I had great expectations for the keynote address at the ALHFAM conference in this year, and Dustin Growick, Audience Development Outreach Manager at Museum Hack did not disappoint. For those of you who could not be there or for those who might be in need of a reminder after returning to a desk piled with work, here are some of my takeaways from the keynote.
First, just reading the title of the session every morning is a great reminder. I think I will make “Museums are F****ing Awesome!” my new screen saver. Sometimes we get bogged down in all the day-to-day problems and forget this. As a mentor once told me, “It’s not the lions and tigers that keep you from doing your job; it’s the barking of 10,000 Chihuahuas.”
Our goal should be to get people to come into our museum or historic site and love it as much as we do. You can’t do that if you don’t stop and remind yourself once in a while why you went to work in the history field in the first place. The person I know who expressed this best was Lynne Belluscio in her past president’s address titled “Passion” in 2008. You can look-up excerpts through A.S.K. on the ALHFAM website. It is well worth your time to read, though it fails to capture Lynne’s wonderful delivery and sense of humor. According to Lynne, “Lost passion is tragic.” It is important to remember and share what first attracted us to history and what excited us about visiting a museum.
We need passion—there is that word again—based storytelling. But a shortened story; please don’t try to tell the visitor everything you know. As someone from Colonial Williamsburg said in a session in 2001, “Interpretation is not a data dump!” That was my first ALHFAM conference, and that stuck with me. I have borrowed the line many times since.
We need activities giving visitors agency to participate in the meaning of their experience. Our sites are uniquely prepared to offer this, but we need to make sure activities are presented in ways that encourage participation. Sometimes visitors simply do not know how to engage. The experience is often of being on the outside looking in. They don’t want to look stupid, especially if they are out of their element. Remember you want them to become as passionate about your site as you are. This can only happen if they feel welcomed, accepted, and safe. This also means allowing them to guide you to what most interests them. Dustin invites Museum Hack tour participants to photograph an item in a gallery they would most like to bring to a party. Once they gather he can then talk about the objects that speak to them.
Make the visitors feel like they are getting a VIP experience. This means keeping groups small which can be a challenge during peak school tour season. According to Dustin, millennials love experiences over things. While I don’t argue with that statement, I don’t think it is limited to millennials. As a baby boomer, I don’t need more things. I look for fun and meaningful experiences for myself and my family. This is also true for my 82 year old father who is spending his summer fishing in Alaska. The only presents I can give him at this point are experiences. Hum, maybe we should market Father’s Day or Mother’s Day experiences or birthday and Christmas experiences for the hard to buy for? He started plowing behind a team of mules when he was five so maybe he would like to try his hand at that again?
The interpreter is the cruise director for the museum experience. Those of you who have been on a cruise or who are old enough to remember Love Boat, know what this means. It is the cruise director’s job to make sure total strangers are enjoying themselves. The challenge is that people enjoy themselves in different ways, but the cruise director is always full of enthusiasm and attentive to everyone.
Our tours need to have a mic drop moment. I don’t think anyone can tell you what this is. It will be unique to you and your site.
Finally, visitors should leave with a tangible takeaway. In his tours at the American Museum of Natural History, Dustin gives every participant a small plastic dinosaur with the mission to go find their dinosaur, take a selfie with it, and learn one thing about it to come back and share with the group. Perhaps we could do that with an animal or a piece of equipment? With cheap wireless printers that connect to the phones, everyone leaves Dustin’s tour with a photo. And all those selfies they took get shared all over social media with positive comments about their experience.
Museum Hack tours are fun and irreverent. This works for them, but irreverent and fun doesn’t work everywhere. Some museums and sites deal with tragic events which require a more reverent approach. Near my home, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, for instance, is not a place for frivolity. The emotionally draining nature of the museum makes it a place you don’t return to often. I take out-of-town visitors there, but I drop them off and return to pick them up. The museum has found ways to deal with this through innovative programming that teaches students to design buildings to withstand natural and man-made disasters, as well as programs on how to investigate a crime scene. Most of us do not have this type of challenge, and we need to give our visitors permission to have fun and not take themselves, or us, too seriously.
It is a sobering statistic that half of the population does not believe museums are for them. We have to change that, and the only way is to rekindle our passion and spark it in others.
For those of you who were there, what did you take away from the keynote?
Kathy Dickson is a recent ALHFAM board member and director of Museums and Historic Sites for the Oklahoma Historical Society. She stumbled into the museum field over 30 years ago and never left.