Four Rivers has invited the new Interim Assistant Director to write on heritage-related topics she is passionate about. Thank you, Lisa!
By Lisa Robbins
Have you ever read an article that seems to solidify or condense many of your thoughts in an eloquent yet thought-provoking way? This happened recently as I was reading “Truth or Consequences,”an article by Tim Grove in the Spring 2018 issue of History News (The Magazine of the American Association for State and Local History [AASLH]). I have worked in museum education for over 15 years and am now working for the Four Rivers Heritage Area, assisting its work with heritage and cultural sites in the area. In my experience, museums and really anyone doing public programming should strive to create the best visitor experience possible.
Tim Grove mentions that “truth is the foundation for trust”; there are many museum industry studies that demonstrate that visitors trust the information from history museums and cultural sites more than from textbooks, teachers, the internet or books. As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility” … okay, okay, full disclosure, Voltaire and Winston Churchill also made very similar statements. BUT it is so important for everyone working and interacting with the public at museums and cultural organizations to understand that visitors trust the information they are hearing/reading/learning at their sites. There is no room for embellishment or perpetuating myths. We all know this occurs (sometimes despite our best efforts at training and management). How many times are corrections countered with, “but it’s a great story!” No matter how juicy the story is, it is the organization’s responsibility for everyone (from management to volunteers) to strive for the truth.
Now, this is not to say that the truth is easy, clean or obvious. In fact, Cliveden, an 18th century history house property in Philadelphia, has consciously and actively worked to change the stories it tells. “Cliveden has become a place that embraces its whole story… Cliveden is a place that tells the truth, that American history is difficult” (Grove 2018:21). Many of the sites within the Four Rivers Heritage Area also deal with difficult histories, including slavery, servitude, racism and sexism. It is often these very histories that have been consciously excluded from heritage interpretations because they weren’t “fun” or “people didn’t want to learn about them” or some other response.
While visitors tend to trust the information they are receiving at museums, many struggle to understand that there is often more than “one legitimate way of recounting past events” (Grove 2018:22). Many visitors are comfortable with thinking that there is one “history,” that it is said-and-done and does not change. In fact, this is often not the case. Historical documents are open to interpretation, perspectives and biases should be examined and identified, and context must be considered. To achieve buy-in and understanding from staff, volunteers and visitors, an organization should approach its interpretive message with care and with transparency.
Transparency is often linked to documentation and citation—how did you/we arrive at this statement or understanding? Should our visitors care? Yes! As Tim Grove states, “When we direct visitors to look at our sources and to ask questions, we draw them into the historical process. We not only make the learning more active, but we begin to teach the skill of critical thinking.” By encouraging our visitors to question and analyze the information they are receiving, we hope they may begin to question the authority of information in other areas — an important skill for all aspects of society. Stanford professor Sam Wineburg argues that “we need to raise citizens who ask themselves, ‘Is this true? Who is saying so? What’s the nature of the evidence?’ Taught in this way, he says, ‘History is a training ground for democracy.’” (Grove 2018:22). Museums should explain their process and their rationale to encourage critical thinking in visitors of all ages. “Telling the truth” means acknowledging stories that have been omitted in the past and explaining why they are being included now.
History is fluid; it changes as new information is uncovered and understood. Grove eloquently states “we start to gain empathy when other perspectives make sense to us and we can understand why someone acted in a certain way” (Grove 2018:23). It is the role of museums and cultural organizations to proudly and engagingly tell all the stories of their sites, because in acknowledging all histories we are contributing to the development of empathetic, critical thinkers not only in our visitors, but in ourselves as well.