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Some Notes on the Future of History Museums

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

In today’s post Phil Katz, who directs AAM’s research programs and collaborates with me on CFM’s forecasting reports, shares some of the wealth of information he brought back from a recent professional meeting.

Last month I spent a few days attending the joint annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians and National Council on Public History in lovely Milwaukee, home of both the Fonz and the amazing Milwaukee Art Museum building designed by Santiago Calatrava.

This is the nation’s largest gathering of historians who focus on the US and public historians (including many people who work for or with museums), more than 2000 strong.

I was part of a panel devoted to “The Present and Future of History Museums.” The other panelists were the chair, Steve Lubar (Brown Univ., formerly of the Smithsonian), Paul Reber (Stratford Hall), Dan Spock (Minnesota History Center) and Laura Schiavo (GWU museum studies). I opened with an overview of demographics (the US population, the museum-going audience, the museum workforce) and a review of the trends in CFM’s recent Trendswatch report. You can see my slides below:

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Reber talked about house museums, and the best quote from him was “It’s wrong to say that house museums are declining in popularity; except for a few places, like Mount Vernon and the Biltmore mansion, they’ve never been popular.” He encouraged house museums to seek alternative models of sustainability, including appropriate re-use (because many house museums will, even should, be closing their doors). He discussed the challenges of burdensome standards for house museums, deaccessioning, and the need for more creative approaches to education. On a positive note, he also described some innovative technology projects at Stratford Hall designed to make the house relevant to new audiences.

Spock described the heterogeneity of history museums as an example of biodiversity: a vibrant system as a whole, requiring and encouraging evolutionary adaptation, but with the expectation that some individual organisms will die and some species (= types of museums) may go extinct. He also described museums as “history doctors,” helping people recover from the poor history education they get in schools, while expressing some skepticism about museums as places to teach “21st-century skills.”

Spock noted two important dichotomies for history museums: 1) a traditional state/local orientation versus population mobility and remote technologies (which make place less important) and 2) the resource constraints on exhibit design versus the rising expectations that visitors bring to museums (how quickly can museums churn through exhibits that are elaborate, polished, interactive, technologically sophisticated, etc.?).

Spock ended by suggesting some action steps for history museums and those who love them:

  • cultivate kids from an early age (we need to “occupy their worlds”)
  • advocate with policymakers and foundations about the importance of history
  • cultivate the baby boomers as visitors and donors (they are entering a nostalgic phase of life, which is good for history museums!)
  • diversify staffs (as they are trying to do at his museum through an undergraduate pipeline project with the state university)
  • be willing to engage popular culture, thus offering visitors more “handles” to attract them to the museum’s work.

Schiavo talked about museums as social agents and the training of museum professionals. She argued that the field isn’t doing enough to “disrupt and transform current museum practice,” falling back instead on traditional approaches (which is also, she admitted, a tribute to the resilience of models that go back to the 19th century!). She called for more civic engagement (which public historians outside of museums often do better than history museums), and for museums to do more to “help communities become agents of change themselves” (an approach that considers museum-goers as citizens rather than consumers).

At the end of our panel, a lively Q&A moderated by Lubar became a discussion about shared authority in museums—an issue addressed in more depth in another session at the conference, Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, based on the book of the same name recently published by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The presenters looked at shared authority through online projects, in museum spaces (ranging from enhanced opportunities for visitor feedback to co-curation and community advisory boards), in oral history, and in collaborations between artists and history museums.

I also learned about two new digital projects that may be of interest to AAM members:

  1. Next Exit History is a database and mobile app of historic sites around the nation developed by the Univ. of West Florida. They are trying to create “an educational and entertaining portal to the historical landscape. To accomplish this, the team is looking to expand its content database by providing an opportunity for historical organizations to upload information about their resources.” It is impressive, and free.
  2. The History List, now in beta, is “an online platform, connecting individuals interested in history with history-related organizations and sites, events and exhibits in their community and across the country.” The goal is a free, easy tool that (history) museums with limited resources can use to promote themselves and their programs.

Please use the comments section, below, to let me know if you have any questions, or can share any links to resources related to the issues addressed in these panels.

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  1. Good post Phil! Just to be clear, I'm actually very supportive of teaching 21st century skills and feel that museums offer an excellent environment and opportunity for that. At the Minnesota History Center we have several promising projects underway that aim to do just that. I regret that our enthusiasm for this direction didn't come through more emphatically in my talk.

  2. your 1968 exhibition has traveled to Oakland really well, Dan! I went with my family the other day and we all loved it. the voting booth is great…I had no idea you could vote to Eldridge Cleaver, which I did …then my 5 year old pointed out that Robert Kennedy looked like he was going to win…being born in 1969, it took *that* moment for me to better understand the impact of his assassination. it is important work you are engaged in, and you do it well!

  3. Dan —

    My belated apologies. I certainly didn't mean to mischaracterize your views. As I recall, you directed your (well-placed) skepticism during the panel to some of the rhetoric surrounding 21st century skills, while embracing the idea that museums can help teach vital skills and encourage intellectual habits of mind that will make the 21st century a better, more productive era for everyone. (Everyone should visit the Minnesota Historical Society's website to learn more about the good work you and your colleagues are doing in that area.)

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