Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Changing History Museums: Thoughts on the AASLH Conference

"The Spirit of Rebirth", the theme of the recently completed AASLH (American Association for State and Local History) Annual Meeting, seemed to aptly capture perceptions of the host city of Detroit, as well as the state of the History Museum field itself.

This was my first time attending an AASLH Conference as a fully-registered participant, and I couldn't have been more impressed by how well the events and sessions were put together, and the warm welcome I received from History Museum colleagues.  Even though I don't think of myself as a History Museum person, my first museum job (as you can see in the photo below) right out of college was working as a living history interpreter portraying a Civil War soldier --- for the Detroit Historical Society!

But what really struck me in Detroit about the session topics as well as the hallway conversations (where the REAL information exchanges take place at conferences!) was the emphasis on change --- in relationship to both content and audiences for history-centered institutions.

There were a number of sessions on topics ranging from food interpretation to early learners to VR approaches toward historical architecture where it was clear that History Museums were drawing from approaches that might normally be found in Children's or Science Museums, or even mass media (one food-related session was titled "Don't Get Chopped!" after a popular TV show.)

VR historical architecture in the Exhibit Hall!

Before attending the Detroit conference, I honestly had the perception that history organizations were lagging behind in terms of incorporating many innovative, interactive, and immersive approaches toward their content, but I feel that History Museums really have the opportunity to be in the forefront of the museum field in their interpretive approaches.  (In that regard, I was happy to co-present a workshop called making/history with Lisa Brahms and Kristin Fontichiaro that explored how history folks can leverage the Maker Movement at their museums.)

making/history in Detroit!
The other evidence of true change I felt in Detroit were the conversations and sessions focused on ways for History Museums to become more welcoming and inclusive to the wide range of communities they serve (and want to serve!)  Perhaps with the city of Detroit as a backdrop (a place filled with social and racial upheaval for much of its history) it should have not been surprising that folks at the conference were having strong conversations about topics such as reinterpreting slavery, sharing stories of race and diversity, and using oral history as a tool for social action.

I took a picture of a slide from one of the last sessions I attended in Detroit, which really seemed to capture my feelings about the conference.  I look forward to seeing (and hopefully participating in!) the many positive changes in content and community that are happening in the History Museum field.

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