The Public Humanist

Engaging Non-traditional Audiences with History Exhibitions

As I travel back from a wonderful and successful annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, I think back to what I have learned about historical exhibitions in the past six years. There are certain expectations we in the public history and museum field of public history have when it comes to our audiences. We expect to see hoards of children outside the Boston Children’s Museum venturing out to enjoy a day with their families. We also expect to see busloads of students arriving to the Boston Science Museum. Who do we expect to see at History Museums?

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 Holyoke.”

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 associated programming.

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

© 2014 The Valley Advocate