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.

An Outward Museum: Building Community at the Levine Museum of the New South

Photo by James Willamor
Photo by James Willamor

Museums serve in a unique yet vital manner as stewards of humanity’s cultural heritage. Collections are the method of service. However, the ICOM definition of museum notes that behind the public service is the need for meaning and relevance to this purpose. Museums, as stewards of humanity’s cultural heritage, must leverage unique professional talents and resources “in the service of society and its development.” There is nothing new or revolutionary with this perspective. It merely stresses the centrality of meaningful and relevant public service. In his article, “Transformed from a Cemetery of Bric-A-Brac,” Stephen Weil summarized the evolution of the museum field’s focus from institutions “oriented primarily inward” on the collection to "an outwardly oriented organization” upon its visitors and its community (6).  When clearly summarized as an orientation of focus, upon the public served rather than the collections housed, the primacy of public service becomes the defining trait of what I describe as outward museums.

During a recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, I explored The Levine Museum of the New South, which beautifully embodies an outward museum. Like most travelers, I first browsed the internet to determine personal interest prior to my visit. While scrolling through the museum’s website, the “About Us” tab notes the museum’s commitment to “using history to build community.” With this statement, there is a dedication to leveraging institutional resources and talents to address contemporary issues for the betterment of the community. The Museum of the New South’s policy institutionalizes the primacy of outward orientation.



Walking in the doors, a permanent sign spans the room above the information desk with "Welcome" scrawled in a plethora of languages. Beneath, two smiling faces reflect the diverse community of Charlotte. As a first impression, the Levine Museum of the New South rocks outwardly. Once in the permanent exhibition, visitors follow the history of the South from reconstruction through today. Like the staff, visitors that day included a comfortably middle class, older white couple, a school program with a rainbow of fascinated faces, a group of German tourists, a Latino family speaking a charming mix of English and Spanish, and a handful of millennials typical of Charlotte’s uptown community. Many museums would kill for the visitor diversity found on an average weekday at the Levine Museum of the New South.

This demographic success is most likely due in part to the incredible nature of the museum’s exhibition and programming. As I wandered through the permanent exhibition, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, I was struck by the multiple narrative threads. Visitors experience the housing of sharecroppers, see the work of the 20th century textile mills, walk Main Street beside suffragettes, take a seat with the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, and step in the shoes of global businessmen. According to research by John Falk in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, visitors come to museums for personal meaning making, and the Levine Museum of the New South successfully creates multiple opportunities for personal meaning to nearly every demographic of the community served (136-142).


The introductory panels to ¡NEUVOlution! encouraged visitors to explore personal connections to community. Photo by Miranda Chavis.


The recently concluded special exhibition, ¡NEUVOlution!, explored the mutual impact of Latinos and the South upon one another. With the ongoing debate of immigration, ¡NEUVOlution! provided a safe space (literally, there were couches and an explanatory sign) to explore all sides of the issue with respectfully curated insights from museum staff and community collaborators.

Visitors were also encouraged to participate with personal insight of exhibit themes through music, quotes, or stereotypes left behind. To conclude the experience, a visit to the gift shop further inspired community comradery; the official museum t-shirt reads, “Yours, Mine, Ours, Everyone’s History Matters.”

The Levine Museum of the New South’s practice of outward orientation does not end with the visit. Following the recent tragedies in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul, this outward museum moderated a safe virtual space to explore racism in America, acts of violence, and to promote Dr. King’s message of community over chaos. The hosted tweet chat, with the designated #ComeToUnderstand, featured diverse opinions offered with respect and an open mind by participants. Most importantly, the broad message of community rather than chaos was successfully underscored, and the experience became a virtual platform to facilitate healing and solidarity through Twitter, Facebook, the museum blog, and Storify.


Visitors were invited to converse with one another in a physical part of the exhibition. Photo courtesy of Miranda Chavis.
Visitors were invited to converse with one another in a physical part of the exhibition. Photo courtesy of Miranda Chavis.

