Engaging the Public at Living History Sites


Active history is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

This week, Wendy Rowney, Assistant General Manager at Black Creek Pioneer Village and a member of our opening plenary roundtable, suggests ways to make the learning of history engaging for the public. Rowney shares insight from 2014 research in which she and a colleague investigated what attracted visitors to museums and what encouraged them to return. Rowney offers six suggestions to meaningfully engage the public at living history sites.


Transcript

00:10
right so thank you very much for having
00:12
me here today I’m delighted to be here
00:14
not only because I I believe very much
00:19
in engaging history and in inactive
00:22
history but here on is where I did my
00:23
undergraduate degree and it’s a very odd
00:26
feeling being in this room the last time
00:27
I ever can remember being in this room
00:29
it was this floor was very sticky and
00:31
there was a lot of beer my name is Wendy
00:35
Ronnie on am assistant general manager
00:36
at Black Creek Pioneer Village and I’ve
00:38
spent most of the last two decades
00:41
trying to figure out or figuring out I
00:44
hope I’m working on figuring out how it
00:46
is that we make history engaging for a
00:50
general audience how do we engage people
00:53
in learning so i’m going to talk less
00:55
about how do we engage people in the
00:57
creation of history and more about how
01:00
do we make the learning of history
01:03
engaging when as the panelists we began
01:07
speaking about this the question that
01:10
was posed to us initially was why should
01:12
history be engaging and I thought you
01:15
know what I work on every day what I try
01:18
to figure out is how can history be
01:20
engaging as a public historian and a
01:23
museum educator as I said I’ve spent
01:25
much of the past 20 years figuring out
01:27
what draws people to learn about history
01:29
how do I interest people ranging from
01:32
preschoolers to older adults in history
01:35
how do I create programs that engage
01:38
their minds and hold their interest and
01:41
motivate them to return and that
01:44
motivation to return is very important
01:46
to me as a public historian because Adam
01:49
knees as an added as a museum our
01:51
numbers count every year we have to
01:55
report how many families how many school
01:57
children how many volunteers how many
02:00
members come through our doors and it
02:02
matters that 50,000 schoolchildren and
02:05
seventy thousand families learned
02:07
history at our Museum last year it
02:09
matters that people gave us 60 500 hours
02:12
of volunteer time and then and another
02:15
fifteen thousand or so chose to use our
02:18
site as a wedding and business
02:19
destination so these are factors among
02:21
others that are necessary for us when
02:24
we’re
02:24
applying for our major museum operating
02:26
grants we have to demonstrate that the
02:29
public finds us engaging or we lose the
02:33
funding that we require so for the past
02:39
20 years I’ve been working at Black
02:40
Creek as I said and those of you who
02:43
grew up in Toronto probably went there
02:46
almost everybody goes there when they’re
02:48
in grade 3 when I tell people where I
02:51
work after they say things like that
02:52
must be so relaxing there yeah uh-huh um
02:58
you know a lot of them like a
03:00
disproportionate number of people will
03:01
say I went there when I was in grade
03:04
school yeah and I see people nodding
03:06
here we go I went there when I was in
03:08
grade school and I wore a costume and I
03:10
made a spoon and I think to myself you
03:13
know what whatever it was that they
03:16
learned and whatever they’ve gone on to
03:19
and to do in their lives that’s
03:22
demonstrating that history was engaging
03:24
for them at that moment that it has
03:26
stayed with them so strongly that they
03:28
this is the thing that they have to tell
03:30
me about the place where I work so
03:33
before there was black creek there was
03:35
dl pioneer park and it opened in 1956 in
03:38
an 1809 barn located pretty much across
03:42
the street from where Black Creek is
03:43
right now and it was an exhibit based
03:45
History Museum and hundreds of thousands
03:48
of people went through its doors in it’s
03:50
about first four years of operation
03:52
that’s an astonishing number of people
03:54
in 1950 between 1956 and 1960 and what
04:00
was engaging them were exhibits about
04:03
spinning and maple syrup making and
04:06
sidesaddles and beehives it was so
04:11
successful that it led to the purchase
04:13
of a neighboring farm and the decision
04:15
to turn this into a living history
04:17
museum the Toronto region Conservation
04:21
Authority that owned the village they
04:22
moved a number of buildings historic
04:24
buildings from the neighboring areas
04:26
there and open the doors as a museum in
04:28
1960 they continue to move buildings
04:31
there for the next about 20 years or so
04:33
and it’s meant to show what a crossroads
