desirable. The company wants to encourage people to explore and discover new things about their communities. While the Underground Railroad is a topic that many people know something about, there are elements of the subject that are lesser known by many, such as the fact that after 1850, most slaves looking for freedom had to travel all the way to Canada for their safety. “There are misconceptions about the Underground Railroad, and the truck is just one way to add to the depth of the story,” explains Myers. Additionally, Shoen sees the trucks as a way to support parents in introducing new topics to their children. Each Modern SuperGraphic features web content that digs deeper into the subject. (Layering of information… Does that sound familiar?)



Ideally, geography should factor into the story. They are in the business of moving, after all (and don’t forget about the passions of the CEO!). Every topic explored relates to a place the company serves. They like to see that represented visually.

There is no profit to be made by U-Haul for featuring a particular story, but they are pleased if a truck brings a historic site or place of interest more traffic and revenue. (See the publicity related to the Underground Railroad truck as an example.)

So what’s the takeaway for us? Stories associated with the site or museum where you work may not get the attention of U-Haul, but how about another business in your community? A car dealership or mechanic? A doctor’s office? Think about places where people have to spend a lot of time. Could we provide modest posters, exhibits, or write-ups that tie into why someone is visiting a particular establishment? And let’s not forget about places where people may be “forced” to spend time—like a jury room, a juvenile detention facility, or even a local jail. Really, I’m not kidding here.

This type of outreach may not align with every institution’s mission, but I think these places are under-tapped and underappreciated. Where I work, for example, we have a participatory program called Curious Cases where we explore crime and justice in early Los Angeles, making surprising connections to today’s headlines. We’ve talked about how we can take some of the content from certain programs and turn it into an offsite program for these audiences.


MainGraphic (2)

Going back to Joe… all I can say is thank you. You could be making big bucks off of a long line of advertisers, but you aren’t. In this regard, you are right here with those of us in the trenches, encouraging people to be curious, to care about their surroundings, to see how we are connected, and to have fun learning (even if it’s during breaks as you load and unload precious belongings!). Joe, like many of us, cares deeply about his customers, so much so that he even gave his cell phone number out on national television so that customers could call him directly with questions, comments, and concerns (he still answers these calls!). I’m definitely not advocating that anyone go out and do that, but dang, he’s the real deal!

Have you seen history pop up in unexpected places, or are you thinking about trying something new to get people excited about stories you have to share? Please let us know!


Alexandra Rasic is the Director of Public Programs at the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, CA, and chair of AASLH’s Educators and Interpreters Committee. She’s moved (only) five times—with four of the five involving U-Haul trucks. As long as she does not have to drive them up steep hills (thanks, Paul!), she’s good to go!

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.


Chime In: Museum Education in History Museums

The Educators and Interpreters Committee occasionally receives questions from the field at large that we feel should go out to a bigger pool of practitioners to answer. As a result, we've created a new occasional blog post called "Chime In." If questions resonate with you, or you have a strong opinion, we encourage you (yes, you!) to share your thoughts.

Here are a couple of questions to get us started:

I’m curious to learn more about who is shaking things up in museum ed, especially in history museums. Any new practitioners out there? Any amazing, adventurous museum ed programs/departments that you’re hearing about?

What is museum education in a history museum…public programs, school programs, teacher professional development, interpreter training, evaluation, distance learning, outreach, school field trips…. Is that the state of the art?

Committee members Christopher Grisham, from the Tennessee State Museum, and Megan Wood, from the Ohio History Connection chimed in.

Megan: Here are some things in the field I admire:

- I love the "You are theres" at the Indiana Historical Society- great stuff 
- I honestly really dig the museum theater that the Fraizer in Louisville, KY, is doing. I was impressed with what they put out with their staff size.
Crystal Bridges (while not history) seems to be doing pretty amazing things. They've got a distance learning program (and obviously resources), but I've been impressed with all the staff I've met there.
- I would be remiss not to mention Lincoln's Cottage's programs. They're pretty awesome and impactful.
- I also think the Missouri History Museum is doing a great job of connecting to their community.
You Are There
Historic photographs come to life as part of the Indiana Historical Society's "You Are There" experience.


Christopher: We are currently in the early stages of building a new museum that will require us to restructure and expand our staff. As of now, we have a education/public programs department that works with school groups on various programs. We have been discussing what we envision our new staff to look like. Personally I want an education department that continues very much like we do now with a separate public programs (Community Engagement) staff that handles weekly events for families and adults. I would also love to have one or two staff members that would be mobile and constantly out at various schools and groups.
Now let's hear from you out there! Toot your own horn, send a shout out to an organization or individual who you think is doing something special—and share your thoughts on what constitutes museum education in a history museum right here, or via email to members of Educators & Interpreters committee. Thank you!

The Endangered "Lecture Series"

When it was founded in 1922, the Detroit Historical Society had two missions: first, to help the Detroit Public Library collect historical documents for preservation, and second, to host a regular lecture series on Detroit history topics.

Third Annual Ignition Meeting, Champion Spark Plug Company, Sept. 3-5, 1947. From the Detroit Historical Society Collection
Third Annual Ignition Meeting, Champion Spark Plug Company, Sept. 3-5, 1947, Detroit, MI. From the Detroit Historical Society Collection

Nearly 100 years later, we now run our own museum and collect our own historical documents, but the lecture series remains virtually unchanged. Each month we invite a historian or author to share his or her scholarship as an evening lecture to a crowd of . . . twelve. On nights that we feature a pop culture topic –historic department stores, the history of Vernors’ Ginger Ale – we have been known to get a whopping 30 people in our 120 seat auditorium.

Until yesterday, we hadn’t really given it much thought. I mean, lecture series are just what you DO as a museum, right? They’re like PB & J, cookies and milk. They are such a part of our collective institutional history that, if you’re like us, we’ve never stopped to question why we do it.

We are in the process of planning our public programs for the next fiscal year, which for us starts on July 1. Like many (all?) of you, we find ourselves with more opportunities (and expectations) for programs than our staff of three realistically can handle. As a manager, I find myself saying “We need to do a cost/benefit analysis on our programs!” and “We need to find ways to free up capacity for new projects!” But as an educator, I feel a bit like a kid who has been told that I can only get a new toy if I give up an old one. In essence, in order to make room in our toy box, we have to make some choices.

We haven’t decided if we will end the lecture series yet, but here are a few factors we are taking into account:

  • The lecture series helps keep us connected to the scholars who are researching and documenting our region’s history.
  • The lectures provide a great value to a small group of dedicated members.
  • We rarely break even on the lecture series, making it necessary to reallocate funds from other programs to cover the costs. And this does not take into account staff time, utilities and other indirect costs.
  • We just aren’t getting the attendance. There are a lot of reasons for this, but our member surveys suggest that the lecture series key demographic – older, Caucasian men and women –aren’t comfortable in attending nighttime events in Detroit.

What would you do? I am curious to hear all your ideas and suggestions.

I’d also be interested in taking this topic to a whole ‘nother level: Are lecture series antiquated? Are they a sustainable program for any museum? Why, why not?

Chime in below with your comments, please!