Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three Things to Like in Local History Museums

Much of my time in local history museums is spent thinking about how to do things differently--how to create new exhibits, develop new plans, or reach new audiences.   It was a pleasure this week to visit the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village on Sanibel Island in Florida while on vacation.    I didn't have to plan, or write reports, or gently make suggestions--I just got to be a visitor.  It's an all-volunteer organization, and three things about my visit stood out.

Friendly volunteers
In several (admittedly non-scientific) surveys I've done recently with local organizations, friendly staff and volunteers rank incredibly high on a list of community desires for museums.   I arrived at the museum at 3:30,  half an hour before they closed.   I've visited museums where volunteers or staff have said, oh,  it's too close to closing time, and discouraged entrance.  Here, a volunteer said, "oh, it's only half an hour til closing, so we won't charge you, but I'll take you on a quick tour."   And she enthusiastically did.

Sharing stories
I'm always interested in people's own stories about how they came to be in a place, and so asked when my guide had first started coming to Sanibel.   She told me her story, and then, when we came to a photo showing the unpaved sand roads, said, "This is just what it looked like when we first came,"  making the photo real in time for me.

Seeing places in a new way
We've been coming to Sanibel for more than a decade.  As the guide and I visited the buildings on the site, we entered the one-room schoolhouse.  The guide said it had been the school for white children only--but that the schoolhouse for African-American children still stood--but greatly changed and told me the location.  Sure enough, it was now a jewelry store, and one I had gone by repeatedly, without ever thinking about the island's diverse history.   Now I won't go by it again, without remembering my visit and my glimpse back into the region's past.

These elements are something that every museum, no matter it's size, can do.   But it does, I think, require a shift from an object-centered museum to one centered around the visitor.

 And one more thing--I even got a free prize--a key lime from the museum's tree!

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