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.

Visitors and Originality in Historic House Museums: A Look at the Impact of Furnishing Plans

Library: Longfellow’s House – Washington Headquarters National Historic Site; By Daderot (Own work) [CC0]

“Is everything original?” “Is this what the dining room looked like back then?” “Did he really sleep in that bed?”

Anyone who has worked at a historic house has been asked this question in various forms, and knows how tricky it can be to accurately answer. Every interpreter has their own flair for responding: perhaps focusing on the provenance of family heirlooms, emphasizing the reason a period piece was selected as representative, or focusing on the restoration process of the structure and rooms. Although these types of interpretation may be grounded in sound research and effective communication, the collections alone have the ability to create an air of authenticity in the space for the visitor. The level of authenticity of these pieces is not always within the curator’s control, but the way the visitor reacts to the stories told within the house can be affected by how authentic they view the space to be.

The furnishings plan of each house serve as the starting point for the on the ground interpretation that takes place during a visitor’s time with staff members. Longfellow’s House – Washington Headquarters (NPS) in Cambridge, MA, for example, features a house that has not changed since the Longfellow family left in the early twentieth century, and has been preserved with the intention of public presentation since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s death. The rangers are sure to emphasize this point, telling personal stories about the family and allowing visitors to be present in the space and appreciate the fact that the things they are seeing belonged to and were used by Longfellow himself. The themes of the tour focus heavily on the preservation of the space over time, including Longfellow’s own preservation of the house’s legacy associated with Washington, and the importance of the literary and artistic traditions established during Longfellow’s time in the house. Visitors are able to have an emotional experience in the house, relating to the Longfellow family members and their experiences in the house.


Exterior of the Harrison Gray Otis House, Cambridge Street

In contrast, the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, MA, features a furnishings plan more in line with visitor’s expectations of a historic house museum. While there are some pieces from the Otis family – the settee in the Withdrawing Room, the desk chair in Otis’s office – many of the furnishings are based in scholarly research that is shared with visitors while on tour. Paintings by Henry Sargent are on display in the two front rooms to demonstrate evidence from contemporary homes that have informed decorative decisions. Reproduction wallpaper based on sample layers, paint analysis, and personal letters inform the remaining rooms in the house, and guides freely discuss these sources and the conclusions scholars have drawn from them. Guides also situate the Otis family in the socioeconomic climate of the late eighteenth century and address historic issues such as slavery, gender roles, and class throughout the tour. While visitors may still have an emotional experience with the house, they are more likely to focus more on these larger historical issues because the house lends itself to scholarly study rather than only the emotional stories of the family who lived there.

These two sites demonstrate a different emphasis, a different goal, and a completely different visitor experience. While visitors after the respective tours may feel like they related to the Longfellow family on an emotional and personal level, visitors of the Otis family probably feel like they fully understand the context in which they lived. Neither of these is a better or worse experience for the visitor, but the level of originality in the house determines their engagement. Thus, these changes in interpretation and the visitor experience are often determined by the presence, or, in most cases, absence, of authentic family furnishings.


Using Front Line Staff to Build the Best Visitor Experience

Do a quick Google search for the definition of Visitor Experience. Go ahead. You won’t find one. Primarily because we, as institutions, define what the visitor experience is for ourselves. Therein lies one of the most fundamental struggles we all face. What does our visitor experience look like? What do we want our visitors to see, think, feel, do, etc. when they come to see us? The visitor experience will also be vastly different based on the mission of the organization. For example, the 9/11 Memorial’s mission includes the words somber, remembrance, murder, terrorists, horrific, resolve, respect. By contrast, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’s mission features the words create, arts, humanities, power, learning, sciences. Visitors will have different expectations based on, in part, where they are going. But, there is much more to consider. We focus a great deal on the experience once visitors have gained admission, but what about that first and last encounter and the people providing it?