The Levine Museum of the New South beautifully embodies my favorite visitor experience, the outward museum, prior to, during, and following the actual visit. As a museum professional, my visitor experience at the Levine Museum of the New South likewise provides incredible inspiration with institutional policy that recognizes the primacy of public service and museum practices that embrace and facilitate a better community for all its members. From the incorporated seating that promotes conversation of contemporary issues through a historic lens - to dedicated hashtags that inspire respectful debate - to exhibition interactives that encourage visitors to leave their stereotypes behind – to a mission statement that features community, I am professionally motivated to answer the question “How can I be an outward museum today?”


Visitors left stereotypes behind in Levine Museum of the New South’s ¡NEUVOlution!, Photo by Courtney Pearson.
Visitors left stereotypes behind in Levine Museum of the New South’s ¡NEUVOlution!, Photo by Courtney Pearson.

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Welcome to Our House: How Visitor Experience Planning at Pittock Mansion Lead to Record Attendance 

Visitors exploring Pittock Mansion’s 16,000 square feet.

As many historic house museums across the country experience declining visitation, Portland’s Pittock Mansion has set a new record for annual visitors. Visitation has steadily grown from 81,000 in fiscal year 2013/2014 to 86,000 in fiscal year 2014/2015 to a new record of 103,000 visitors in fiscal year 2015/2016. Reaching over 100,000 annual visitors is an exciting milestone in the Pittock’s history, but how did we do it?

This record attendance follows strategic additions and enhancements to the museum  as a part of the Pittock’s Visitor Experience Project. Pittock staff and Board intentionally adopted a visitor-centric philosophy. Simply put, happy visitors return, support the museum, encourage others to visit, and in turn represent the most effective way to ensure the long-term sustainability of an institution.


Pittock Mansion’s new admissions area alleviated congestion in the foyer and created a transition between purchasing tickets and experiencing the historic home.

With this in mind, Pittock staff worked with a team of museum consultants who are on the leading edge of visitor experience planning to create Pittock Mansion’s plan. Then, based on visitor research and visitor surveys, the team identified specific ways to enhance the experience of visiting. These changes not only would further the museum’s mission, but also would use  visitors’ needs and perspectives as a guide. For example, visitors said they wanted more information and a facilitated self-guided tour, so the staff listened, and redeveloped the permanent exhibit to include 70 new exhibit panels and 4 interactive stations. These improvements make the self-guided experience more compelling, engaging and relevant, while sharing stories that embody the growth, culture, and spirit of Portland.


A family enjoying Pittock Mansion.

The Pittock’s record attendance comes as Board and staff initiate a new four-year strategic plan which will further enhance the visitor experience, expand educational programming, and increase community engagement. In addition, Pittock staff and Board will work with the City of Portland, which owns the historic estate, to improve access and create a sustainable long-term preservation plan for the buildings.

About Pittock Mansion  

With picture-perfect views of rivers, forests, bridges, and mountaintops — and 23 treasure-filled rooms — no other place in town offers a more breathtaking view and more revealing glimpse of Portland’s past. Portland pioneers Henry and Georgiana Pittock built Pittock Mansion in 1914 and it now stands as a living memorial of the family’s contributions to the blossoming city of Portland and its people. Situated on 46 acres of land almost 1,000 feet atop downtown Portland, the Pittock celebrated its centennial year in 2014.


5.Children matching enjoying our hands-on serving utensil matching game. Can you find the butter pick or olive spoon?
Children matching enjoying our hands-on serving utensil matching game. Can you find the butter pick or olive spoon?

Visitor Feedback Stations

Revisiting some great readings from earlier this year, I came across a nice post from colleague Linda Norris on her experience with the feedback stations at the Oakland Museum of California.


In short, Linda loved them and her post gives us a lot to consider as to what it was that she liked. Here's why:

  1. The at the center of the invitation: "Share your story"; "Tell us your thoughts"; "We want to hear from you."
  2. The questions are interesting--and sometimes surprising. 
  3. There's space in the exhibitions for changing questions: "How is the drought affecting you?"
  4. But equally importantly, throughout the entire museum, a visitor can see that they are important, that these voices matter.

Read Linda's full post for a more in-depth examination of how the museum utilizes this technique in its interpretation.