One of the central themes throughout this year’s program has been impact. The thinking being, that if we don’t have impact, and are not able to demonstrate and quantify our impact, both visitors and funding will dry up. So how can museums/history organizations have impact?
At a point in the three-week program when my mentor advised you start to lose steam, I got a tremendous boost in energy from the busy and varied day we spent on Friday, November 8. I felt the impact of three history organizations that day in ways worth noting and remembering.
The day started out with what I had expected to be fairly dull- statistics. James Chung from REACH Advisors pelted us, in his rapid delivery, what should have been kind of terrifying. The numbers show that if we don’t change something soon, many history organizations may become history themselves in the not too distant future. But rather than feeling doomed, I felt inspired- the perspectives offered by REACH Advisors (importantly, from outside the history/museum field) give us something real and concrete to work with- the more we know about the problem(s), the more effectively we can work to address them. On that note, we headed out for some much-anticipated fieldtrips, having spent the entire rest of the week in the classroom.
The first stop was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. While it would have been a welcome respite from thinking so much about history to go play in the fun spaces, we were headed for a more intense experience- the Power of Children exhibit. This space shares the story of three children – Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White – who made a difference, and hopes to inspire present-day kids to know that they too can work towards positive change. The theater piece portraying Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was incredibly moving, but it was not the place where I found a deeply personal connection. That was Ryan White’s baby blanket. I have to admit that before going to the Children’s Museum, I didn’t really know who Ryan White was. I won’t tell his story here- visit the museum’s website for more, http://www.childrensmuseum.org/power-of-children/ryan/story. But Ryan was born just six months after I was, and died in 1990, when we were both 18 years old. In one of the cases of real objects (unusual at a Children’s museum in my experience) was Ryan’s soft, pastel crocheted baby blanket. So very much like my soft, pastel crocheted baby blanket I still keep on a chair in my bedroom. Impact.
The next stop was Conner Prairie, where the centerpiece of the evening was the Follow the North Star program (http://www.connerprairie.org/plan-your-visit/special-events/follow-the-north-star.aspx). In this program, you play the role of an escaping enslaved person in a highly dramatized hour-long experience. I expect that my background more in anthropology that history made me more like the regular person participating in this experience, so it was interesting to hear the detailed responses of my classmates to the program, but I have to say I found it to be an immersive and intense experience. In the early part of the program, you are yelled at, demeaned and told to never look up, never look a white person in the face. It sucks. I quickly found myself staying as still and quiet as possible, and trying to come up with answers to the questions I heard hurled at other participants, so I would not get yelled at again. About half way through the hour, we made it to the home of a Quaker family, where we were told we were safe (at least for a little while), and told we could look up. Hell, no, I wasn’t going to look up! Just stay invisible. And I felt this at a very basic level, not intellectually. Even if this is not just like what enslaved people would have experienced in 1830s Indiana, I felt it. Perhaps this is how women living with domestic violence feel every day? Impact.
But tired and emotionally a bit overwhelmed, my evening was not over. After a conversation filled bus ride back to town, a small group of us went to one more event. The Eiteljorg Museum was celebrating the opening of their 2013 Contemporary Art Fellowship exhibition, RED (http://www.eiteljorg.org/explore/exhibitions/contemporary-art-fellowship), and followed their more tradition exhibit opening with an after-party with live music from A Tribe Called Red (http://atribecalledred.com), a native Producer/DJ crew who in their own words mix “traditional pow wow vocals and drumming with cutting-edge electronic music.” In a room filled with a much younger crowd that almost any other museum would see at an exhibit opening, we danced to loud, creative and culturally relevant music. It was totally fun, and there was actually some learning going on, even if it was mostly subconscious. But mostly it was fun… for young adults…at a museum. Impact.
So is the future for museums and other history organizations scary? Absolutely. But maybe we can see James Chung’s synthesis of the data as a wake-up call to start trying some risky, exciting, and cool new things. While I realize that the examples above are very individual, and I don’t know if they will make me a better citizen of the world, making that personal connection to your visitors is a key first step. Museum can most definitely have impact if we are willing to try!