What a week it was...and the word history certainly appeared everywhere. At the end of such a historic week I thought a bit about both the ways in which history was used this week and about what this election might mean for those of us who work in local history organizations in the future.
Tuesday night ended with both candidates using history to make their point. McCain, evidently a practitioner of the Great Man approach to history, used Theodore Roosevelt's White House invitation to Booker T. Washington to make a point about the importance of the election. Barack Obama took the same bottom up approach he used as a community organizer--a social historian's approach-- and used the story of a single person to make a larger point. For him, 106 year-old Ann Nixon Cooper was a lens for understanding a century of change.
This week, I've spoken to so many people who were a bit stunned, in a way, to find themselves participants in history. My daughter, voting in her first election, described Philadelphia on election night as a "joyful riot." Another friend told my husband that it was one of the high points of his life; still another friend, who grew up attending segregated schools in Oklahoma, called from the road on Tuesday night in happy tears at Obama's election. Whether you voted for Obama or not, the chance to participate in a historical moment that was about joy and progress, not sorrow, was an amazing opportunity.
But what does the future hold? Can the election of an African-American president really change the work we do in historical organizations? Maybe, but only if we make a real effort to do so. It would thrill me if this election meant that boards started looking to represent their entire community in their membership; that all sorts of stories and audiences were welcomed in institutions. One thing this election tells me is that individual stories matter--but equally, individual commitment to a collective idea matters as well. Change in the way that we present and promote history that will only come if all of us who do this work make a deeper, stronger commitment to have organizations that really do represent our communities.
Specifically, what could organizations do?
- Boards could spend some time looking at the demographics of their community (found easily online at www.census.gov) and thinking about how well their community is represented on the board. Seek out new board members that really represent your community--and develop a strategic plan that gives the entire community a compelling reason to participate.
- Spend time in a board/staff session considering your core values. What does the organization really value? Does every part of your work exemplify those values?
- Program developers could consider different times for programs--and even for opening times. If, like so many communities, a majority of your audience is composed of families with two working parents, why not have early evening hours? Don't just do it the same old way.
- Survey! ask your audience (including those people who don't visit your museum) what they're interested in. Try using Survey Monkey. And then, of course, evaluate.
- Get out there--become a presence in your community. Instead of presenting a lecture series that draws the same audience over and over again, get out to community events. Develop a small table-top exhibit or great selection of hands-on activities and invite yourself to fairs, festivals and the like.
- It's a tough financial time for many--consider free admission.
- Don't just pay lip service. Connecting with new audiences is hard, sustained work. As a board, understand that this takes time and money; as a staff, don't get discouraged, but keep trying to connect--and always, keep listening.
One thing is for sure, however. One hundred years from now, there will be an entire generation of curators sighing deeply as they open yet another box with yet another copy of a newspaper from November 5, 2008; joining all those man landing on the moon magazine covers. To my colleagues in the future--good luck with that!