Reaction: Considering Relevance

February 28, 2019     

Announcement: Since my wedding is this upcoming month and will be busy putting the final details together, I will not be writing new posts for March. I will try to share previously written posts during the month. Thank you so much for your understanding. Stay tuned for new posts in April!

I came across a post yesterday on the National Council on Public History’s History @ Work written by Tim Grove on considering relevance. Relevance is an important topic in the museum field and we should be applying it more in our history museums, sites, historic house museums, and historical societies. In previous blog posts, I have talked about relevance and how relevance will help our history organizations create connections between the visitors and the historical narratives we present.

One of the points Grove made I took away from his post was when he stated “If something is not perceived as relevant, it usually does not have high value.” Our purpose as museum professionals and public historians is to help bridge together human emotion and knowledge together to keep adding value to what we can learn from the past. If we cannot translate our work’s value to the visitors, we would not be able to effectively argue history’s relevance.

I believe we have been working towards keeping history relevant in our society but we also need to remember that society does change and adapt. Therefore, as society continues to change we should be finding ways to make sure relevance is present within our exhibitions and educational programs. In my Museums vs. The Couch post I wrote last September, I pointed out that relevance

continues to be an important topic as new media, technology, events, et cetera, develop and change how people interact with the world around them. I have previously stated in my blog post “Does ‘Hamilton’ use Relevance to Teach Our Nation’s History?”: Relevance is significant especially in museums to understand who our community is and to help individuals feel they can connect to our past in a way that they can relate to.

I feel this statement is still true today and historic sites, museums, and historical societies should keep this in mind when working towards relevance. There is at least one example out there of how historic places and historical societies use their exhibits and education programs to maintain relevance.

In the same Museums vs. The Couch post, I wrote about the Three Village Historical Society in East Setauket, New York and their consideration of relevance in the tours and programs. According to my blog post and what I have experienced,

Founded in 1964, Three Village Historical Society continues to meet its goals to educate the community about local history through events, walking tours, and educational programs. Inside there is an exhibit dedicated to General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring which was an American spy network, mainly made up of members who lived or grew up in East Setauket, that operated during the Revolutionary War. The spies were able to provide Washington information on what the British troops’ plans were to help win the War. A television series was produced by AMC in 2014 called Turn, which is based on the Culper Spy Ring and the Revolutionary War, for four seasons. Turn brought a number of fans to the Three Village Historical Society who wanted to learn more about the Culper Spy Ring. Even after the show ended, fans still come to the site thanks to the show’s accessibility on DVDs and on Netflix.

Three Village Historical Society uses modern media to help visitors create connections to local history and to understanding the human side of becoming a spy. Also, I liked that Grove addressed Nina Simon’s work on The Art of Relevance to convey the significance of relevance in historic places.

Grove pointed out Simon’s overall message of her book which is: relevance is necessary for any public-facing institution, or even movement, to consider. I also read and wrote a book review on Simon’s book to express why relevance should be considered. In my post, I pointed out that

The Art of Relevance is also an important book in the museum education field since our museums can practice this art of relevance through the educational programs offered including public programming, school programs, and summer programs. After reading the book, I felt that I could adapt these advices to my own practices as a museum educator.

Museum educators, of course, are not the only ones who can benefit from developing relevance between visitors and programs. Public historians in the sites, historic house museums, historical societies, and history museums can benefit from helping visitors make emotional connections with the past.

History organizations can absolutely be relevant not only within their communities but to everyone. We need to dig a little deeper to inspire visitors to make their own connections to the exhibits and programs we develop.

I like to pose the same questions Grove did in his post on relevance: Can an organization be relevant to everyone? Should it even try?


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