by Kaylie Schunk
“Museums are boring,” said a student. A little chill went down my spine. Sure, that sounds dramatic, but how would you feel if you had dedicated years of your life to revitalizing historical study to make it more accessible to the public, and you still cannot get the popular culture to care? As a realist, I recognize that history and museum studies will not be able to compete with the theatrics, violence, and immediate stimuli of video games, movies, and other media. So we are being pushed to get “with it.” How can historians and museum curators adapt to an era where technology rules? There is no formulaic answer. However, I believe that innovation, creativity, and humanity are the start to museums’ revitalization.
Museum personnel must become innovators and see beyond usual conventions like the display case. I adore exhibits–they are the cornerstone to discovery and learning, as children peer into the glass and expand their worldviews in an instant. However, curators should not limit their scope to static visuals if museums hope to compete for the public’s attention in the age of new media. What mediums and strategies should museums employ? They should seek to engage, not simply display. While I respect the importance of my colleagues’ attempts to use media platforms to increase the accessibility of exhibits, this is only a half-step. Through innovation and creativity, museum curators must consider how to use the internet, television screens, and other tools to interact with their audience.
Taking this a step further, who said that this change had to be digital? Museums should be educational and experiential. Reflecting on my past experience as the Director of the Oxford Museum Association, parents often said that their motivation to visit the museum was to educate their small children. This is certainly well-intentioned, but having children lean over artifacts, while being held in their parent’s arms is not entirely effective. Given the successes of museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the public clearly responds to individual experience. Being told the name of an individual from the Holocaust and then following their suffering has had a lasting and haunting effect on the hearts and minds of museum attendees. In a similar vein, the museum journey must evolve from passive to active. Whether or not museums choose to use technology in this process should be decided based on the character of the individual museum and the creativity of the museum’s caretakers. If there is a museum dedicated to the Gutenberg Press which solely addresses printed media, technology might be less relevant to its ultimate goals. However, this does not dispel the call for curators to challenge themselves to be creative.
In my argument about the importance of innovation, I added the caveat that museums cannot compromise their character for the sake of being technologically contemporary. This is true on the basic level of a museum’s subject-matter. Perhaps, we can challenge ourselves to think more deeply about a museum’s true function. Impassioned employees spitting out facts? The retreat to a past era for an hour or two? Something new to do with your significant other? No, the museum is a facility that enables the visitor to learn about themselves and to connect with others. In short, technology can never replace the importance of humans connecting and empathizing with each other.
Humanity is what makes museums timeless. Yes, timeless. Regardless of your station in life, your age, or your creed, all humans have the capacity to relate to one another through common human experience. Museums reflect a small part of each individual and inspire empathy for others. Stephen Gordon, the Museum Administrator of the McGuffey House and Museum, has always emphasized kindness and the importance of relating to each visitor. A museum tour is not a robotic simulation. It is a conversation that engages and welcomes the visitor to explore a historical moment, and a part of themselves as well.
What does that mean? How can the McGuffey Readers–a set of textbooks used during the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century–have anything to do with a contemporary individual? This is where I challenge the public to stop thinking literally. Yes, the visitor’s grandmother could have a copy in her attic. More likely, it is not the specific subject of a museum which affects the individual. It may be a rocking chair that reminds them of their grandmother rocking them to sleep at night. The connection could be through common struggle. Maybe a visitor is struck by an antique farming tool because they use a more sophisticated version of that equipment themselves. Humans are complex, and the museum experience should reflect this. Museums will always be important because humans will always be able to relate to one another. As representatives of these institutions, we must never stop practicing compassion and inspiring empathy in our guests.
Our common humanity is what makes me hopeful for museums in this time of smartphones and Twitter. Museums are still learning how to adjust to the technological age, but, ultimately, that is okay. I don’t believe that parents take their children to museums to show them vintage bonnets. Rather, they want to inspire an awareness in their children–a comprehension of their place in society and the importance of understanding others. While I do recognize the importance of innovation, it is the hearts of museum staff that will reinvent public perception of these institutions. I have seen this in my daily work. People respond to staff who seek to understand them, which encourages the guests to seek to understand the people and societies of the past. Shouldn’t this be our goal?
Kaylie Schunk is a graduate student at Miami University of Ohio where she studies American history.