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Three Ways History Organizations Can Talk About Environmental History

by Stephanie Fulbright, Graduate Student, Vanderbilt Divinity School on

Image from Ursus Among Us exhibit.

Want to explore the intersection between the natural sciences and history at your organization? Here are three takeaways from AASLH Leadership in History Awards award-winning projects on how to tell captivating stories of environmental history:

1. Leverage Local Interests

Environmental history can cover extraordinarily long spans of times. One side effect is that sometimes it feel so removed from the here and now, and it’s hard for people to connect with the topic. While a long view is often helpful, it can be most impactful to leverage environmental and/or natural issues that are currently impacting people’s lives.

The Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City did just that with their exhibit Ursus Among Us: The American Black Bear in the Tahoe Basin. In recent years, human-bear conflicts have been on the rise, and have given way to intense debates. The museum took the opportunity to address the issue through a historical lens, by exploring the history of bears in the region and the interactions between them and humans since ancient times.

Image from Above and Below exhibit.

2. Make It Multi-Age and Multi-Interest Friendly

Museums encounter a wide range of visitors. When engaging in environmental history that range can be particularly challenging, as the science behind the topic has the possibility of being complex. By leveraging a variety of methods of interacting with visitors, museums can help visitors of various ages and interest levels to engage.

The Pennsylvania Lumber Museum addressed the challenge of attracting and engaging different visitors to their Challenges and Choices in Pennsylvania’s Forests exhibit by leveraging a blend of text, pictures, and hands-on elements.  Simulations allowed for hands-on experiences which were accessible to all age ranges. Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay, by the Oakland Museum of California, uses a similar range of experience to engage their visitors in a multi-disciplinary way of thinking about the history of California’s environment.  They also leverage oral histories to allow people to learn more about various topics.

Image from Challenges and Choices exhibit.

3. Follow It Up With An Action Step

As mentioned in the first takeaway, environmental history exhibits can be related to issues that are currently facing a community. In cases like this, it is especially important to encourage visitors to think about what comes next. This can be actions they take themselves or suggestions they have for community leaders. As with all feedback, it is crucial something is done with the feedback once it is received. Visitor experiences and comments should be integrated back into the exhibit on a regular basis. Suggestions for community leaders should be shared with the leaders and any accompanying results should be shared back with the museum community.

The Ursus Among Us exhibit employed an art space and a comment box where visitors could contribute their own bear interactions as ways of helping visitors think about their experiences in light of what they had learned. The Challenges and Choices exhibit explicitly asked visitors to consider their role in the story of Pennsylvania’s forests and to consider what lessons they might learn from the past.

To learn more about the specific projects from the award winners, visit:

Challenges and Choices in Pennsylvania’s ForestsPennsylvania Lumber Museum; Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (Ulysses, PA)

Ursus Among Us: The American Black Bear in the Tahoe Basin –Gatekeeper’s Museum; North Lake Tahoe Historical Society; Lauren O’Malley; Marguerite Sprague (Tahoe City, CA)

Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay –Oakland Museum of California; San Francisco Estuary Institute (Oakland, CA)

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