Sunday, May 11, 2008


At AAM, I attended two fascinating sessions by James Chung and Susie Wilkenning of Reach Advisors. I was particularly struck by the survey they had just completed of 5000 visitors to 13 major outdoor museums. You can read much more about the survey on the Reach Advisors' blog. The survey looked at, among other things, why people visit.

Why do they?
  • 62% said to immerse themselves in the past
  • 82% to hear stories of everyday people
  • 79% because they are places for children to learn history
Visitors wanted more immersive experiences. They wanted more access to the site, more opportunity to do rather than watch demonstrations, to engage all five senses, and critically, they wanted well-informed accessible, friendly staff. All good things to consider for any museum.

But the part of the presentation I struggled with the most is about authenticity. Said one museum visitor, "In my mind, authenticity is synonymous with history museums." But is it really--and how do our audiences really know we are authentic. In one of my projects, a teacher survey revealed that a majority of teachers visiting this particular site feel it's the real deal, but some think it shows the colonial period when in fact, the artifacts and limited interpretation are the 19th century.
I'm glad that visitors think we're authentic--and in fact, the museums in the Reach Advisor survey are in the top level and clearly set high standards for authenticity. But in fact, many small museums also convey that authenticity, when in fact, they're portraying falsehoods--whether it's something about people being shorter back then or ignoring the presence of enslaved people in the site's history.

I wish museum and historic site visitors would be more critical--that they would spend more time asking why, than learning the how of spinning or printing. Maybe they won't, because many of them come, as the survey demonstrated, for a respite, a bucolic setting. And I wish we, as museum professionals, could spend more time really thinking about the meaning of authenticity for our audiences, understanding how we are perceived, and working, when necessary, to change those perceptions.

Above: Eggs (real) at the Farmers Museum, April 2008


Donna said...

Thank you - this is absolutely true. I have this experience when visiting historical museums, especially as I have learned more about the history of our country and of New York: now I recognize how much is being left out and/or misinterpreted or misrepresented. Challenging interpretors at the time (during a tour) can be tricky; who are visitors going to believe? Does it teach them to ask questions or will they just think you are rude for correcting the docent? Do we need to teach people - outside of the museum - to ask questions while they are there, to challenge what they are told rather than just absorbing what they are hearing? How do we do this? This could be a great discussion!

Marc Williams said...

So, if visitors are going to begin asking deep, probing questions (the why), then museums will have to provide much more informed front-line staff. In my experience with many small and medium-sized museums, the interpretive staff mostly are not professional historians, and often are retirees. They have gone through some level of training by the museum's educational department (or person, or executive director if they are very small). Thus, the interpreter generally only knows what they have been taught, if they can remember. Training can vary from several hours to several days or even a week. However, it is relatively short. In addition, the training only presents the "party line," and even discourages alternative interpretations. It seems to me that the limitation of "why" will be in the quality of the interpretive staff. Museums will have to significantly upgrade the quality of docents and/or the training they receive. This of course means paying better to have better people on the front line. I'm not sure museums are ready for this expense. Has anyone been to a smaller museum where they have successfully done this?

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