What connects individuals to artifacts? The answer is often deeply personal, and while it’s possible for museum audience evaluators to trace clear patterns, the connection is often idiosyncratic. A new model of group tour and the internet itself can embrace the individualization of artifact engagement. Check out the following models at major museums—the Metropolitan in New York and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The much smaller, less well funded museums we work with here in NC may not be able to support the platforms in these examples, but the ideas of customization and engagement can be translated to both history collections as well as to smaller venues. [For example, at left, participants in a Delta Sigma Theta reception at the Greensboro Historical Museum look closely and discuss artifacts in a case related to their organization.]
If you haven’t yet heard of Museum Hack (or even if you have) this TEDx video is a good introduction to the company’s why and how. The founder never liked museums and didn’t bother attending them until a friend gave him a personal tour. Once he was able to explore according to his own impulses and share thoughts and impressions individually, he fell in love with museums and began giving tours to his friends, featuring his top 10 objects and stories in the museum. His tours generated a buzz and became so popular that he’s built a business out of small group museum tours with entertainment as the primary goal. If you were to give a “hack”- type tour of your own institution, what objects and stories would you include?
Online artifact images, accompanied by stories, allow users to customize their own learning (or entertainment) paths. Some institutions have been reluctant to share digitized versions of collection items for several reasons. Among them is the fear that putting collections on the internet will be a disincentive for face-to-face visitors. Despite digitizing and sharing most of its artifacts at high quality resolution for free, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has experienced record-breaking attendance in the last year. Could it be that the virtually unlimited access to collections this museum supplies online actually motivates in-person visits? If your institution shares some or all of its collections digitally, can you correlate that to an increase or decrease in visitation?
In your experience, what other methods of customized engagement with collections have been successful?
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:
- deep engagement or transcendence, which can involve such concentration that the individual loses a sense of time passing or may have a flow experience
- 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
- 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)
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?
Thanks to Kaitlin Lloyd, Distance Learning Coordinator at the North Carolina Museum of History, for this guest post.
At the North Carolina Museum of History, we aim to provide educational programming for all of the citizens of North Carolina. We offer tours, classes, festivals, and concerts for the visitors that walk through the doors of the museum. However, North Carolina is a big state, and with school and family schedules and budgets being tight, not everyone has the opportunity to travel to the museum in Raleigh. We think it is important to find ways to reach these people, particularly schoolchildren and teachers, so that they can benefit from our programs without ever leaving their classrooms. We do this through our traveling trunks, called History-in-a-Box Kits.
Our History-in-a-Box Kits are large plastic boxes filled with hands-on objects and a notebook with background information and lesson plans. The hands-on objects go along with the lesson plans, and are typically costumes, craft supplies, or reproduction artifacts like cotton cards, haversacks, or K-ration meal kits. Teachers request to borrow a Kit for a three-week period, and can either pick up the Kit at the museum, or have it shipped to their school. Currently, we offer nine different Kit topics, and have ten to fourteen copies of each topic. When writing lesson plans for the Kits, we use the curriculum standards established by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which most public teachers in North Carolina follow. While our Kits focus on a history topic, we work to make them multidisciplinary by incorporating math, science, language arts, music, and visual arts into the activities. We try to make the lesson plans fun and interactive, so that students will enjoy learning about history.
Since we serve students and teachers that live all across the state, we ship the Kits via UPS almost every week. They experience a significant amount of physical wear and tear, and it has taken some experimentation to find the best way to package the Kits to prevent damage to the objects and to the Kit boxes themselves. We used to use plastic file tote boxes that we bought from an office supply store. These boxes, made from polypropylene, proved to be so rigid that they cracked easily and required replacement frequently. We switched to polyethylene Rubbermaid Roughneck Storage Boxes, which are very sturdy, but flexible enough to withstand being jostled around in the mail.
When we prepare a Kit for mailing, we line a cardboard box with a layer of bubble wrap, and wrap the plastic box with bubble wrap on all sides. Bubble wrap has proven to be a useful tool in protecting both the plastic boxes, and the objects inside the Kit. Despite the drawbacks and the potential for damage, we still choose to include some fragile objects, such as pottery, drinking gourds, ceramic models, and plastic echo microphones. We understand that students may handle the objects roughly, so when choosing objects we usually use reproduction artifacts, as opposed to originals. We buy the objects in bulk so that we will have plenty of extras.
Even though the objects are not original artifacts, we still try to protect them as best we can. In the past, we tried using thick squares of foam that lined the bottom of the Kits that had cutouts in the shapes of the objects. We thought this might protect the objects, and help the teachers see how to repack the Kits correctly. However, in our experience, these have not withstood wear and tear, and teachers frequently did not put the correct object in the correct cutout. We understand that teachers are busy, and so we try to make the repacking process as easy as possible. We instruct teachers to wrap all of the objects with the bubble wrap, and to fit the objects back inside of the Kits however works best. We also have small, loose objects with many pieces, such as jacks, marbles, and coins. We package these in plastic sandwich bags with clearly marked labels, to help teachers repack correctly. We laminate most of the paper resources, to protect them from being torn.
Traveling trunks are easy to modify, depending on the volume of use, and the type of visitor borrowing your trunks. For instance, if museum staff members are going to take the trunks with them while they do a presentation, and will be able to supervise the objects, you may be able to use original artifacts. If you plan to make the trunks available for pick up and drop off at the museum, instead of going through the mail, you might not need a heavy-duty storage box. You could get creative with your packaging, and send your lessons and objects inside of a steamer trunk, a soldier’s haversack, a rolling wagon, or a suitcase. A traveling trunk program can be a great way to provide an artifact-based hands-on learning experience to an audience that is unable to visit your museum. Just start with one topic, a few lesson plans, and some objects, and then build your program based on the response you get from your users. Each museum does traveling trunks a little differently, and you can tailor your program so that it works best for your organization.
For a bigger event, try pairing the pop-up museum with one or more of the following activities:
- a wine and cheese “opening reception”
- an information session on collections care
- scanning or photographing the contributing pieces
One advantage to including a related activity is that it allows multiple levels of participation. Audience members who do not want to bring in artifacts can still participate as visitors or spectators, rather than as exhibit creators.
Pop-Up Museums are the kind of content-creating opportunities for museum participants that Nina Simon has discussed extensively in her book, The Participatory Museum. These programs can further institutional missions by increasing community engagement. Best of all, the requirements for space and materials are minimal. Why not try a pilot with a group of your organization’s volunteers and/or board members? That experience can help your staff tweak their pop-up museum program designs before opening the event up to a broader audience.