Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dusting Off History

There was a study several years back that found a sizable number of people associate history with boredom.

Someone apparently committed "history" on them in high school, where they were hammered with dates and names until they lapsed into a catatonic state. The excitement of history was carefully removed and put in a jar in the janitor's closet.

Which brings me to a question that I'm tackling due to involvement with a local history group: How can we make a history museum more interesting?

Art museums can sell beauty and - let's be blunt - good taste by association. There's a certain snob appeal. The botanical garden is not peddling plants so much as events held in a beautiful environment.

History museums offer old stuff in a glass box.

What can we do to reach and excite our audience? I've got a few ideas but am interested in anything you might want to pass along.


Dan Richwine said...

Well, I'd say the first thing is to know what audience you want to excite. If you're after people who have no interest in history, then go for special effects and sell some kind of experience. People will go there just for the novelty.

I'm one who loves history and if I were to design a museum for my own amusement I would probably try for this:

First I would start with recreation, which admittedly is not a new thing. I would try to capture a moment in time in a room, or a famous scene, or something like that and then offer exhaustive information and analysis about the objects, people, culture, etc. in there.

I would do this through some kind of Kindle/Wikipedia reference so the tourists can decide for themselves what they want to learn about something interesting in the recreated room. I'd also invite the tourists to suggest further resources which may enhance the experience, in a Wikipedia kind of way.

I think opening the whole thing up so the interested and educated tourists can contribute would engage them and make the whole thing more enjoyable. It would also add greatly to the value of those who are less informed about the period in question, as hundreds of historical enthusiasts would be giving their knowledge and insights to the thing.

Finally, I would probably try to have a "what if" section of the tour. What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Washington had died of smallpox as a child? What if Greece had lost at Marathon? I happen to like that kind of thing, and I believe that it encourages a greater understanding of the historical significance when you consider the alternatives.

Kathy said...

I'll bite because I was a history hater. I first learned history in terms of white-hats and black hats. All British were bad and all Americans good in 1776. Lincoln fought to make the mean slaveholders let the nice slaves go. It was all as deep as a propaganda comic book.

You'll laugh, but I'm embarrassed at how old I was before I questioned my early view of history as a given outcome. I'd been spoonfed American presidents alongside Superman and Batman and had the vague notion that everyone knew from the start who would triumph when the episode was over.

I love reading about the American revolution now just because the whole culture I hold dear is based on such an amazing series of improbable outcomes. One of my history epiphanies was learning that the colony militias were full of boys who volunteered to get away from Pa and farm chores and do something adventurous to impress girls. They were, after all, just kids, just like we were. How did I ever grow up thinking otherwise?

My favorite history book now is Delivered from Evil. I love how Leckie goes into such detail on how the major figures of WWII grew up to be who they were, and how none but that particular peculiar group of characters coming together right then could have created that unique story.

History in books is nailed down: dates, events, winners and losers. If you can show the characters of the past as everyday people just living in their times, with no certain outcome, you can make history the best story of all.

Dan Richwine said...

Kathy, I think the step of freeing your mind from the trap of knowing the outcome is incredibly difficult and important to appreciating history.

The difficulty is that once you know something, it becomes virtually impossible to conceive of not knowing it. Knowing the outcome of the Civil War (to take one example) makes it almost impossible to conceive of the mindframe of those who fought it. Therefore we can wonder why hundreds of thousands would throw their lives away on a doomed cause. But it wasn't doomed, and the South came extremely close to success. Whichever side you are on, the fact is that if things had gone just a little differently, the world would be an extremely different place and we would not be able to conceive of a world in which the North had won.

That's why my museum would try to encourage the what if thinking. I don't know the best way to accomplish it, but it would be a very worthwile effort, I think. It's not until you realize how unique the past is that you can appreciate how truly fragile the present it.

19reka said...

Use technology to bring it to 'life'...

Lord said...

If you can demonstrate the passage of time through a set of stills or movies of the same home, neighborhood, block, through the advance of technology, change of fashions and fads, entertainment and pass times, foods and music, incomes and budgets, common daily life and news of the day, it could be captivating.

Deron S. said...

Focus on progress and on contrast with everyday life today. It's easier to be interested in history when it's seen in the proper context.

Jeff said...

I'm not a history buff although recently, I've become interested in recent history - the stories of the last surviving men and women from the WWII era.

As 19reka, Lord, and Deron S said above - start with the use of technology for presentation, put it in context with the current world, contrasting "what was" with "what is".

If the connections can be made, history will seem more relevant than just as isolated dates or events.

Just the humble thoughts from an amateur academic... :)

- Jeff

Michael Wade said...

Thanks to each of you for some very helpful ideas. I'll be taking them with me to a Board Retreat where we'll be discussing programs for the next 12 months.

Part of our challenge is cutting through the academic presumption that exciting history is not good history. You've sparked some thoughts in a number of related areas.

Thanks again!