The Future of the Past

The following blog was written waaaaaaaay back in January. If nothing else, the events of the past couple of months demonstrate how dramatically the pendulum of fortune can swing. All the more reason to thoughtfully consider what we can control about our future. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to affect our field. We will not look the same coming out as we did going in. So, be open to change and embrace the opportunity that has been pressed upon us. What are you going to do to ensure that our field continues to thrive in the face of adversity?

Living history is at a crossroads. Technology, in the form of smart phones, virtual reality and realistic video games, challenge living history as a means of replicating the past. Changing career expectations are affecting our ability to recruit and retain the next generation of historic tradespersons and interpreters. A de-emphasis of social studies in school curricula has led to a generation of potential museum goers with a diminished understanding—and appreciation—of history.

Goodness! What to do, what to do . . .

Well, one thing we can’t do is not do anything. We, as a field, need to embrace what is going on in the world around us and anticipate how we fit in.

And I think we do fit in. Young families are continuing to look for “real” experiences to fill up their discretionary time. There is ample evidence that many are embracing “digital detox” and looking for balance in their life. Immersion in the past is but one example of how that might happen. Last year the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation conducted a survey of over 40 living history organizations to assess what they are doing . . . and what is hindering them from excelling.

Many of the hindrances will come as no surprise:

  • Front line staff is woefully under-compensated.
  • The field is overwhelmingly Caucasian.
  • Our programming is underfunded.

There were some positive trends, however:

  • Many sites cited an uptick in visitation and school groups.
  • Many feel they do a good job of explaining the past and giving visitors a sense of what the past was like, despite lapses in the historical record, ADA compliance issues and compromises for the sake of visitor comfort and staff safety.

One trend to which we need to adjust is a subtle change in expectations. Back in the day (OK, Boomer . . .), learning history was a significant motivating factor for visiting historic sites and museums. Now, it is the experience of learning history that drives many families to our hallowed grounds. We need to recognize that how we package the encounter, how we establish expectations, how we engage the visitor will more often tip the scales of attendance than a passion for the subject matter. Like it or not, the degree to which an experience is engaging and, dare I say it, entertaining, will be an increasingly significant element of how we define success.

Speaking of audiences, we need to diversify them. Any financial planner will tell you that your portfolio needs to be varied in order to weather the whims and vagaries of the market. The survey results suggested that we need to expand our reach beyond our traditional audiences. We can’t be complacent about who comes to our programming. Demographers are pretty darn good at anticipating how society is changing, and we need to adapt to how those changes will impact our current and potential audiences. It will be imperative that we craft our stories and experiences so that they are of value to African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other cultural groups interested in the evolution of the country. A particular cultural group needn’t be a part of the particular story you tell, but we all need to figure out how to make it relevant to them. If we don’t then we run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

The ever-evolving world of social media was also recognized in the survey as having a significant influence on how we expose our programming to the public . . . and stimulate an ongoing relationship with them. Those who ignore how social media might play a part not only in marketing but the experience itself do so at their own peril. Visitors are increasingly interested in sharing their experience and doing it during the visit. We need to not merely recognize this trend but embrace it, encourage it, and help them do it.

One area over which many expressed concern was fostering and training the next generation of artisans and craft persons. Finding men and women willing to dedicate years of their life to an apprenticeship or training program is becoming increasingly difficult. We will need to explore partnerships with craft centers and improve our ability to network with one another in order to develop programs that might entice persons to learn a trade. We also need to expand our research skills beyond the past and study how the current generation is evolving. Millennials’ ideal work environment and shifting sense of what defines a successful career offer living history sites an opportunity to adjust how they define job positions and expectations that might be more in keeping with emerging definitions of what a work week looks like.

Finally, 75% of the respondents to the survey used the word “connections” in their response. “Connections to current events,” “connections between the past and visitors’ lives,” “connect to the present,” are just some of the comments. Making connections between past and present was a universal aspiration that came through loud and clear during the interviews. A couple of managers admitted that interpreters/volunteers are often hesitant to bring up current events and prefer to not be explicit about drawing comparisons between past and present. Others noted that connections can be made about basic things such as food and shelter; it doesn’t necessarily need to be controversial issues such as gun control or religion. But all believed that their job didn’t stop at depicting the past; that connecting it to their visitors’ lives today was paramount.

So, there, in a nutshell are some of the key things we learned from our survey. If you’d like a copy of the report or would like to comment on this blog, let me know:

Author: Mark Howell, Director of Education, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Williamsburg, VA

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