Making History Meaningful

2866208History organizations choose the impact they want to make.  Sometimes the choice is intentional and brought in by a visionary leader or strategic plan, but it can also come about through organizational confidence and maturity.  These transitions can occur quickly or over many years, and unlike puberty, there’s no guarantee that an organization won’t return to its previous condition.  In my work with dozens of history organizations over the past thirty years, I’ve witnessed three typical turning points that resulted in extraordinary activities and programs.  The first turning point–doing history with passion–was discussed last week.

The second turning point occurs when history organizations become more meaningful and relevant to their audiences.  Good writers always have the reader in mind and are continually asking, “will they turn the page?”  History organizations can ask similar questions such as, will they return?  Will they recommend us to their friends?  Will they be convinced to support your organization?  That means understanding your visitors, a knowledge that continually changes because visitors are continually changing.

Recording attendance is a good place to start, but that information often lacks sufficient detail to inform decisions.  It’s like a restaurant noticing that sales are down, but not knowing whether it’s happening at breakfast, lunch, or dinner or due to the food, service, price, or neighborhood.  Attendance statistics are more valuable when we capture a visitor’s demographics and behavior (e.g., age, residence, repeat visit) against all of an organization’s programming (e.g., tours, events, site rentals, website) consistently over several years.

While museums and historic sites often claim to know their visitors, they typically have only a superficial understanding of the public’s interests, motivations for visiting, and preferences for learning.  Boards and directors bemoan the lack of response to exhibits, events, and programs but fail to remember a key principle:  people build relationships with people, not companies, brands, products, or organizations.  Use the wrong message or medium, and you’ll be ignored.  Visitor research helps find the connections between what you offer and what your audience wants.  For example, the San Francisco Travel Association’s recent study showed that historic sites are the most important destination for heritage travelers, but more important to tourists are affordability, variety, beauty, relaxation, and food.  Armed just with that knowledge, your museum or historic site could be more attractive by relocating seating, improving the appearance of your site, or building relationships with nearby restaurants and attractions to offer discounts to your visitors.

Being relevant also means helping people make decisions or developing a better understanding of the issues that face them everyday.  They want to know how they fit into the places and times that surround them—and we have the ideal tool in our hands.  The best kind of history explains the past and informs the present.   For example, what does the history of a popular park or neighborhood event tell you about your community?  If there’s a troubling national issue, such as unemployment, political corruption, racial conflict, or gang violence, how has it been handled locally over time?  No doubt you’ll find some ordinary people who took risks and some extraordinary turning points that changed the outcome.   You’ll also bond neighborhoods and build understanding by sharing the lives of fellow citizens, past and present, familiar and unknown.

History—and history organizations—makes this possible by exploring varied sources, weighing evidence, coming to conclusions, and most importantly, providing an interpretation.  That means a thesis, a proposition, or an opinion that people can accept or reject.  Exhibits, tours, and websites often shy away from rendering an explanation because it can provoke conflict or controversy, but as Barbara Tuchman noted, “There is no such thing as a neutral or purely objective historian.  Without an opinion a historian would be simply a ticking clock, and unreadable besides.”

Our visitors need to develop these skills as well so they can be informed citizens and make wise decisions.  Educational psychologist Sam Wineburg found that student and teacher perceptions of historical research are quite different from what historians actually do. Students are trusting and will read a document without question from start to finish, assuming it’s accurate and authoritative.  Historians are skeptical and instead scan the text to get their bearings, then spend much more time questioning the source, its purpose, and its connections to people, places, and events.  For historians, “Texts come not to convey information, to tell stories, or even to set the record straight.  Instead they are slippery, cagey, and protean, reflecting the uncertainty and disingenuity of the real world.”

As part of our work to make history meaningful, we need to make historical thinking visible.  At museums and historic sites, visitors enjoy tours, exhibits, lectures, and books—the end products of history.  Visitors rarely experience the uncertain process of sifting and weighing evidence that goes on beforehand.  Science museums routinely teach visitors not only about the facts and theories of science but also how to observe and study natural phenomena to generate those facts and theories.  Indeed, the popularity of “citizen science” suggests that ordinary people not only want to learn science, but do science as a means of civic engagement.  Is such a thing as “citizen history” possible?  Can residents of our communities be actively involved in the scholarly work of historical research and analysis?  Absolutely.