04:35
community looked like in
04:38
in the middle of the 19th century as I
04:44
mentioned Black Creek is what is called
04:46
a living history museum and as many of
04:47
you probably know essentially what a
04:50
living history museum needs to have in
04:51
order to operate as an educational
04:53
mandate a collection of some kind and to
04:55
have your artifacts arranged in period
04:57
room settings sometimes you have people
05:00
who dress up who are called interpreters
05:03
or costumed educators but you don’t have
05:04
to sometimes you can do tours but you
05:06
don’t have to sometimes you do
05:08
demonstrations but you don’t have to so
05:10
it can really encompass a wide variety
05:12
of different types of museums historic
05:14
houses historic for its pioneer villages
05:16
that kind of thing and when this type of
05:19
museum began appearing in the mid 20th
05:21
century they were phenomenally popular
05:24
what mid-century visitors found engaging
05:28
what drew them by the hundreds of
05:29
thousands was demonstrations of period
05:32
crafts and trades what I often referred
05:36
to as how to history how to make a nail
05:38
how to make a quilt how to bake a cookie
05:41
and as far as I can tell the costumed
05:44
educators focused almost exclusively on
05:47
this they were talking about how to do
05:51
19th century crafts and trades and they
05:54
were showing people and what they were
05:56
doing at the time was incredibly
05:58
groundbreaking we don’t think that today
06:00
because we’ve all grown up in a world
06:02
where living history museums are all
06:04
over the place but they never they
06:06
weren’t they hadn’t been there they were
06:08
never around before that and most people
06:10
had never seen someone cook in a brick
06:12
bake oven or demonstrate how to make a
06:15
broom or pierce a tin Lantern and
06:17
demonstrating these trades and crafts in
06:19
period rooms in period costumes was a
06:21
revolutionary way of teaching and people
06:24
found it very engaging for several
06:26
decades around the middle of the 1990s
06:29
incidentally precisely when I started my
06:31
career in living history they started to
06:34
be a decline across the across the
06:37
country across the continent really in
06:39
the number of people that were going to
06:41
living history museums and for about a
06:43
decade before this musial adjusts have
06:45
been talking a lot about there were
06:47
problems with living history and we
06:49
needed to add in the
06:50
you know they’d say things like the
06:51
grime and the slime needed to talk about
06:53
class we needed to talk about race we
06:55
needed to talk about gender needed a
06:57
real reexamination of the buildings that
06:59
people were putting into living history
07:00
museums and what’s kind of stories they
07:02
were being used to tell and most public
07:05
historians agreed that we needed to move
07:08
away from how to history now what they
07:10
came up with was a way to introduce
07:13
social history and historical context
07:15
and they did this a lot and I’ve done it
07:18
myself a lot through sort of a hybrid of
07:20
drama and programming so you have
07:21
recreations of funerals recreations of
07:23
weddings this kind of thing but
07:25
generally speaking underlying this
07:27
system there’s still one of
07:29
demonstration and watching these types
07:34
of programs were engaging I believe
07:36
because they’re very immersive and that
07:38
visitors really feel or felt like they
07:40
were traveling back in time when they
07:42
were attending this wedding or funeral
07:43
or baseball game or dance or whatever it
07:46
happened to be there action based but
07:49
the activity was usually it was a means
07:52
to an end so you didn’t just talk about
07:55
oops there we are sorry you didn’t just
07:58
talk about cricket or just play cricket
08:02
you or baseball or have a dance or
08:04
whatever it was you’re talking about you
08:06
use these as a portal or a doorway to
08:08
talk about broader historical topics so
08:13
for example if you’re demonstrating
08:15
butter-churning you know i can put i can
08:17
demonstrate butter-churning for you i
08:18
could make better at a turn but i’m not
08:21
quite sure i don’t know exactly what
08:23
you’re going to take away from that in
08:25
terms of a broader historical ideas so
08:27
usually you would use that as a means to
08:29
start talking about gender rural versus
08:33
urban history at the time period foods
08:35
what people were eating a whole host of
08:38
topics you know it’s very common in some
08:43
circles for people to look at living
08:47
history and think that what it is is a
08:49
dumbing down of history and obviously
08:51
you cannot make arguments that are as
08:54
complex as you can if you’re writing a
08:56
book or an article or something like
08:57
that but that’s not what people are
08:59
looking for it takes several hours
09:01
usually or days to read a book
09:03
and no one not even the most
09:04
enthusiastic wants to listen to an
09:07
