Thoughts on Relevancy
We haven’t yet finished week one of SHA, and my brain is swimming with ideas. Most of all, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how our institutions can promote a better understanding of the relevance of history.
On Monday, David Young (Cliveden) and Tim Grove (National Air and Space Museum) sparked this discussion of historical relevance, a theme that has stayed close to the surface throughout the week. Both David and Tim challenged us to think about how our institutions answer the two most important questions we receive from our visitors and communities: So what? Why does this matter to me? The session generated a fascinating conversation focused on how historical organizations can (and must) adapt our content to remain relevant to current conversations at the local, state, and national levels.
On Tuesday, relevancy weaved its way into our discussion with Colleen Dilenschneider (IMPACTS Research) about the massive millennial generation. Using an incredible array of data, Colleen walked us through insights about millennials. Most strikingly, this research revealed that millennials are more likely to support an institution financially because they care about supporting the institution’s cause or mission, rather than because of the benefits or access their support provides. In other words: to reach Gen-Y, we need to focus on the “why?” We must convince them that our institutions are relevant and important.
On Wednesday, we saw a great example of an institution striving for relevancy when we visited the Indianapolis Children’s Museum’s The Power of Children exhibit. This powerful exhibit utilized the stories of three children – Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White – to explore issues of intolerance, fear, and prejudice. It strives to create a family learning experience that inspires guests to create positive change within their own communities. As proof of the exhibit’s effectiveness, evaluation has shown that 94% of families had post-visit conversations about the ideas and messages of the exhibit, and 65% of visitors returned to the exhibit at least once.
All of these discussions have inspired me to think critically about ways in which my institution – Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – can present the relevance of history to our guests. As a site of national and global significance, each day at Monticello we engage with our guests about the powerful ideas of the Declaration of Independence, the importance of self-government, and the role of educated, engaged citizens. We are also a site of enslavement, and have a duty to discuss the legacy of systemic racism that continues to impact our nation. As news headlines over the past few years demonstrate, both subjects remain critical topics of our national conversation today. I am grateful for the time SHA provides to think deeply about new ways to keep Monticello relevant for our guests, and I look forward to mining the creativity of my fellow classmates and the SHA faculty over the next few weeks. I hope to leave Indianapolis with new ideas for inspiring Monticello’s guests to become engaged citizens and create positive change in our world.
Steve Light is the Manager of House Tours at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.