I am the Front Line Experience Unit Manager at the Ohio History Center (OHC) in Columbus, Ohio. My background includes nearly a decade of retail management and a few years in OHC’s Education and Outreach Department where I worked with schools throughout Ohio. I view my responsibility to the visitor experience like customer service on steroids. Customer service is all well and good, but what I’m encouraging our front line staff to do is something bigger…something grand. We have the privilege of greeting and serving every single visitor that walks through our doors. The vast majority of visitors we encounter are happy to be here and have justifiably high expectations that they will walk out feeling that their visit was money well spent. We have the ability to make sure every visitor starts off on the right foot in our museum, and it’s a responsibility we take seriously. But how can I, as a staff supervisor, make sure that this is happening and that the experience is genuine?


We see articles, books, and blog posts (ahem) all the time that tell us customer service is the key and great customer service is an investment in our institution’s future. While that is certainly true, how do we make that a reality? I learned a long time ago that a successful approach for one person does not guarantee success for another. I’m extremely lucky to supervise a team with very different personalities, interests, and styles. We talk…a lot. I have gotten to know the team, we call them CSRs, and have found out what they like and don’t like, what they hope to do, and as a result I’ve discovered ways to connect them to the organization.

In that discovery is the silver bullet to an excellent experience for every visitor. Engaged staff. You must be thinking that surely I’m not just now realizing that an engaged staff equals positive visitor results. Of course not. But, by finding a solid connection to the organization through professional development and projects that pique their interest, I am creating a space where they can become true blue museum experts. We are undertaking an experiment, which involves utilizing our museum space in a new and exciting way. One of the challenges of this endeavor is explaining it to the public. Who better to do this than the front line staff? We have established specific times for the front line staff to go behind the scenes of these experimental museum spaces and hang out with curators. They ask questions and touch objects, all while learning about the goals and expectations for these spaces directly from the curators. This experience (there’s that word again) has given the front line staff the knowledge they need to talk about the spaces with our visitors in a truly engaging way. There is also the side benefit that the information they are passing along is accurate.


In addition to exploring the museum they work in, we have also made an effort to find substantive projects that align with the front line staff member’s knowledge, skills, abilities and interests. We are fortunate to have a paid part-time staff, so I am able to work with department managers around the building to find projects and assign them to the appropriate CSR. We have had front line staff work on visitor studies, newspaper digitization, marketing and more! These experiences help solidify the connection to the organization and foster a desire to work here long term. It also creates buzz around working at the front desk and they are genuinely excited to talk about their workspace with visitors. If that translates into a few extra membership sales, who am I to complain? I’ll save my plan for launching membership initiatives with zero budgets for another post.

The parallel between visitor expectations and staff performance is this; meet people where they are. There are 15 million ways to create an engaged staff that will do their part to create an amazing visitor experience. This is what works for us right now. Finding yours is the hard part. Talking to the front line staff and getting to know them is a critical first step. These are people who are passionate about their work, have a desire to do well, and can generally operate with very little oversight. Like all museum staff, they need professional development and ways to work with other museum colleagues. I am currently collaborating with another museum on shared professional development opportunities that will hopefully kick start a visitor experience movement in central Ohio and beyond. The ultimate goal is to create a language for the visitor experience, something we can put into shared terms. We might even come up with a definition, though defining the visitor experience is less important than understanding what it is for your organization. More to come on that soon. In the meantime, keep the conversation going about creating an engaged frontline staff and ensuring amazing visitor experiences for all who visit us and our zany, wonderful museums.


Want to write for the member voices blog? Send your article idea or complete article to [email protected] with a title, at least two photos, and your membership number (staff of institutional members please send your institution's membership number). 

#Hashtag Revolution

With many museum visitors now carrying smart devices everywhere they go, a museum visit now typically includes on-the-spot social media activity. Earlier this year, a number of museums (sometimes begrudgingly) embraced this trend by celebrating Museum Selfie Day. On January 21st, Wells Fargo History Museums across the United States were among the multitude of museums that participated in this event.

Visitors were encouraged to use the hashtags #museumselfie and #wfmuseum with photos they took during their museum visit that day. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook were flooded with smiling faces heralding a fun museum experience. Throughout the day, we tracked our social media activity using a hashtag aggregator called Hashtagr and watched as awareness of our little museum rapidly expanded. The experience was so positive for all eleven of our museums that my fellow managers readily agreed to give the hashtag idea another run.

