Satisfying Numen-Seekers

Does the declining visitation to historic houses, villages, battlefields, and other sites over the past few decades reflect the public’s lack of interest in history? Audience research and experimental media during the last decade answer a resounding “NO!” The lesson much of this recent work teaches us, is that visitors want to be a part of the historical experience, either by a transcendental connection with the past or by participating in historical activities to the degree that they can imagine what life was really like in the era a particular site portrays. Our institutions must find better means to supply those ends.

Frontier House  was a 6-episode public television series filmed a decade ago. The format was part reality TV and part documentary. Three families from different regions of the United States went to live in an 1883 Montana homestead settlement and had to adjust to the daily tasks and consumer goods that were typical of the setting. The show was a successful enough for PBS to produce 2 similar subsequent series: Colonial House (portraying 1628) and Texas Ranch House (portraying 1867), and for channels such as DIY to replay the series. The shows remain available on YouTube.

Although only 3 families participated in Frontier House, over 5,500 applied. Research on audience engagement among historic site visitors indicates that the desire to experience the past first hand is widespread. Cultural anthropologists John Gatewood and Catherine Cameron conducted an extensive visitor survey at the Gettysburg National Military Park and published their findings in “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park,” Ethnology, vol. 43 #3 (2004). They handed out over 400 surveys to visitors outside the Park with return stamped envelopes and $1 bills attached to each as “token compensation.” More than 2/3 returned the surveys, yielding 253 responses. These revealed “that a certain portion of visitors want to consume history in a deeper, affective, and personal way [and want] to go back in time and imagine what actors were feeling.” Gatewood and Cameron labeled this impulse “numen-seeking.” (p. 194)

Numen is a term that has gained currency among social scientists in the past several decades and, as Gatewood and Cameron explain, it includes three dimensions:

  1. deep engagement or transcendence, which can involve such concentration that the individual loses a sense of time passing or may have a flow experience
  2.  empathy, a strongly affective experience in which the individual tries to conjure the thoughts, feelings, and experiences, including hardships and suffering, of those who lived at an earlier time
  3. awe or reverence, an experience of being in the presence of something holy or spiritual communion with something or someone. (p. 208)

Experiencing part of the setting—place—is critical to finding numen. In the Gettysburg study,

Almost a fifth of the respondents responded in a very personal way to the site. In some cases, that translated as a kind of awe that one could be standing on the very spot where the two sides fought so fiercely. Being in the same place as the soldiers and seeing the landscape also brought old history lessons to life or allowed deep empathy and leaps of imagination. Others responded with great reverence for the places where men died and expressed honor for the great sacrifice. This group often used religious language to express their feelings. (pp. 204, 211)

Re-enactors at the Burwell School, Hillsborough

Re-enactors at the Burwell School, Hillsborough

Smaller historic sites will rarely have the budget required to set up authentic historical experiences for visitors to the extent that Frontier House did. However, they can facilitate numen experiences in several ways:

  • The popularity of war re-enactments as hobbies testifies to the pervasiveness of the drive to experience the past. Many re-enacting groups convene at small historic sites for special events and members often like teaching visitors about how they recreate historical accuracy. Why not keep a range of reproduction clothing and other items on hand, partner with a re-enactor group, and let individuals and/ or families in your community apply to be re-enactors for a day?
  • Even if you cannot supply participants with the trappings of a particular period, you can assign each visitor an historical identity to read about and possibly role-play as groups move through the site. This activity could be either a routine aspect of visits or part of a special tour. The process can enhance the group social interaction that is already a typical and important part of historic site visitation and allow the stories the site portrays to be multi-vocal.

What other ideas can you come up with to help satisfy numen-seekers at your institution?

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on February 12, 2013, in historic houses, historic sites, public programs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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