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History Organizations Need to Change, But How?

by Carl Nold, President and CEO, Historic New England, Boston, MA
AASLH Institutional Member since 1999

Members of the Outdoor History Museum Forum, a national group of large history museums that share common characteristics for mission, size, budget, and attendance have met annually for sixteen years to consider trends and share information about projects and programs. Currently working with administrative support from AASLH, the group gathered at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., during June.

As the non-profit world in general and history organizations specifically continue to recover from the sequential economic downturns of 2001-2003 and 2008-2009, the members of the Forum recognize that long-term trends of decline in interest and participation in history mean that institutions must change to survive. The question pursued was: What are the changes we should make to continue our service to current constituencies while attracting new audiences and support that will ensure sustainability?

As the participating institutions discussed trends at their own sites and nationally it became evident that there are significant themes and issues that apply to all. These are summarized below, as a proposal of things that all history organizations should consider as we look to the future. Do they apply to your organization? Are there other significant trends you would add as we in the history organization field plan for the future?

The Big Story—There is increasing recognition that the stories told at historical organizations, that is the interpretation we present for the public, must go beyond simple identification or even local significance to have meaning for visitors today. How our historic sites and collections connect to the larger stories of regional, national and global trends in politics, finance, technological development, cultural heritage, and the integration of the ideas represented by the collections are critical components in making presentations for visitors meaningful and valuable for their lives today.

Your Story—As U.S. demographics continue to diversify, the audiences of today and tomorrow are very different from the audiences served in the past, or should be. Where collections and stories remain largely Euro-centric, and fail to be inclusive of minority experiences, their relevance will continue to decline. Visitors must be able to find a connection to their own experience in our organizations, and come to understand how the places and objects we preserve are connected to them, if our institutions are to continue to have meaning among an increasingly diverse public.

The Boomers—The impact of the progressive retirement of the Baby Boom generation is being discussed in all aspects of American life and must be included as we plan the future of public history. Studies show that this well-educated, affluent, and engaged population cohort will look to continue social activity and contributions to community during their retirement years. We have much thinking to do about how to position ourselves for relevance to this important group. It may mean changing our approach to programs, such as using more affinity groups to keep Boomers engaged, or even changing some basic attitudes about how the public interacts with historic sites and collections. Boomers look for shared authority and active participation rather than being passive recipients of information. How will we respond to those needs to stay relevant for the Boomers?

Collaboration—Collaboration and integration are increasingly central to the work of historical organizations and museums. The local story must be networked to larger stories. Our constituents are connected in through technology to places, people, and ideas around the globe, and we should be too. Individual institutions find it increasingly difficult to obtain visibility for their efforts. Collaboration among institutions has the potential to create networks of programs, collections access, visibility, supporters, and visitors that cannot be achieved on a stand-alone basis. Convergence among historic preservation and land conservation groups and among museums and educational institutions is another trend that will support collaboration.

The Millennials—Just as the Boomer generation represents in our thinking the coming changes at the senior end of our audience demographic, the millennial cohort characterizes change at the younger end. Generation Y, known as the millennial generation, was born in the 1980s through 2000, and is the generation that grew up with the Internet and other computer technology. To them, most of the 20th century seems to be ancient history. They are known to value connectedness, civic engagement, and the opportunity to experience the authentic. We need to continue to learn the needs and interests of this group to recognize their potential as a current and future audience for historical activities.

Along with these factors that all historical organizations should be considering as they plan their own work and what changes will be needed for the future come the unceasing needs to consider financial sustainability; collections development, care and use; educational standards; and planning issues. The consideration of the “big ideas” and trends in no way suggests that these factors are not equally important to sustainability. Finally, AASLH Director Terry Davis reminded the group of our collective obligation to “lift up history.” By that is meant that we all have an obligation to help the public understand the value of the historic sites, collections, archives, and programs we create to our communities and to audience members personally. Reversing the decline in interest and participation in history and historical organizations requires affirmative work on our part.

 

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