As the anniversary of Wells Fargo’s founding drew near, I suggested that we put a company twist on Museum Selfie Day, and celebrate our 163rd birthday with Stagecoach Selfie Day. Visitors were promised a free gift after they posted their selfie, and we sweetened the pot with some celebratory snacks at each location. Again, we used Hashtagr to track incoming selfies and marveled as guests crowded around the aggregator screen to see their photo pop up alongside photos from all over the country. The excitement of the visitors and their eagerness to participate brought a new energy into the museum, an energy we plan to maintain with interactive programs and more social media fun!


Many museums have found innovative ways to use social media as a free marketing tool, and the use of hashtags has become a large part of that. While social media marketing still has its detractors, one can’t argue with the numbers. Our event, held between noon and 2pm on Wednesday, March 18th, outperformed the previous two days’ visitor numbers in those hours by over 250%! Have you had similar positive experiences using social media? In what innovative ways does your company merge its history and its future to reach new eyes?

Patrick Wittwer is the Museum Manager at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Philadelphia.

Close Encounters with the 18–34 Demographic - The Museum turns the tables to get in touch with a key audience

How do you create a meaningful visitor experience for the 18–34 demographic—while also meeting the mandate of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC)—in a world in which communications tools are constantly evolving? That was the question that the CMC interpretation team and I asked ourselves in the fall of 2010. To determine the best ways of responding, we hit on the bright idea of putting this demographic to work!

Our first challenge: recruiting participants. If we were going to find the right candidates, it only made sense to approach them in their natural environment. We used the CMC’s Facebook page to promote the project, and posted an online registration form. We also sought the cooperation of university professors within the National Capital Region, as a way of further spreading the word about our initiative. A total of 19 participants were selected, and four groups were formed. Each group was given the task of coming up with a project idea during two three-hour working sessions. Their point of departure: a selection of 43 objects representing the CMC’s collections. I was designated to facilitate their work, never doubting that our project—dubbed “Horizon Y: An Interpretation Research Lab”—would become a dynamic and enriching experience for all concerned.

Goals and Results
Our project was intended, first of all, to formulate hypotheses that would enable the CMC to identify the best distribution and diffusion initiatives for reaching the 18–34 youth demographic, in terms of its collections. The project also sought to gain more comprehensive knowledge of this particular audience, in order to better define it.

Analysis of the work undertaken by the participants enabled us to separate out five major trends relative to the visitor experience and the potential of CMC collections. These were as follows:

  • In order to ensure that this demographic has a positive visitor experience, their contribution to exhibition content seems to be an attractive and significant component.
  • The use of communications technologies appeared to be important, because these are an integral part of how this demographic understands and perceives reality.
  • A multisensory experience, with a very high level of engagement and interaction, is key to success with this demographic.
  • For a successful experience, the opportunity to personalize the visit through a variety of options seems essential.
  • This demographic favoured themes with a societal aspect, for which the CMC’s collection is tailor-made.

Our analysis also suggests that this demographic cannot be defined solely on age. Other criteria such as interests, values, lifestyle, level of education, and cultural influences must also be taken into consideration, because these influence motivations related to museum visitation.

Creativity and Depth
That being said, what struck me throughout this process was participants’ vivacity, ability to synthesize, and creativity. With objects as diverse as a violin (1896), a 1965 calendar, a Canadian Pacific poster (1894), a love letter dated August 24, 1942, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1981), they came up with themes such as “The Search for Happiness: Who Holds the Key?” and “Our Collective Past Influences Our Individual Journeys.”

Their interest in the use of new technologies (touchscreens, mobile devices) did not really surprise me, but I must admit being surprised by the determination of participants to associate a profound feeling with their idea, as well as their desire to situate their project within a collective experience.

The experience was equally enriching for participants. Miguel, for example, said, “It felt great to participate in this study. Also, it makes me feel special to know that I have something to do with the outcome of it.”

Two years after “Horizon Y”, the CMC’s interpretation team continues to forge ahead. The team has been maintaining the dialogue initiated with its audiences through various means, which in turn help the team to innovate in exhibition planning. As a result, additional meetings and discussions are not out of the question. For my part, I’d say that you can definitely count me in.

by Dominique Savard