Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Did You Ever Wonder?

This week, a project that's been almost two years in the planning makes its debut in Montgomery County, Maryland. I'm pleased and proud to have been a part of Montgomery Connections at the Montgomery County Historical Society and think the story of its development provides some guideposts for how local history museums might approach their future.

The original idea for the project was to produce a series of Spanish-language posters about county history--about agriculture, about the Civil War, etc. At an initial consultancy, the staff and I talked about Montgomery County's diversity, its importance as a high-tech corridor outside Washington, DC, and the high percentages of working mothers and people who spend substantial time commuting. All that suggested that getting people to visit the historical society's exhibits and historic houses was going to be a difficult thing.

At that time, fall, 2007, cell phone tours were beginning to be a part of the landscape, but definitely not as common as they seem to be today. So we came up with the idea to produce portable free-standing banners on the topics, that provided just a taste of a topic and a phone number to call to learn more. The banners and the audio segments were to be in the three languages most widely used in the county--English, Spanish and Mandarin-- That idea was fleshed out into a successful application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (which also helped leverage other local and state support) and the project got fully underway (the project was begun under the society's long-time director Mary Kay Harper and fully embraced by the new director, Debbie Rankin, after Mary Kay's retirement).

Montgomery Connections, as the project is now called, has many facets: portable banners with cell phone numbers to call to hear a brief audio "visit" about the topic and the individual portrayed; bus shelter ads; print ads in English, Spanish and Chinese community newspapers, Facebook and Twitter; and a website. Four topics are introduced today; and an additional eight topics will be rolled out through the end of 2009. And why did you ever wonder as the headline? We're hoping it makes people curious to learn more.

From my perspective as the project consultant, what did we learn?
  • The value of evaluation. We conducted both front-end and formative evaluation (done by consultant Catherine Harris) and in both cases, the knowledge gained was critical. We found that certain topics resonated deeply with all groups--the Depression, in particular. We also found that images and information from popular culture were pervasive in people's understanding of certain topics. Did our original historic photograph showing someone during the Depression show someone looking "poor enough?" Did John Higgins, our Civil War character, look too much like Abraham Lincoln? After considerable discussion we came to think that the opportunity to show authentic, local images that challenge stereotypes was a distinct benefit to the project.
  • Make connections for viewers. Not surprisingly, we found that the most interesting topics were the ones where the participants found ways to connect the historical story to their lives today. That's why the Depression resonated with so many. We rewrote text to reflect that tie and hope the connections are clear to viewers and listeners. We also found that viewers needed, in addition to an image of a person, a context photo of some sort--so banners were re-designed (all the banner and advertising design was done by Lisa Tait of Silvertop Graphics) to include that additional image.
  • Real community outreach is hard. No real surprise here, but I think we all underestimated the time this project would take--to recruit and conduct focus groups, to translate and proofread materials in Spanish and Mandarin, and a host of other details. Debbie Rankin, Beth Hickey, Joanna Church and Karen Lottes, all of the MCHS staff, squeezed in time for the many parts of the entire process. Sometimes it seemed like our to-do list only got longer!
  • Collecting your community's history should be a never-ending business. By that I don't mean that we all should be in the never-ending business of collecting undocumented, poor condition petticoats and wood planes; but that we should be in the business of collecting the stories, images and objects that have real, documented connections to all of the people in the places we live. The website and audio segments both have a feature that allows readers to share their own stories.

  • "Each step in this project opens a door," said MCHS director Debbie Rankin at one point in the process. This entire project--focus groups, translations, recruiting voices for the audio recordings, finding locations for banners, getting the county executive to introduce them--brought MCHS staff to new places and people in the community. In a county of almost 1 million people, people to people connections are more challenging than small towns--but it can be done!

We're be learning for the next six months or so about how the cell phone audio works--if people actually call. But more importantly, will this project lead new visitors to the museum? Here's the mission of the historical society:
The Montgomery County Historical Society (MCHS) is dedicated to encouraging the County's residents and the public at large to discover their common heritage. To achieve this, the Society uses its historic resources (historic buildings, artifact and library collections, educational programs) and fosters partnerships with others to create a shared sense of place in a changing environment.
Nothing in that mission says that the discovery of a common heritage has to be done at the historical society's physical headquarters. In these too-full days of modern life, perhaps all the history a busy working mom or dad has time for is standing at the bus stop. Does that matter? I don't think so. It may spark an interest that lies dormant for a bit or it might just provide a little bit of respite in a busy day.
Based on that mission, I'd say whatever means the historical society uses to reach its residents is great. It's a huge step from that all-too-familiar refrain at local history museums, "well, no one ever comes..." The Montgomery County Historical Society has, through this project, not just thrown open their own doors inviting people to learn more, but walked out that door into the community.

Want to meet our first four characters?
  • Visit the Montgomery Connections website
  • Look for Yarrow Mamout, Blanche Cook, Fred VanHoesen and John Higgins on Facebook and Twitter
  • Call to hear the audio for all four. In English, call 301-296-5603, in Chinese, 301-296-5604; and in Spanish, 301-296-5605.
Top to bottom:
Blanche Cook, the Bethesda Farm Women's Market and the Depression banner
Yarrow Mamout and Slavery advertisement
Banners unveiled on July 1, 2009 with MCHS staff and community members
Courtesy the Montgomery County Historical Society


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Linda --

After hearing you talk about this project, it's great to know that it's finally underway. Congrats to you and the folks at the Montgomery County Historical Society! I know you'll keep us posted as the project progresses. I'm anxious to hear if it meets the goals of public engagement as you have so clearly outlined them here.


Linda said...

Thanks Anne--

We had always planned focus groups in this project, but the additional level of community support needed for every phase of the project meant the engagement with new audiences began long before final rollout.

I think if you wait until the product is complete, chances of success are lowered. We'll see what happens, but we're hopeful and excited.