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A Word (or Two) about Relevance

by Ron M. Potvin on

Relevance is a word that has become common at historic house museums. To be successful with mission and audience, we must be relevant. But what does it mean to be relevant, and how do we achieve it?

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Relevance is a subtle word when used by museums, but the Merriam-Webster definition is helpful: relevance is “the ability…to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user.” In addition, “Relevance Theory”, used in linguistics, presumes that in all communications listeners seek meanings that are deeper than the obvious intent of the words. In other words, our visitors have the ability to recognize relevance and are actively seeking it.

For historic house museums, relevance is the linking of events in the past with current social and cultural trends. Interpreters and interpretive materials facilitate this linkage. Here are some examples.

During two semesters, my class worked with the Governor Stephen Hopkins House Museum in Providence on refreshing and updating their interpretation plan. Both projects included a small exhibition space. The goals of the exhibits were to create a contemplative space for visitors, utilize objects in the collection in a thematic way, and tie together the themes of the new interpretation plan.Exterior graphic

One exhibit focused on themes of enslavement within the Hopkins House, in Rhode Island, and beyond. The final label asked visitors “Are the same issues still relevant today?” Next to the label was a photograph of women toiling in a modern sweatshop. For another exhibition, which focused on the moral and religious statements contained on historic samplers , students sewed their own cross-stitch patterns with messages they imagined women of the 18th century might have said had they lived in the 21st century. These messages, including lyrics from a Beyoncé song, were clever and provocative and related 18th century domesticity to modern concerns.

Perhaps the most successful example of creating relevance within a historic house setting is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Their programs and interpretation delve deeply into themes of immigration, housing, and labor and wages, which still resonate today.

These connections between the past and issues of today should be implicit in the interpretation, rather than openly stated—although there are degrees of implicitness. Explicitly highlighting points of relevance might distract visitors from other elements of the interpretation and cause them to miss subtle meanings unique to their own experience. As we saw above, visitors are already looking for these deeper meanings. We simply need to point them in the right direction.

— Ron M. Potvin
Assistant Director for Professional Programs
John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage

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