Please Take it Personally

Since the paradigm shift and museums focusing more on their role as educational institutions there to inform the public, it would make sense then that curators, museum educators, and all of those working in these museums would understand how people perceive past. Yet in The Presence of the Past: Popular uses of History in American Life, Rozenweig and Thelen conduct a survey that shows that history professionals’ understanding of how people learn, create, and use the past is very different from the reality. So what have we been missing? How is it that we will be able to get people to connect to the past?

            For most people, their understanding of the past is created through personal connections. According to a report from the American Association of Museums, it is essential for museums to be inclusive and educate diverse groups within their communities. In a conversation with Cindy Little, historian at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, she mentioned that is has been the focus of PHM since their reopening to make more of an effort to connect with the local population of the city, as opposed to tourist groups. After all, it is THEIR history that PHM is dedicated to. The second largest city on the Eastern seaboard with a population of 1.547 million people, Philadelphia has a large variety of people to cater to. That raises a practical question. When faced with a seemingly endlessly diverse population, how do you make the experience a personal one for everybody who walks through the doors?

            One way PHM has found that they were able to engage the public was through their Community History Gallery. The Community History Gallery features exhibitions designed and installed by Philadelphia-based community groups, schools, or non-profit organizations about their work and history. Currently on display is Private Lives in Public Spaces: Bringing Philadelphia’s LGBT History Out in the Open sponsored by the William Way LGBT Community Center. This is an opportunity for Philadelphians to learn Philadelphia’s history as told by Philadelphians. By giving locals a hand in the creation, visitors get an authentic, deeper, more resonating experience that allows for the formation of personal connections. For more information at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, visit their website at www.philadelphiahistory.org.

 

– Emily Hoffman

 

Sources:

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)

Interview with Cindy Little, Historian at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, September 16, 2013.

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15 Responses to Please Take it Personally

  1. Fred H. Gold says:

    I really like the idea of having a “community history gallery,” but it still would be rather exclusive. Don’t get me wrong; having a community history gallery is a great step toward involving audience members in your museum. That said, only a specific group of people gets to be involved at any given time. For now, the William Way LGBT Center is probably pretty happy with the exhibit, but another community group is likely anxious to get their own exhibit installed.

    Part of Rosenzweig’s and Thelen’s argument is that people desperately WANT to be engaged with the past. Every day, people construct and interpret their own intimate histories. Professionalized history, however, seems too preoccupied with major historical events (i.e., elections, wars, depressions, social movements, etc.) to collect and record those individual intimate histories.

    In an effort to create more shared authority in history making, I think museums should start teaching people how to be historians. A series of workshops, perhaps, on doing oral history would be a great way to involve local amateur historians in creating and interpreting the past.

    Essentially, I’m saying that if you build a man a fire, he’ll be warm for a night; if you teach him how to build a fire, he’ll be warm for the rest of his life. Similarly, if you interpret a group’s story, they will have their story told for a while; if you teach them how to record their own story, they can tell it as long they want.

  2. araya1468 says:

    I believe that is essential for museums much like the Philadelphia History Museum to allow members of the community to participate in exhibitions to make the museum more relevant to their interests. Community members have the opportunity to incorporate their experiences, interests and feedback into designing the exhibit which makes the experience more personal.

  3. krierr15 says:

    Telling the locals’ stories is good, but can present a problem: false historical memory. Sometimes people remember things incorrectly. This most infamous example I’m aware of is the Lost Cause narrative, but it can be more mundane than that. I once worked with a small historical society that displayed mannequins in Scottish Highland garb. This was supposed to represent their Scots-Irish heritage, but the Scots-Irish had Lowland origins rather than Highland ones, so they never wore Highlander clothing. Basic fact-checking is a must when telling the community’s story, as it is when telling any other. The trick would be how to let people know if they’re wrong about some historical fact without irritating them.

  4. cnluthy says:

    In order to answer your question, Emily, about how to engage community members on a personal level I would suggest that it is not as much about bringing out a specific flavor of a community. Rather, it is important to explore topics that connect to everyone’s collective history. One particular quotation in The Presence of the Past that spoke to me was the Asian American man who suggested: “When you’re in your home you’re safe.”(1) I believe that everyone can identify with the concept of home, whether physical or metaphorical, and can use it as a platform for self-discovery. One thing that Rosenzweig and Thelen stressed throughout their book was that the evocation of a sense of belonging was essential to feeling a connection with the past. By using museum space to inspire those emotions and to recreate a sense of “home,” I believe that museums can greatly serve their audiences, both local and otherwise. Once museum visitors become engaged with the material because they find it more relevant to their lives, their history, they will be more likely to pursue other displays/exhibits/programs/etc. that the museum has to offer. Thus, I think the intention of museums should not be to serve one audience, the local one, but to attempt to reach all audiences by utilizing “home” as a foundation from which learning may develop.

    (1)Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 53.

