One of the challenges that public history programs face is how best to interest and engage their communities in history.
Of course, interesting exhibits and presentations continue to be at the core of our work and essential for that engagement. But some programs are going further, featuring initiatives that connect historical evidence and perspectives with current concerns and events.
A few examples:
*The Brooklyn Historical Society’s calendar of 2019 public events include a number of presentations and discussions on the historical dimensions of race and gender, social and environmental activism, legal issues, and business and labor history that are tied to discussions of current issues and future prospects in the community. Several other projects at the Society explore various themes in Brooklyn history to help put current issues in perspective.
*The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., is a good model of exploring sensitive, complex historical topics and engaging the city’s diverse community. Several imaginative exhibits over the past few years have advanced its mission of “Using History to Build Community.”
Its new #Shaping CLT: DIY Social Change Toolkit series is “aimed at vanquishing apathy ” through discussion of “trending issues” that “will will move participants beyond conversation towards civic action.”
Its new #Home CLT: Storymining 250 initiative seeks to build a profile of the people and communities of the city on the 250th anniversary of its founding. People are invited to share stories about making their home in Charlotte. People from anywhere in the city, all ages, and all backgrounds are invited to submit. The guidelines are rather open-ended to encourage participation – true, not fiction; written (with a 500 word-count limit) or prose or poetry or video (with a 3-minute limit) or audio (with a 5-minute limit) and can be illustrated with pictures. It is part of the Museum’s continual, imaginative approaches to engagement. “Your history is important to Charlotte’s history and you’re making history right now,” says the invitation on the website.
*The Greenwich Historical Society in Cos Cob, CT, says in its mission statement that it “preserves and interprets Greenwich history to strengthen the community’s connection to our past, to each other and to our future.” It has just completed a successful capital campaign which supported renovation of its historic buildings and expansion of its campus. Its 2018 report We Did It! explains some of their key strategies.
It opened a new exhibit entitled History is…. to coincide with the opening of its new facility. The exhibit “encourages visitors to reflect on the role history plays at different stages in their lives and explores the ways individuals look at, define and interpret history….This exhibition illustrates how ubiquitous and dynamic history is through artifacts, images and documents. See how we record time and events, how we move about, the structures we save and the things we collect give meaning to our lives and to our communities.” For instance, one theme, “HISTORY IS…PEOPLE ON THE MOVE” explains the historical development of the town. Another theme, “HISTORY IS… PERSONAL,” invites people to loan a document, artifact or image for the exhibit to illustrate an event in their own lives. There is a “Comment Board” where visitors can leave a short description of an event in their own lives.
*The Valentine Museum, a history museum in Richmond, VA, is offering a Controversy/History Series that “explores present-day issues facing the Richmond community by pairing historic debates with modern data, encouraging important discussions that inspire action and promote progress.” The series features presentations by experts followed by “moderated, in-depth discussion among attendees.”