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
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.