interpreter or read an exhibit panel for
09:09
hours at a time so you have to be able
09:12
to distill what it is that you’re
09:14
talking about you have to be able to
09:15
take what are the the main ideas and
09:18
make them interesting and engaging for
09:20
your audience and we also need to keep
09:24
in mind that the vast majority of the
09:26
audience right now for a whole host of
09:28
reasons are eight years old and no one
09:34
who wants to live to tell the tale is
09:36
going to try to lead a university
09:38
tutorial with a grade three class so
09:42
history has to be prevented or presented
09:44
rather a developmentally correct or
09:46
appropriate levels and usually that when
09:50
you’re gearing something towards an
09:51
eight-year-old you’re going to be
09:53
talking about ideas that make sense to
09:54
them at that point and when they come
09:56
back and grade 7 and grade 8 because
09:58
that’s the only time you have to do
09:59
Canadian history you approach it a
10:01
slightly different way you talk a lot
10:02
about war quite frankly with them and
10:05
injustice and then when they come back
10:09
and they work for us when they’re in
10:11
university then you can present it in an
10:14
entirely different way yet again in 2014
10:17
a calling and I received funding to
10:21
study what visitors found engaging in
10:24
museums and specifically what was
10:26
drawing them in and what was bringing
10:28
them back we visited 13 north american
10:32
top-tier North American museums at the
10:34
reputation for high levels of visitor
10:36
engagement and we watched visitors while
10:38
we were there and then we talked to the
10:41
public historians we’re putting together
10:42
the exhibits the activities and the
10:44
programs to figure out if what they had
10:46
intended was actually what people were
10:49
doing and if they thought the way they
10:51
thought it would be engaging if in fact
10:52
it was and we came away with six key
10:56
learnings about what is engaging in
10:59
museums for visitors and I believe that
11:01
when these elements are in place people
11:04
are engaged and they’re motivated to
11:05
learn so it will run through them fairly
11:08
quickly the first one is people make all
11:11
the difference
11:14
and when I talk about people here i’m
11:15
really i’m talking about costumed
11:17
educators not every museum has them of
11:19
course but if you have a living history
11:20
museum if you’re trying to teach history
11:22
in a living history museum setting
11:23
having costume educators makes all the
11:26
difference time and time again what we
11:29
saw was when you had someone who was in
11:30
costume the visitors flock to that
11:33
person and I believe it’s because that
11:35
person becomes a substitute time
11:37
traveler if you will so you can they can
11:40
talk to that person it’s a safe person
11:41
they look just like you and me that
11:43
funny clothes on but they look just like
11:44
you and me and I can talk to them and
11:46
find out what what it is I need to know
11:50
about the past it becomes far more
11:51
accessible for them the second one is
11:55
that people enjoy learning about real
11:58
people from the past and this was new
12:00
for me actually because for most of my
12:02
career I had talked about or I had
12:05
trained people to talk about to say very
12:08
generally well people in 19th century
12:10
you know generally speaking believe this
12:11
or these people believe that or this is
12:13
what happened but what I’ve discovered
12:15
is that I was wrong and people actually
12:19
visitors are more engaged when they’re
12:21
learning about actual real people
12:24
because I think what they’re doing then
12:25
is there making connections between
12:26
their own lives and the stories that
12:29
they’re hearing being told and you can
12:31
do this you can introduce real people
12:33
through a number of different ways in
12:34
Living History Museum’s you can look at
12:36
primary documents and bring them out and
12:39
have people look at census records or
12:41
maps or whatever it is there’s a
12:42
fabulous museum many of you may know
12:44
called the lower east side tenement
12:45
museum in new york city and this is one
12:48
of the museum’s we went to and honestly
12:50
it looked like it what does that is it a
12:52
scrum is that what they call it you know
12:53
when everybody jumps the interpreter
12:55
brought out the map and I everybody was
12:58
an adult in this room and they basically
13:00
jumped on the table to look at this
13:02
thing they were so engaged with the idea
13:05
of actually seeing the census record of
13:07
the people whose apartment they were in
13:10
that they were literally elbowing other
13:12
people out of the way you can also
13:15
introduce real people through drama
13:18
we’ve recently introduced a history
13:20
actor program at Black Creek and Mill
13:22
City Museum you ever happened to find
13:24
yourself in Minneapolis with the free
13:26
afternoon I highly recommend
13:28
going to Mill City Museum it’s fabulous
13:30
