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On a recent visit to a local historical organization, we learned that they were having difficulty connecting recently arrived citizens to the history of their area. They also noted that not many of the older people were left who remembered the way things used to be. This organization is in the Twin Cities suburbs, but I think connecting people with history always faces this hurdle.

So, what are some ways that you all have found to cross the hurdle of connecting visitors with the past?

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5 Responses to Examples of Connecting Visitors to the Past

  1. Richard A, Williams says:

    Many museums are facing the issue of a changing audience, especially those museums that are located in communities that are developing from rural to suburban. Our museum is dedicated to interpreting the agricultural history of Dakota County, featuring a living history program interpreting 1900 rural history. The challenge facing us is that Dakota County is rapidly becoming a non-rural county. What was farmland just a few years ago is now rapidly developing suburban communities.

    We have found that most of the new citizens of Dakota County have moved here from numerous other locations, including many foreign countries. Very few of them have any traditional connection to Dakota County and most have little or no connection to anything agricultural. This museum is located on the county fairgrounds and recent surveys have indicated that many of the new citizens of Dakota County are not only unaware that there is a museum in their backyard but that many of them are also unaware that there is a county fairground or where it is located. So how do we make the new residents aware of the museum and its purpose and goals?

    I have to admit we do not have the perfect answer to that question. What we have done with some success is to offer programs that might spark an interest in visiting to both new and old residents, but are not necessarily restricited to county agricultural history. Examples of these events include a Military Heritage Day, Bluegrass in the Village, Wild West Weekend and a proposed Civil War Weekend. It is hoped that visitors will attend these events and in the process discover the museum and return for more traditional themes such as the County Fair, Grand History Days and Village Holidays. It seems to be working as we continually hear from visitors that they had never visited the museum before but now that they have "discovered" us they will return.


  2. Ben Leonard says:

    I think we can also think about making non-historical connections with folks first. A lot of times these new residents (suburban, immigrant, etc) don’t have a historical connection period. It is probably easier to address this in programming that’s not overly historical. We have had great success with the Raptor Center and Zoomobile. We also have a successful Winterfest event that is at the museum but partner with the St. Peter Rec Dept. I think it’s easier for new audiences (at least new to us) to think coming to see a bald eagle is cool than it is to make our history relate to them site unseen.

    When you get those people in the door for the bald eagle you can hit them with the history. I think the more visual and interactive that is the better. I don’t think you’re going to get these people to read a book right away – but they may be perfectly happy wandering around taking in visual images.

    My strategy with these audiences is not to win them over in one shot, but gradually raise their awareness of us over several contacts. Many still won’t like history, but at least they’ll have a favorable opinion (hopefully). But a smaller percentage can be won over and make the transition to more habitual users and members.

    I look at the success of Mill City Museum’s public programs. I think David Stevens is a genius. They get 800 people a shot coming to their concerts during the summer. Most of those 800 never would have gone in the first place if not for the show.


  3. Marci Matson says:

    The Edina Historical Society struggles with this issue as well and have tried a lot of things to bring in new people with varying degrees of success. (I won’t tell you about the ideas that have bombed!)

    As an inner ring suburb, we transformed from rural to suburban a long time ago. Most people moved here in the 1950s or 60s and don’t have any connection with the community’s pioneer families. They seldom come to us for genealogy information and wouldn’t seek us out necessarily to find out how Edina was settled.

    They do want to know subjects that connect with them personally. They do want to know why their street has such an unusual name (then we can tell them about those pioneer families whose names grace our streets)and who built their home.

    In addition, many people are now researching their organizations because many formed in the 50s and are now celebrating their 50th anniversaries. We often persuade/help/cajole/nag various groups into collecting and researching their own histories. We’re working with volunteers from the police and fire departments now to collect photos and artifacts from current and former members. We provide some training and other support and we will house and catalog their collections.

    We compete with so many things for residents’ time and money. Unfortunately for us, people don’t make time to go to the history museum in town, just to look around (especially since we’re open just a few hours a week). So, we go to them. We send speakers to community groups to talk about history topics they’re interested in: a business group might hear about the history of 50th and France, while a condo organization learns about the history of their property.

    We have a great volunteer (a second-generation Edina surveyor) who can tell neighborhood groups about what their land looked like before it was platted and how the streets were named, and answer such questions as "Why does Wooddale Avenue go at an angle while others line up in a grid?" (It connected a settler’s house to a school and was originally called Schoolhouse Road).

    (Full disclosure: our speaker programs haven’t exactly brought in a lot of money since we don’t charge a fee, yet. We consider them a success because we reach a lot of people. We also get small donations and a membership or two from an event.)

    We try to connect the present with the past. When Light Rail came to the Twin Cities, we did an exhibit on streetcars in Edina. We also generated a lot of interest when we arranged for former residents to see their childhood homes as part of a neighborhood centennial. New residents learned about "their place in history" (to borrow from MHS marketing!)

    We don’t have a big immigrant population, but I thought the Carver County Historical Society did a great job with an exhibit that showed new immigrants in context with early immigrants (I think it was called Choosing Carver County).

    A long post. Forgive me. I think I’m procrastinating…back to work!


  4. David Grabitske says:

    Driving in to work today I heard a story on CBS radio news that now for the first time more people in poverty live in American suburbs than in inner cities. Surely this has an effect on how we reach the public we serve. How does growing poverty in suburban communities change our programming? And, for inner cities and rural areas that have dealt with this issue longer, what can we learn from that experience?



  5. Cathy Walters says:

    Jr & High school children,programs in school & Hist.Soc. hand & foot a resourse that can collect info on a wider scale.


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