  5. Keith says:

    I took a look at PHM’s site and was intrigued by an event planned for this Friday titled “Philadelphia’s Gayborhood Walking Tour.” The tour plans to cover the history of the LGBT community by visiting locations in Midtown that were popular within the community during the 70s and 80s, many of which are still actively important. This is an excellent example of the way museums can focus on community history to engage visitors who might otherwise have little interest in the traditional historical focus of museums. Museums still need to provide educational experiences covering major topics throughout the country, but why not start by focusing on topics that will convert disinterested community members into frequent visitors?

  6. sanchej192 says:

    Great Blog post! I love the idea of the Community History Gallery. I do wonder if PHM will be able to successfully get various groups involved. Do they have a plan of some sort to rotate the various histories of Philadelphians? Or, since you stated the community was involved in the exhibition process, is it more or less up to the community to decide if they want their story to be told?

    • hoffed04 says:

      Great questions, Jeanette. The current exhibit is the third in this series. When they first were opening the gallery, they reached out to local organizations and interested groups could submit a proposal. Still, anybody interested in working with the museum is welcome to submit a proposal of their own. I helped to install the first which was a collaboration with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the largest public arts program in the United States. In that exhibition, we talked a lot about their work with those recently released from prison and how those who participated in the program were statistically a lot less likely to reenter the prison system. The last one worked with an energy conservation group and discussed the history of green efforts within the city. At this point, I’d say they have been pretty diverse and this exhibit rotates faster than the main galleries, making it easier to include more groups. This was an experiment for the museum, and I would say it is a success so far.

  7. toloce14 says:

    A big point that both readings made was the importance of having a diverse staff whenever possible, so that even if your programs and exhibits do not explicitly connect to each different population in your community, the different members of the community still feel welcome at the museum.

    Additionally, the more diversity you bring into exhibits, the more likely you are to find a way to connect on a smaller scale with community members. Relating smaller stories about immigrant groups and other specific subsections of a population can make all the difference in helping someone relate to an exhibit.

  8. toloce14 says:

    A big point that both readings made was the importance of having a diverse staff whenever possible, so that even if your programs and exhibits do not explicitly connect every different population in your community, the different members of the community still feel welcome at the museum.

    Additionally, the more diversity you bring into exhibits, the more likely you are to find a way to connect on a smaller scale with community members. Relating smaller stories about immigrant groups and other specific subsections of a population can make all the difference in helping someone relate to an exhibit.

  9. keswartz says:

    You asked how we can make the museum experience personal for each visitor, given what we learned in “The Presence of the Past” about individual participation in history. Rosenzweig and Thelan touched on this when they discussed how museums appeal to the public; by offering multiple interpretations of artifacts and thereby encouraging visitors to form their own interpretations of artifacts, objects become relatable. A collection of artifacts displays a narrative, though that narrative will be different for each interpreter. It is this aspect of museums, their ability to encourage visitors to create their own connections to the content, that individualizes the museum experience. History is accessible and interesting when it is participatory, personal, and reminiscent of past experience.

  10. amandamagera says:

    The idea of community curated exhibits is very exciting for me. I think they do a great job executing one of the main themes from The Presence of the Past which is that history should be participatory. I would love to such a gallery that presented the narratives of two groups on the opposite sides of an issue. Hopefully it would foster understanding and communication between the groups, but would also encourage a dialogue within the city.

  11. adubois91 says:

    I think the Community History Gallery, even if it as (as Fred mentioned) limited in its breadth, is an excellent example of the useful application of concepts discussed both in The Presence of the Past and the AAM report. In the AAM’s outlines for collaboration and professional development, they stress the need to broaden a museum’s professional appeal and provide opportunities for those outside of the traditional academic disciplines that lead to museum work to be considered as potential museum professionals, especially if they reflect the diversity of the community. Museums need new strategies in order to promote museum work within larger and more pluralistic communities. What the PHM is doing with the Community History Gallery is both giving community-based groups and schools the opportunity to be involved in exhibiting their own history AND potentially fostering a passion for museum work in younger and more diverse audiences.

  12. hartmc89 says:

    Very interesting! Yes, it would definitely be a challenge to be able to create exhibits and programs which the entire community can enjoy. Another method might be to build them around things we all have in common, whether is the sense of “home”, food, family etc. Everyone can relate to these things on some level.

  13. radtkedrew says:

    As I was reading, I was constantly reminded of Freeman Tilden’s thoughts on interpretation at historic sites. Writing in the 1950’s, Tilden provided six “Principles of Interpretation” which have governed tours at many places since he wrote them. I have to wonder about the disparity between professional, scholarly history and tours at historic sites. As Rosenzweig and Thelen performed their survey, I have to wonder whether they had examined historic sites, which had arguably been attempting to engage visitors in this manner for thirty years prior.

  14. walks95 says:

    I’m kind of interested in what sort of False Historical Memory has popped up for the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, now that I read that comment. It’d be interesting to study how a community chooses to remember itself and chooses to represent itself in its museum exhibitions.

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