fabulous place and they use they have
13:34
recreated actual historical people from
13:37
the past and they use their stories in
13:40
it they dramatize their stories and this
13:42
is how they engage people the next is
13:45
that people learn by doing and this is a
13:47
really really key thing key learning I
13:52
can talk to you about how a printing
13:56
press works I can show you how a
13:59
printing press works or you can print on
14:02
the press and I can guarantee you that
14:05
the thing that you’re going to go home
14:07
at the end of the night and talk about
14:08
it dinner is the printing on the press
14:11
what we have to keep in mind is what I
14:14
mentioned earlier that this needs to
14:15
stay as a means to an end the printing
14:18
on the press is not the key idea
14:20
otherwise you would just go to it
14:21
somewhere we print on presses I don’t
14:24
know where that would be or it was just
14:25
somewhere you know where you whatever
14:26
whatever it is you’re going to do well
14:27
why you can once you’ve got them hooked
14:29
once you’ve got them doing something
14:30
then you can talk to them about the
14:33
broader historical ideas that youth that
14:35
you want to bring in technology can
14:39
enhance learning when it encourages
14:43
interaction between people and their
14:44
environments there is a fabulous app at
14:49
the mat in New York called murder at the
14:51
Met and of course they’re they’re not
14:53
teaching history so much as they’re
14:55
teaching art history and this app was
14:56
designed for middle school middle school
14:58
high school students and it’s like a
15:00
clue game so there’s a woman in a
15:04
painting and she’s been murdered and you
15:05
have to look for the weapon and you have
15:08
to look for the murderer and the
15:11
location by going around and looking at
15:13
different pieces of art in the American
15:15
wing of the mat and instead of just
15:17
racing through what the kids are doing
15:19
is they’re having to go up and actually
15:21
examine these paintings and this is a
15:24
nap the game can only be done in this
15:26
specific location so it’s not something
15:28
you can do at home you couldn’t do it a
15:29
Black Creek we don’t have these
15:30
paintings so when technology and hey
15:35
increases the connection between the
15:37
people your visitor and your location
15:39
and encourages them to look further
15:41
think deeper it’s very effective in
15:44
terms of engaging people with the
15:45
learning of history personal stories
15:49
create connections one of the criticisms
15:51
that’s long been lobbied at Living
15:55
History Museum’s is that they’re a
15:57
failure to bring in different types of
16:00
stories and there’s a whole host of
16:02
historical reasons for why that’s the
16:03
case and you know in part this is meant
16:08
is is because of the period that they’re
16:09
meant to portray and you have a series
16:10
of number of buildings and you have to
16:12
demonstrate and you have to use these
16:13
buildings and that can be difficult to
16:15
talk about people of different ethnic
16:16
cultural backgrounds different classes
16:18
this this kind of thing when what you’re
16:19
presented with your buildings all tell
16:21
one very similar story so what I think
16:23
we need to do is public historians is
16:25
look at different ways to layer history
16:27
on top of the stories that we’re already
16:29
telling so you can do that for example
16:31
through effective apps you could do that
16:34
through exhibits and that brings me to
16:36
my last point is the different kinds of
16:38
learning tools work well together even
16:40
in the same space we need to get away
16:42
from the idea that a living history
16:45
museum you have a bunch of period rooms
16:47
and people demonstrate things in them
16:50
and if you’re at a traditional museum
16:52
you have exhibit panels and you walk
16:54
around and you look at them and if
16:56
you’re in an archives you have primary
16:59
document a for documents and you and you
17:01
study them and we need to say you know
17:03
what all of these things go together we
17:05
don’t have to say this is 1 this is the
17:07
other this is the third one what we’re
17:09
saying is all of these things work well
17:11
together and when you include them all
17:12
together people are engaged and they’re
17:15
smart they understand that if you have
17:17
an exhibit panel in your historic house
17:19
that there wasn’t there when the people
17:20
lived there in the 1860s they get that
17:24
so what I believe is that people are
17:27
engaged when the process of learning the
17:30
learning process seems relevant to them
17:32
so when how they are learning how we
17:35
teach them is engaging for them then
17:37
they will embrace what it is that
17:40
they’re learning and they will find that
17:42
it is engaging so thank you very much
17:46
you
18:03
you

Previously published on activehistory.ca and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

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