Non-traditional audiences are the audiences we might not
expect to walk through our doors.
If they happen to saunter by and pull the doors open, I as a public
historian need to engage these audiences and court them so they eventually
become traditional audiences.
A history exhibit with the goal of engaging a
non-traditional audience either needs to itself be somewhat non-traditional or
be on a non-traditional topic not yet addressed by the institution. For
example, Wistariahurst Museum located, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, has long been
known for its presentation of 19th and 20th century
industrial history, told through the stories of an elite white family. However,
located in a community with one of the highest concentrations of Latinos in
Massachusetts, we have in the past, avoided any potential of conflict by
keeping silent the history of the most recent immigrants and migrants to the
community (and our largest ethnic group).
Recently, we have developed and delivered several programs
and large projects that address issues of civic dialogue and open up the museum
doors to the world outside. The first project that broke us out of our old
habits came to fruition when Wistariahurst and YouthBuild Holyoke received a
Save Our History Grant from the History Channel to explore the history of
Puerto Ricans in Holyoke. Students from YouthBuild Holyoke researched the
history of Holyoke and Puerto Rico, interviewed family, friends and locals
about their migrant experiences and the contributions they feel are important
to make to the community, and prepared documentaries on various topics of
importance to Puerto Ricans in Holyoke. From this, they developed a
comprehensive exhibit entitled “Celebrating the History of Puerto Ricans in
But we were not just celebrating this history. We were
bringing it to the forefront of the public consciousness. In not knowing how
our traditional audience would react to the Puerto Rican discourse presented at
the museum, we were taking an institutional risk. However, for all the events
associated with the exhibit, we had record numbers of visitors. Beyond
increasing our numbers, we made a statement of inclusion to our visitors and
the city at large that people had a choice to attend or not, but that the
institution would present the stories of the ordinary men and women who make up
the history of Holyoke, past and present.
One local Latino leader told me that he finally felt the
museum had turned a corner in inviting the Latino community into what is
normally reserved for those who are interested in only elite white history.
From now on, he said, he and his colleagues would feel comfortable holding Latino
events at Wistariahurst because of the efforts we made to discuss the local
issues of our current community.
This brings me to the topic of engagement. Whether the
exhibit is non-traditional or of a non-traditional topic, the concept of
engagement is critically important.
I believe it is a basic hope and challenge for public historians to
engage audiences on multiple levels.
First we must present basic facts, usually in the form of primary source
documents, whose existence cannot be argued. The second level must ask
audiences to delve further into the nuances of a topic and allow for multiple
perspectives and interpretation. From the primary source documents, we can
allow the audience to choose an interpretation or accept multiple
interpretations. We then leave the door open for more exploration after the
audiences leaves the museum. A new, and to me the most important, level of
engagement is to bring the past to the forefront and use it as a tool to
discuss contemporary civic issues. For example, an exhibit that travels through
the history of immigration to Holyoke in the 19th century can
potentially open itself up to the recent hot-button topic of immigration to the
United States that politicians are speaking to today, through exhibit panels or
In the end, there is no right or wrong way of presenting an
exhibit, whether to a traditional or non-traditional audience. It is a matter
of how you want to engage or challenge the audience on issues of the past, and
I would argue, contemporary issues. Without a solid understanding of what has
happened in the past, we can always expect it to repeat itself.
--Kate Navarra Thibodeau, Curator, Wistariahurst Museum