Making museums relevant. It sounds simple enough. However, a report from the American Association of museums shows many museums fall behind in this area. Museums, as a whole, are not making history relevant to the community they serve. That is a big red flag. So what is going wrong? Where is the disconnect? The book the Presence of the Past focuses how the average person relates to history and suggests that history needs to be personal in order to resonate with the majority of the population. Most people are not content looking at objects that have no ties to their own lives.
So what are museums doing to integrate personal history with broader themes throughout history? Elizabeth Schultz, the museum education and tour coordinator at the Oberlin Heritage Center in Ohio, has the right idea. The heritage Center focuses on a variety of local history such as the local college being the first in the nation to accept women. Additionally the Oberlin Heritage Center chooses to go into their community to visit groups that may not have the opportunity to visit the physical museum. This is especially helpful for school age children who, because of funding cuts, do not have the opportunity to take field trips to the heritage center. Presenting programming relevant to the people of a particular community promotes partnership between the museum and the community members it serves.
Museums across the country need to keep the question of relevancy in mind. If a community cannot relate to their museum then what is the point?
Roy Rozenweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular uses of History in American Life (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Ellen Hursey, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (American Association of Museums, 1992)
Elizabeth Schultz, Interview with author, September 25, 2012.