I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.
Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.
Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.
The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always offers a good mix of educational sessions, social events, and opportunities to visit museums and historic sites around the country. This year, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), prompted an ongoing discussion with his plenary address on the first day of the annual meeting. Through his research on students and scholars, he showed that the analysis of historical documents is a sophisticated skill that isn’t apparent to most people (and I can confidently say this also applies to objects, buildings, and landscapes). He went on to argue that teaching people to think historically isn’t about teaching history but making them better citizens. John Dichtl, president of AASLH, discusses this further on the AASLH blog.
These ideas were pursued the next day at a packed session facilitated by Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum. Using excerpts from Wineburg’s book, Tim encouraged a lively dialogue that allowed me to report out 15 Tweets, including:
Historical thinking: multiple perspectives; analysis of sources; context; and based on evidence.
Are we underestimating visitors if we don’t give them oppty to debate ideas & issues at museums/historic sites?
Debates always happen, but history gets flattened over time. Build multiple perspectives, uncertainty, & questions into exhibits.
Challenge for marketing & communications staff about handling provocative topics in social media era.
Are museums & sites imposing their ideology on visitors? Have we become arrogant? Do we need to learn about visitor interests?
which resulted in 31 favorites and 20 retweets. Just to be clear, these ideas didn’t come from me but from the persons gathered in the room. I could have tweeted out many more but I couldn’t listen and type them out quickly at the same time.
If you weren’t able to attend, there’s next year in Detroit. In the meantime, enjoy these snaps from the recent meeting in Louisville (and thanks to everyone at the Kentucky Historical Society for being such gracious hosts).