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