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/

How to Handle Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites

Added to Medium, February 15, 2018

This week I received Museum Education Roundtable’s March edition of Journal of Museum Education and the theme of this edition is “Interpreting Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites”. When I received the Journal in the field, it made me think about the experiences I have had in professional development and in the museum field with dealing with tough subject matter. It is important for all museum professionals, whether or not they directly work with narratives about traumatic events, understand how to interpret trauma, memory, and lived experience for the visitors.

The March edition of Journal of Museum Education have a few articles that delved into this subject matter.

For instance, Lauren Zalut’s, guest editor of this edition, “Interpreting Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites” introduces the subject of handling topics of trauma, memory, and lived experience. Zalut stated that,

Our field typically tells stories of trauma and complex issues through museum educators, tour guides, or docents who are generations or decades removed from the topic or event. This approach utilizes historical empathy, defined as developing “…understanding for how people from the past thought, felt, made decisions, acted, and faced consequences within a specific historical and social context.” Research reveals that this approach humanizes historic figures, but is applied inconsistently by educators.

We have the skills to convey the significance of these stories, however we need to commit to what consistent approach is needed.

Not many museums and organizations have a narrative that includes traumatic issues. There are museums such as U.S. Holocaust Museum and the National 9/11 Museum that discuss emotional and traumatic situations on a regular basis. Meanwhile, there are museums and organizations that share a part of its overall narrative dealing with traumatic, emotional, or lived experience.

One of my first experiences with interpreting trauma, memory, and lived experience was when I was working at the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut. The Stanley-Whitman House is a living history center and museum that teaches through its collection, preservation, research, and dynamic interpretation of the history and culture of early Farmington.

At the Stanley-Whitman House, I taught school programs that also discussed Native Americans and African Americans who lived in the early American Farmington. One of the students did ask if the house owners had slaves, and while at the time I was not entirely sure what the answer was I delicately explained that there were slaves in Farmington during the 17th century but slavery in the New England area was no longer accepted by the 1800s.

While I was in graduate school, I decided to work with the Stanley-Whitman House on a project that addressed slavery in Connecticut. I had a couple of classmates and colleagues join me in the team to work on this project for a Curatorship class requirement. We researched former slaves who worked and lived in Connecticut before the 1790 Census to present the research results about what slavery was like for slaves in Farmington to colleagues who attended the In Plain Sight symposium presentations and discussion.

Since working on this project and the symposium, there have been more developments on discussing slavery in Connecticut. One of my teammates collaborated with the Stanley-Whitman House to create a database on the information about slaves in Farmington. Also, more recently a new exhibit is opening this Saturday (February 17th) called “Slavery, Resistance & Freedom in Connecticut”; one of the students from the Public History program I graduated from at Central Connecticut State University researched, wrote, and designed the exhibit.

By being able to discuss slavery in Connecticut more, we are able to address what life had been like for enslaved individuals and draw more attention to their lived experiences.

I believe that with what the Stanley-Whitman House is doing now we are working towards helping visitors understand these lived experiences. Zalut pointed out the importance of encouraging visitors to ask questions and how museum educators have the skills to assist visitors in understanding and learning from the past:

Asking questions and spending time reflecting are critical parts of transforming the work of museum educators. If our field is genuine about its will to make space for visitors to process emotionally complex topics, spark social change, and learn from the past to make a more equitable present and future then museum educators are the ones to make it happen. We can create job opportunities for disenfranchised populations and draw in new audiences, but this work is resource intensive, and requires major internal work – both personally and institutionally. If taken on with great care, collaboration and gratitude, creating platforms for marginalized voices and narratives will be transformative for you, your visitors, your co-workers, your museum, and the field at large.

We have to dedicate our time and efforts as museum educators to create places marginalized voices and narratives can be heard and understood. Emphasis on spaces is especially important for visitors to feel they can go through the process of understanding untold stories.

Mark Katrikh’s “Creating Safe(r) Spaces for Visitors and Staff in Museum Programs” discusses visitors’ expectations of their museum experience. Visitors do not necessarily come to museums to have an emotional response, and it can be hard for them to be accustomed to this response especially when they are not prepared for it. Our responsibilities as museum educators include guiding visitors by helping them process their emotions with engaging dialogue between the museum educators and visitors. Katrikh discussed the Museum of Tolerance’s approach to having safe and responsible conversations through a framework for understanding and managing key issues when easing challenging conversations. Their framework points out there are many needs and interests participants have involved in conversations, and museum educators are responsible for approaching them with compassion, mindfulness, and skilled responses.

As museum educators, we do acknowledge that we always have the responsibility to engage with the visitors in a way that will allow them to take away with them the lessons our past have to offer. We are all responsible for figuring out what to do with these lessons to make our world a better place for us in the future. According to Katrikh,

At museums whose focus is discussing and presenting trauma, emotional responses are the norm. Visitors unprepared for such a personal experience can react in a multitude of ways along the spectrum that includes confusion, denial, inappropriate comments or questions, and anger. Anticipating such reactions, museums have a responsibility to build into their programming opportunities to promote dialogue, to process emotions and ultimately to allow visitors to reach a place of equilibrium.

We maintain balance within our museums, and by creating opportunities for visitors to process their emotions and reach a balance they would be able to take that lesson museum educators gave them to create a better community.

