Mental Impact of Historic Sites on Individuals

July 25, 2019

As a member of the American Association for State and Local History, I receive a copy of History News, the magazine that connects the people engaged in history work to new questions, ideas, perspectives, and each other. This week I received the Spring edition of the History News which focused on the power historic places hold on visitors. One of the articles featured in the magazine is “More Than a Feeling: Measuring the Impact of Historic Sites on the Brain” which discusses the impact of historic places on people’s mental state. After reading this article, I thought about my own experiences visiting historic places and my own emotional and intellectual response to these experiences. I covered a lot about the places I have visited on my blog in the past which I will include links to at the end of this post. I decided to revisit the ones I have written about to point out the emotional and intellectual connections I made to the places I visited to show how my connections evolved overtime. By briefly sharing both the article and my experiences from the previous blog posts, we will see how important historic sites and places are to individuals’ mental state during their visits.

Written by Erin Carlson Mast and Callie Hawkins, the Executive Director and the Director of Programming at President Lincoln’s Cottage respectively, the article examines how the staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage investigate how visitors are emotionally and intellectually effected by this historic site. Carlson Mast and Hawkins pointed out that:

Though many have tried to explain the value of old places or the important role they play in our society, no one has created a replicable, scientific way to quantify what is often at the heart of our mission: deeply personal, qualitative experiences for individuals and communities.

The plan to study the emotional and intellectual effects in visitors is to use mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) technology to both measure and clarify brain states of visitors as they participate in the guided Cottage tour, with the goal of distinguishing between what does and does not have a significant impact on the visitors’ experience. There will be three groups of thirty participants who will participate in sub-groups of ten to mimic the average visit on a tour in the Cottage. As the tour is conducted, they will use the mobile EEG technology to measure excitement, interest, stress, engagement, focus, and relaxation and the participants self-reports will be used to clarify the data. I look forward to reading the follow-up to the study to see what the results would be.

I think that it would be interesting to discover what the emotional and intellectual connections to historic sites would be since we may have accurate data to use to help create more effective interactive as well as engaging exhibits and programs. The writers also brought up this point on the importance of this experiment:

Emotion is critical to enhancing learning, improving critical thinking, and inspiring people to act or think differently. Thus, having scientific data about the best ways the Cottage can illicit such responses will get us ever closer to fulfilling our mandate and proving the elusive power of place.

Museum professionals strive to create an engaging and educational experience for each visitor they serve within the community museums are located. As I reflect on my own experiences at museums as both a visitor and museum professional, I made note of the emotional and intellectual effects that it had on me.

For instance, one of the first museums I visited in my lifetime was at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In a blog post I wrote about my experience, I stated:

My first experience visiting Plimoth Plantation was when I came with my sisters, mother, and my maternal grandmother. I remember walking through the Village and meeting other visitors in the meeting house. Later I saw some pictures from that visit, and each of the pictures showed my sisters and I having an opportunity to use the broom to sweep one of the houses. Another picture I saw was of myself appearing to be giving a lecture which reminded me of the story my mother told me: I pretended to be a minister and encouraged visitors to sit down and participate in the mock service, and then I greeted each individual with handshakes. I went back a number of times during my childhood and then visited as a young adult.

Years later during college I visited Plimoth Plantation with the Historical Society club. As the treasurer on the executive board of the Historical Society, I planned the financial aspects of the trip. Once all the details were settled, all of the Historical Society members and other college students interested in attending drove to Plymouth.

My emotional connection to Plimoth Plantation is through my childhood memories of when I visited with family members. When I made another visit, it was when I was studying history in college and part of a historical society club for a both bonding and educational session. Both instances shared how my connections are reflections from my memory, and at the time of each instance I was creating bonding moments with family and peers that helped me connect with Plimoth Plantation’s narrative. When I was a child, I was focused on playing and enjoying my time in a setting I was not familiar with. Meanwhile, as a young adult I became more focused on the history of Plimoth colony and the Pilgrims and Native Americans who lived in the colony.

Another example of the similar emotional and intellectual connections made was when I visited the Salem Witch Museum located in Salem, Massachusetts. Known for the Salem Witch Trials and for the maritime history, Salem drew in many people to visit the tourist destinations. In my blog post about the Salem Witch Museum, I wrote about my experiences:

When I first made the visit to the Salem Witch Museum, it was in the 1990s and I was with my parents and my sisters. We waited in the lobby of the museum until the group we were in was able to sit in the auditorium to learn about the Salem Witch Trials. As my family waited for our turn, I remember looking through the brochures and saw pictures of the statues depicting the townsfolk. I was scared since in my imagination I thought that the creepy statues were going to move around in the dark room. Once our group was able to go in after the previous group left, I did not want to go in so one of my parents went into the gift shop with me until the rest of the family joined us. It was not until I was in college when I returned to the Salem Witch Museum.

The Historical Society club I was a member and treasurer of decided to visit the town of Salem during one of our day trips we typically go on a couple times a year. When I finally went inside of the Salem Witch Museum’s auditorium, I felt silly that I was scared of the statues since it turned out that they were only statues as a recording tells the history of the Salem Witch Trials while lights were used to give spotlights for the stationary statues.

As a child, I associated the Salem Witch Museum as a scary experience because of my impressions of what I was anticipating but when I was in college, I was able to see the presentation I missed during my last visit. Based on what I wrote in the blog, my emotion connection to the museum was caused by the stress of waiting for the experience and seeing visuals that made my imagination as a child run wild. Each of my experiences showed that time between visits effected my impressions and emotional connections to the museums.

If museum professionals in other museums can perform similar experiments, they could help their significantly effect not only how programs, events, and exhibits are developed but they could affect how staff can perform in their roles. The article pointed out that:

Proving the transformative nature of experiences at our sites and museums would mean that experiences like those shared by our visitors would be useful not only for advocacy and fundraising efforts, but also could better inform changes that would enhance the depth of our impact. We could apply that data to change how we recruit, train, and treat staff; how we interact with visitors; how we choose stories and how we tell them; and how we advocate for the field as a whole.

We will not know for sure unless we take a closer look into our visitors’ emotional connections to improve the quality of their experience.

Discussion question I will leave here: How do you feel about science experiments to study visitors’ experiences with museums?

Resources:

History News: https://learn.aaslh.org/history-news

Patreon Request: Museum Impressions, Plimoth Plantation: https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2018/04/12/patreon-request-museum-impressions-plimoth-plantation/

Patron Request: Museum Impressions, Salem Witch Museum: https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2018/10/04/patron-request-museum-impressions-salem-witch-museum/

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