Community engagement has become an increasingly important aspect in state and local history as a strategy for increasing impact, gaining support, and becoming relevant. The challenge for most organizations is that engagement can be so daunting and difficult, they don’t know where to begin, how to prioritize among several good ideas, or measure success.
At the recent AASLH annual meeting, I moderated a session on the experiences of two very different history organizations—the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Museum of History and Industry—whose work in community engagement is not well known in the field yet offer exemplary case studies to examine common strategies, how they should be modified to suit each place’s unique characteristics, and steps to avoid.
Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, described two programs that reach audiences that are typically underserved by museums: teenagers and young adults. The Historical Society offers an afterschool exhibit lab for local high school students that allows them to explore local topics in depth and share it with the community through an annual exhibit. Working with a handful of local professors, the Historical Society provides access to its collections and archives to teach college students how to use and interpret primary sources.
Lorraine McConaghy, public historian at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, discussed the launch of an ambitious statewide project to study the Civil War in Washington by asking two hundred people to explore the archives in their local historical societies. Their research discoveries will be shared with others through a database, not only placing local events in a statewide and national context, but also providing specific local examples of the impact of the Civil War on the Northwest.
Afterwards, the audience drafted a list of best practices for community engagement based on these two presentations and their own experiences:
1. Provide a framework (theme, topic) to provide direction and purpose.
2. Have an clear outcome or end product (e.g., exhibit, online database); it’s not just about process.
3. Make it easy and simple (unnecessary complexity can dampen enthusiasm).
4. Make it fun and cool (e.g., an opportunity to work with experts, tackle new challenges).
5. Let go of perfection and be realistic about the resources (be upfront and honest about capacity and resources)
6. Expect bumps along the road and don’t be discouraged. Adjust your course as needed and be open to changes.
7. Promote the project at public programs and events.
8. Get support from decision-makers (need to get support from executive director/board).
1. Attract a diverse group and reach out beyond the usual group of participants.
2. Go to the places where participants live and work to discover what’s meaningful to them.
3. Invite people to participate and bring others along.
4. Respond to participants and make the relationship personal (don’t communicate as an impersonal organization).
5. Give participants ownership and recognition (eg. provide name badges at events).
6. Respect the expertise of the participants in the community (trust the participants to good work).
7. Have an alternative ways to participate (e.g., if I can’t read historic documents, what else can I do?).
8. Provide social interaction among participants to fuel enthusiasm and passion.
This is just a draft to prompt thinking for the field, so you may need to modify it for your own situation. There are two other fundamental issues to consider before you attempt community engagement:
1. When Shakespeare’s Juliet asked in frustration, “what’s in a name?,” she recognized the vital importance of words (her Romeo was a Montague, alas, not a Capulet) and that what we call things does color our thinking. What do you call the people that you’re trying to engage? Visitors? Members? Audiences? Lorraine urges the field to use “participants” to better describe our efforts in community engagement.
2. History as practiced by most history organizations is irrelevant and meaningless to our communities because, well, history has lost its relevance and meaning. We’ve fallen into the trap of antiquarianism, simply pursuing a topic or collecting things out of a personal passion, and forgotten the social mission of history to understand our current lives to make better decisions about the future. Rarely do historians step forward at a city council meeting to provide a context or background on issues, using their skills of analysis and interpretation. Indeed, most of today’s debates are based on speculation, hearsay, and personal opinion. Isn’t it time we demonstrated the civic value of history in our communities in an engaging manner?