AASLH 2017 and the Quest for Relevance


Earlier this month, I hopped on a plane down to Austin to attend the American Association for State and Local History conference (AASLH)—my first time attending this conference.  I had a great time presenting at a poster session, eating more than my fair share of breakfast tacos, and attending a lot of interesting sessions around the conference theme, “I AM history,” which focused on making history relevant to many different types of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences.  One of the sessions that stood out to me was a Current Issues Forum moderated by Conny Graft (Conny Graft Research and Evaluation) and Kate Betz (Bullock Texas State History Museum) that grew out of the History Relevance Campaign.  The session featured a conversation with a panel of three leaders of local nonprofits who do not frequently visit history museums or historical sites.  Session moderators asked the panel questions about what “history” means to them and how, if at all, history and history museums feel relevant to their lives (or not).  The conversations reminded me how all museums, not just history museums, are on a quest for relevance—but figuring out how to be relevant is difficult and often a focus in our evaluation work.

In my experience, visitors find relevance when a museum helps them “see themselves” in the exhibition, which can be challenging considering the range of experiences and perspectives visitors bring with them to the museum.  However, I think history museums have a distinct advantage because history itself is about telling human stories.  This is one of the reasons I love history—learning about the vast range of human experiences across time and space.  In graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on early interactions between Euro-American fur traders and Native people in the Northern Rocky Mountains in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I know this topic sounds narrow and boring to some, and may be a surprising topic of research to those who know me because so many aspects of this topic are far-removed from my own life.  So, what drew me into this research?  The idea of negotiation and compromise—two groups working together to find a “middle ground” based on a changing array of real and perceived needs.  We have all been in situations where we have to make tough decisions and compromises—this was a hook to help me begin to understand the past and its relevance to my life.  To remain relevant, I think museums have to find that broad entry point that gives visitors something relatable to latch on to.  I’m sure the session moderators and participants would agree finding that hook is certainly easier said than done, but well worth the effort if it can spark deeper exploration of history.

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