About a week and a half ago I wrote an essay on this website about the importance of finding a balance between fun activities and historical understanding in the creation of interpretive programs at historic sites. In particular I critiqued two interpretive programs that the consulting group Museum Hack designed for the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area in Maryland. Somehow that essay caught the eye of Nick Gray, founder and CEO of Museum Hack, who had very nice things to say about my critiques. He shared the essay with his staff, and they recently wrote a response that you can view here.
I’m glad they wrote this thoughtful response, and I hope others interested in these topics will continue the conversation on Twitter, blogs, and among colleagues in real life. I would like to make three brief additional points here in response to the response before opening the floor to others.
1. My initial concern with the proposed program ideas emerged from a belief that the tone of these programs and the heavy emphasis on “fun” ran the risk of trivializing the meaning of a war with great significance to American history. This does not mean that I oppose having fun at historic sites or that professional practitioners should be the sole arbiters in shaping the meanings and experiences people have at these sites. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is that considerations of tone, environment, place, and context should be taken into account when designing a program at such a charged place. The Museum Hack response emphasizes the importance of creating “access points” for new audiences to historical sites, but they never really address the concerns at play in my initial essay. We all agree that making these sites accessible to diverse audiences is important, but the question is how to proceed with designing programs that are respectful of the past. I have no doubt that both Museum Hack and Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area have attempted to proceed in a respectful fashion, but I was not the only one who questioned the appropriateness of turning Civil War weapons into instruments for fighting zombies or wondered where discussions of politics, slavery, or causes of the Civil War fit into this program. One person even suggested that these ideas ran the risk of alienating people of color who might participate in these programs. These concerns were not addressed in the response.
2. The Museum Hack response reinforces the importance of using caution when discussing things like “engagement.” I have previously argued that such a term is ambiguous and creates just as much confusion as clarity within the context of museums and public history. The response argues that “we find new ways of achieving connections, relevance, and engagement,” but what does any of this actually mean at the end of the day? What does an engaged museum visitor look like, and what sort of connections are we looking for them to make? The answer is not self-evident. Engagement can take form in a museum selfie or an interpretive dance, but it could also take form in the actions of a student volunteering at a local historic site, choosing to study history in college, or taking part in a protest after an incredible experience at historic site. Let’s not underestimate the thoughtfulness and intelligence of young people and narrowly define the parameters of effective engagement.
3. I find some of the language in several Museum Hack posts about millennials rather patronizing and possibly isolating to other people interested in museums and historic sites. Again, this idea that millennials need more “fun” activities than other people to get into historical topics or else they will tune out is akin to saying that all millennials need ketchup in order to fully enjoy eating hamburgers. Some people will benefit from “fun” activities, but others may not. Some millennials are comfortable using social media in a museum setting, but others may not. While we can acknowledge that digital technology has profoundly altered the ways our society communicates and obtains information, we can also acknowledge that millennials are not the only ones interested in technology, that the concept of a “digital native” is a myth, and that technology is not always appropriate at historical sites. Cell phones, cameras, iPads, and computers are merely tools. How you choose to use them is what matters.
I took a training session on facilitated dialogue techniques earlier this year with a group of National Park Service interpreters and museum professionals. As we were learning these techniques a skeptical participant expressed her dislike for such methods and suggested that they would only be beneficial to younger millennials. I responded that facilitated dialogue was important not because it was a good thing just for millennials, but that everyone could benefit from and take something away from these sorts of programs. While we certainly need to ensure that young people take an interest in learning about and preserving history, we should be developing programs that offer unique experiences to all people, not just millennials. This is an especially important point given that the people who have the means to travel to and visit historical sites are in most cases not millennials, but Baby Boomers who are retiring from the workforce and patronizing historical sites with their families in record numbers. I want those people to have equally meaningful experiences at historical sites as those taken in by millennials.
Again, I thank the folks at Museum Hack for reading my post and offering a thoughtful response to it. The floor is now yours.