By guest writer Christy S. Coleman

Maybe it sounds a little harsh to say history museums are stuck on stupid, but too many are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore. For more than a decade, one report after another confirms visitation is declining for most. Unable to stem the downward trends, many have reduced staff and programs, further exacerbating the issue. Among some peers, there is a scramble to devote limited resources to the next best thing – whatever that is.

We gather at conferences and talk ad nauseam about successful ventures and end up in an insanity loop trying to reproduce the next blockbuster, trendy party or whatever. When that modicum of success can’t be successfully duplicated, we scratch our heads swearing never to go down that path again.

Museum professionals are a devoted and optimistic bunch seeking enlightenment about what’s going on with the non-visiting public. Considerable attention has been given to studying demographic shifts and generational characteristics in an attempt to appeal to the latest “It” generation. Gathering data from focus groups and surveys, we plan to exhaustion, hoping to find potential visitors’ sweet spots.

If the data gathered is well done, these efforts may bring upticks in visitation. More often than not, long-term impact is elusive because we fail to recognize that these instruments only capture moments in time not necessarily trends over time. When research is done poorly, lamentations begin about how difficult it is repositioning institutions to better serve the retiring Boomers or indulgent X-ers while preparing for the social Millennials.

In an effort to be forward thinking, many museums have shifted attention to those social Millennials.  Greater infusion of digital technology has been incorporated—as if this is the magic key to innovation in museums. Massive collections are becoming more accessible through online initiatives. Research initiatives, programming and exhibit planning is being crowd-sourced.

We are branding, marketing and doing all manner of audience development, trying desperately to connect. Despite all these laudable efforts, the downward trend continues.

So what are we missing?

The phenomenon isn’t merely a function of changing audiences, but rather a severe disconnect with them. There is little doubt each generation has particular characteristics that can define behaviors. But none of these groups is as homogenous as depicted.

Often what’s missing in all this research is understanding what truly motivates people to connect with the past. Regardless of ethnicity, creed, age, origin or nationality, people, i.e our visitors, want meaningful connections. They want to explore history in full context of their lives. They want to clearly see how the issues they grapple with daily have a genesis or flow that may provide answers or direction to solving issues most perplexing. Most importantly, our visitors want to connect to other people.

Why? History is present and always has been.

As museum professionals, we’ve become so accustomed to doing things a certain way. Subsequently substantial change doesn’t happen until radical reboots are the only viable answer and, in many cases, it’s often too late.

One of the hardest things facing leaders is helping staff, all well-meaning, dedicated and passionate about their professions, understand their work matters little if visitors can’t find meaning and personal connections to the work. Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.

One prime example exists with the heart of most of our collections. Artifacts are important and, like art, they can have various meanings for the viewer. They also reflect what was cherished in a moment in time and tell us much more about what wasn’t cherished. Artifacts have multiple stories if we are only willing to adjust the lenses with which we view them. Coupled with an understanding of the issues facing and questions raised by the communities we serve, we can begin to meld these ideas.

But what exactly does that look like in practice?

People love stories. We have embraced narratives, but have lost the art of storytelling because of the notion that objectivity can’t be achieved with it. I recently shared a story about a Confederate regimental battle flag in our collection. That flag was stored at the U.S. War Department along with hundreds of others that hadn’t been taken as soldiers’ personal trophies. In 1905, the Confederate flags were transferred to our predecessor museum. Given the museum’s mission at the time, it had been interpreted solely as a representation of the men who fought under it, the battles engaged in and war outcomes. But there was more to the story.

It is only in the past three years that the rest of the flag’s story was researched. It was captured by Union forces—specifically a United States Colored Troop regiment- during the Petersburg Campaign in 1865 that led to the fall of Richmond. For the first time, there were new names associated with that flag. With those names came stories  of self-emancipating men who heeded the call making their way to Union fortresses to take up arms, often with their families in tow. We now had an image often despised (by African Americans in particular) that had something new to say at a time when the Richmond community and people across the country were grieving and debating the meaning of that particular symbol.

This conversation had meaning not only for traditional audiences-but new ones. This flag became an important part of existing initiatives that brought illumination to a city full of Confederate imagery.

By reexamining Richmond’s pivotal role, the community began exploring in earnest elements of the war that was unknown to most or denied by many. The role Richmond played in the domestic slave trade gained long-overdue attention. Collaboration among community organizations, educational institutions, the city and many of its museums resulted in a city-wide commemoration not just of the Civil War but also Emancipation.

After six years of facilitated dialogues, educational programming and exhibits, a three-day event on the historic Capitol Grounds drew one of the most diverse crowds ever seen for a history related event. Visitors of every stripe engaged with a history long viewed as contentious and contested. But they came together, hearing the familiar but discovering far more than they imagined.

Since beginning this work, the museum has seen steady growth in paid visitation over the past five years. This is no accident. It is a testament to continued community engagement, compelling storytelling and a willingness to acknowledge visitor dynamics while helping them gain new understanding.

In the end, the museum matters and we aren’t finished yet.

Christy Coleman is the CEO of The American Civil War Museum. She speaks regularly on behalf of museum practices. She will be presenting at MuseumNext in NYC in November on “Changing Audiences Need New Stories.”

Image via the American Civil War Museum on Instagram