To be able to fulfill our responsibilities as museum educators, we should start with our training so we are prepared for the challenging conversations. Noah Rauch’s “A Balancing Act: Interpreting Tragedy at the 9/11 Memorial Museum” discussed the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s docent program and the challenges it presented. When the program was launched, it raised many questions including those on how to balance and convey strongly held, often traumatic, and sometimes conflicting experiences with a newly constructed institutional narrative. Since then the museum negotiated on specific issues and dealt with ongoing questions and challenges.

The more we work together, the more we learn and understand how our museums deal with fact-checking progresses, the more we are able to feel responsibility of our expertise in the events and life experiences. When we include more of our staff and volunteers in the training process, we would be able to connect to our missions and effectively help our visitors understand the narrative they learn.

When I participated in last year’s New York City Museum Education Roundtable’s (NYCMER) conference, I attended a session presented by the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum called The Challenges of Confronting Difficult Content. Rauch’s article reminded me of this session because both dealt with the challenges. While Rauch discussed mainly the docent perspective of the dealing with the subject matter, this NYCMER session discussed the school programs they developed and explained how their lessons approached difficult content.

In my blog post about the conference, Reflections on the NYCMER 2017 Conference, I revealed that I thought this session was interesting because these programs provided a way for students from third grade to seniors to express their thoughts on the events through art and discussion. The takeaways from the session are to address the common question: How to translate difficult content in ways that allow all visitors to correct with sensitive subject matter? And the second takeaway was as a differentiated and inclusive practice, strategy transcends content by incorporating storytelling and historical contents and current resonances/present day connections.

It is important to understand both perspectives of museum professionals and visitors so we can work on strengthening the relationship between the two. When we do, both museum staff and visitors will have the understanding and space to confront difficult content and learn the lessons they have to offer.

How has your museum or organization dealt with educating difficult content? What challenges have you faced when interpreting trauma, memory, and lived experience?

Resources:
Mark Katrikh (2018) Creating Safe(r) Spaces for Visitors and Staff in Museum Programs, Journal of Museum Education, 43:1, 7-15
Noah Rauch (2018) A Balancing Act: Interpreting Tragedy at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Journal of Museum Education, 43:1, 16-21
Lauren Zalut (2018) Interpreting Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites, Journal of Museum Education, 43:1, 4-6
If interested in exhibit opening I mentioned, register for the Stanley-Whitman House’s exhibit opening here: http://www.stanleywhitman.org/Calendar.Details.asp?ID=743&Cat=Visit

 

Reactions to Blog: “Emotionally Charged Spaces”

I read another blog post from Museum Hack, which is one of their case studies, called Emotionally Charged Spaces: Why You Should Create Immersive Tours with Sensitive Subject Matter. While this was a case study of one of the services they performed for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, there is a lot to learn about the challenges of telling a story of a difficult past. According to the blog post, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights’ mission “to create lasting global change in the field of human rights, shining a spotlight on some of the most egregious violations of human rights around the world, and to inspire activism.” To help fulfill the mission, Museum Hack provided the staff training on how storytelling can help people connect with the subject matter the museum presents.

Museum Hack uses the case studies in their blog not only to share what they were able to do for the museums that asked for their services but Museum Hack shared case studies like this one to show what museums can learn from these organizations.

As we know as museum educators, it is important to know how to tell a narrative or story effectively to show audiences how significant these stories are to be able to understand our past or subject matter. Museum Hack pointed out that the goal for programming on difficult subjects is for visitors to be educated, informed, and inspired to make change instead of leaving the place depressed. Also, it stated creating programming and telling stories that both acknowledge the gravity and seriousness of issues while getting audiences engaged without overwhelming them is a challenging objective but worth the effort when received positively. As a public historian, I have both learned and practiced storytelling of difficult subjects, especially slavery.

My previous experience was more focused on doing research for Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington for their symposium program discussing slavery in 17th century Connecticut. In addition to the research presented at the symposium, there were other colleagues that did their own research and presented their findings to share with the community of professionals and individuals interested learning more about the subject.

This experience is one of the examples of the points the blog made that not many challenging subjects are told through engaging programming but mostly through lecture series. To create more engaging programs and storytelling on difficult subject matter, there must be human connection to the topic discussed.

In the case study, Museum Hack revealed that by having guides share their personal connections it will further humanize what the visitor is interacting with. I agree with this because to have relevance in museums, especially with museums discussing difficult subject matter, visitors have to recognize the human connection in these stories. Whether they have their own personal connections to difficult subject matter or not, visitors should at least be able to learn from and understand those who have a personal connection.

Museum Hack also briefly talked about one of their best practices called scaffolding. According to the blog post, scaffolding is a way to strategically maximize visitor engagement throughout a tour. This practice is vital to making sensitive environments less overwhelming for visitors. Scaffolding is a practice museum professionals continue to adapt the museums’ stories to the visitor tours.

What we should take away from the Museum Hack blog post is when presented with the challenge to create an engaging tour with difficult subject matter it is important to make sure there is human connection with the stories. This is also an example of how relevance can be used to encourage engaging visitors to the museums.

What did you think of Museum Hack’s blog post on engaging in emotionally charged spaces? Have you seen scaffolding in other emotionally charged spaces? Share your thoughts. Here is the link to the original post:
View at Medium.com