Much of the work in “historical thinking” has been focused on students in the classroom using documents.  Among the leaders in the field are National Park Service, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Wisconsin Historical Society, and the History Education Group at Stanford University.  These efforts are increasingly joined by projects where historical thinking includes adults, occurs outside the classroom, and uses artifacts, buildings, and landscapes as evidence.

Archaeological excavations attract crowds of people who wonder what’s being discovered, and even volunteer to sit for hours moving gallons of dirt by the teaspoonful.  The Hampden Community Archaeology Project in Maryland took it a step further by linking the history of a nineteenth century industrial village to current urban issues by involving local residents (particularly teenagers) in the excavations, collection of oral histories, documentary research, and interpretation.

On the other side of the country, the Washington State Historical Society is launching a Civil War Read-In.  Staff historian Lorraine McConaghy is working with hundreds of amateur historians around the state to better understand this northwestern territory’s role in the Civil War.  These volunteers carefully read a newspaper, a manuscript collection, or a county history and then enter the evidence they’ve found into an Omeka database, which is housed at the WSHS website.  The Read-In, according to McConaghy, builds capacity in historical research, develops a new resource, and will help her to curate an exhibition, “Civil War Pathways,” to open at the Washington State Museum in February 2014.

Historical thinking is also found on television.  Now in its tenth season, History Detectives follows the twists and turns of research into intriguing objects owned by ordinary people, along with explanations of methods and sources.  The companion website is rich with excerpts from the show, videos of “detective techniques,” a blog that follows up on stories, and lesson plans and rubrics for teachers.

These are extraordinary and magical efforts.  They shift the visitor experience from passive to active, getting them up close to historical artifacts and documents to encounter eureka moments and practice history.  Essential to their success are passionate historians, curators, and other subject experts.  Like the experienced chef in a kitchen, they provide directions, demonstrate techniques, make connections, ask questions, and suggest alternatives.  In the end, they share delicious discoveries and create history enthusiasts.  The joy we experience in our archives, collections, and places is contagious and shouldn’t stay under glass or behind velvet ropes.

Finally, engagement relies on a masterful use of language, so we shouldn’t shy away from techniques used for centuries by poets and storytellers in our tours, programs, and exhibits.   Rather than efficiently saying that, “Just after my mother turned sixteen in 1959, she took the train from Mississippi to California,” see how much more powerfully this idea can be shown in the hands of poet Natasha Trethewey:

In 1959 my mother is boarding a train.

she is barely sixteen, her one large grip

bulging with homemade dresses, whisper

of crinoline and lace, her name stitched

inside each one.  She is leaving behind

the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film

of red dust around her ankles, the thin

whistle of wind through the floorboards

of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

Through carefully crafted histories, the past can a compelling and enthralling  experience in the hands of Liaquat Ahamed, Ron Chernow, David Hackett Fisher, Annette Gordon-Reed, Alex Haley, Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Erik Larson, Jill Lepore, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Rebecca Skloot, Barbara Tuchman, and Isabel Wilkerson—many of whom are not academic historians.[  These stories are carefully constructed narratives with a clear beginning, middle, and end; follow a protagonist through conflicts and resolutions; call on the five senses; and rely on action verbs to drive the story. The opening sentences of Thomas Jefferson’s biography by Jon Meacham provide a taste of this engaging type of history:

“He woke at first light.  Lean and loose-limbed, Thomas Jefferson tossed back the sheets in his rooms at Conrad and McMunn’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill, swung his long legs out of bed, and plunged his feet into a cold basin of water—a lifelong habit he believed good for his health.”

Well-written books can be more than entertainment—they can also invoke extraordinary change.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Upton Sinclair turned statistics into stories, revealed hidden perspectives, and humanized ordinary people, such as enslaved Africans, native Americans, and immigrant workers, demonstrating through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ramona, and The Jungle that literature can transform a nation.   Yet these novels were caricatures of reality, giving history organizations a distinct advantage:  they are society’s bastions of the real and authentic.  These documents, artifacts, and places should not only be preserved within our walls, but shared beyond them to allow extraordinary things to happen.

Another turning point–pursuing an aspirational vision–will be shared next week.  This is an excerpt from “Becoming Ordinary: Turning Points that Transform History Organizations,” which was first published as, “Turning Points:  Ordinary People, Extraordinary Change” in History News, 68:2 (Spring 2013): 7-13 to explore the theme of the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.

2 thoughts on “Making History Meaningful

    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks for the suggestion–and it helped me discover that the report is no longer available (or at least not easily available) on the San Francisco Travel Association website. So I’ve uploaded the study here so it’s once more available.


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