The Future of History

I got to milk this cow! It was my first time too and I did a pretty good job!
Gotta love hands-on history experiences.
*Living History Farms, Iowa

I was filling out a ballot for ALHFAM and one of the people running for a position, Kristyn Watts, had something really interesting to say. I found myself nodding my head as I have had similar thoughts myself. Here's what she had to say: "I feel the most important issue facing ALHFAM is connecting the relevance of agriculture and history with today's technological society; whether communicating the story of origin or its current role in the world of instant gratification. Unfortunately, budgets leave scant room for agricultural history and it falls on our shoulders to make it available." 

Kristyn pointed out quite a few of the struggles that museums and history educators face in today's world. They face not only limited budgets, but they also face the steady onward march of technology and shifting cultural norms that challenge the ways museums have been run for decades. What I have found to be an interesting thing to ponder on is how to relate history to what Kristyn terms as "the world of instant gratification" and "today's technological society". It seems that with each passing year the disconnect gap widens. How do we bridge that gap in a meaningful way?

When I go to museums I'm always interested to see how they present information and I always keep a look out for clever exhibits and ways to engage visitors. I, myself, am just not a text reader. I skim and pick out what looks interesting to me, because I find all the words just overwhelming and tedious. It's important for museums to understand and cater to the various types of museum visitors and how they digest information. No one wants to be bored at a museum and unfortunately, museums get that reputation for a reason- unless they really make a creative and innovative effort to counter that idea!

The big question in my mind is: Do we really need the most up-to-date technology to connect today's techy generation with history in an interesting way? My inner history snob wants to say no and you can totally connect people to history by the doing of history - no modern technology needed! Many living history museums put this method to good use, too. But most of the time there is a fusion between old and new exhibit techniques mingled with computery-type technology. I think having history interaction (i.e. doing) can be expensive unless you have awesome, dedicated, and regular volunteers along with creative programming and overseeing of the site. And, of course, not all museums are living history oriented so the options are even less.

Here's my problem with mixing computers and museums though. Every time I go to a museum with "modern technology", especially with my own kids, I almost always see the computers swarmed with children, long waiting lines, and the computers themselves have heavy usage and many times damage. Not to mention that the software is usually slow and seriously out of date. Are the kids really learning anything? Or are they really just drawn to the lights, graphics, and the familiar in a static, boring environment? Is the money that the museum is putting into that technology really beneficial to the visitors' learning? Is it a good long term investment? With the need for constant updating, I'm not so sure. If new technology is used, I think it depends on what type and I feel it needs to follow three criteria: Is it meaningful? Is it durable? Will visitors really learn and remember because of it? (Cost for the museum is always a factor too, but I won't go into that.)

Living History Farms Museum, Iowa
My 6-year-old son was immediately drawn to this colorful, interactive state fair exhibit with life-size people and realistic artwork. (see above) The visitor chooses between different wooden cards with various animals you would show at a state fair. They scan the barcode on the card at one of the computers and information comes up telling what prize the animal would have won and why - as in what characteristics made the animal a prize-winner or not. I thought this was fun and clever and a great use of technology! It had a meaningful purpose. Not to mention, the wear and tear was happening to the wooden cards and not the computer - an important point in durability! 

I asked my son to remind me of the details about this exhibit today and he was able to tell me. Now, that is what museums want! They need memorable exhibits that leave lasting impressions on the visitors, especially children in my opinion. Children need that connection to their history to add some depth and relevance in today's techno-saturated world. (Okay, I'm inching away from my soapbox now!)

Des Moines Science Center, Iowa
Here's another clever, meaningful use of technology in a museum. (I know it's not history-related, but bear with me!) This interactive exhibit allowed kids to get up in front of a green screen and a camera and see how weather forecasters can stand and have the picture change behind them as they explain the weather. Holding up green cloths in front of their bodies cut off limbs and heads. Who wouldn't want to do that?!

Museum of Anthropology at Utah State University

For contrast, here is an example of a standard exhibit with no modern technology whatsoever. (I'm very proud of this exhibit because I and three other students created it! It was my first experience doing an exhibit and I was able to be exhibit team leader. We worked really hard, and I feel very honored that this is a heavily used exhibit at the museum because learning about the Great Basin is required learning for Utah 4th grade students.)

While there is a lot of text in this exhibit, I really designed this exhibit for someone like myself in mind - a non-text reader. I wanted the exhibit to be bright and to stand out with a color no other exhibit in the museum featured - thus the creamy yellow. I'm not from Utah and knew next to nothing about the Great Basin when I started, so there needed to be a BIG map and lots of pictures and artifacts. We used two different colors to emphasize the hunting and gathering sides. Three-dimensional elements with a purpose like the food cache adds visual interest and my favorite feature of the exhibit, besides the cool replicas of the atlatl and scissor snare, are the "floating projectile points". We had a lot of fun drilling holes in plexi-glass and attaching the points using museum wax and fishing line. (I'll have to do a couple separate posts on exhibit construction, because it is totally fun!)

This exhibit has a lot of great visual connection going for it. (I promise I'm not patting myself on the back!) The text might be tedious or intimidating for some, but hopefully the artifacts, photographs, map, and 3-D food cache depiction help tell the story without any reading. A big problem though - it's still behind glass, and therefore has limitations. 

I helped create another exhibit for this museum that focused on textiles and we had a few tactile elements, but those quickly saw wear and tear. 

The USU Museum of Anthropology is pretty low technology. The most they have, that I'm aware of, are audio of the exhibits in Spanish done by some awesome high school students. This museum is under the wing of the university and doesn't have a ton of funding, but they get good responses from the public and do the best with what they have. The best public interaction I've seen at the USU Museum of Anthropology is when they demonstrate atlatl throwing (so much fun!) and when a volunteer comes and demonstrates making projectile points by chipping obsidian (very cool to watch!). People of all ages love human interaction. They want to ask questions and be answered back right away. Finding answers in text is laborious and for some unreasonable. Volunteers and interpreters can leave meaningful, lasting impressions that get talked about for days, weeks or even months and years later. 

Can anyone ever say that a computer has that kind of power? 

Don't misunderstand - computers are important and vital in today's world. But in a museum setting, keeping up with "the latest thing" is a waste of time and money unless it's meaningful, durable, and used in an impressionable way. The future of history depends on museums finding ways to connect history to the current generation to help them remember, and I say it can be done without fancy technology. If a museum is going to use it, do it right!

Have you been to a museum that left a lasting impression? What did they do that made you remember?


  1. I ground corn with a rock at the USU museum of anthropology. Wish I'd been there on atlatl day! I'm more into living history museums though.

    1. Hey, that is so cool, Jana! It's amazing that you've actually been there. For most people USU is an obscure place somewhere out west. :-)
      A really fun day is when they have the local SCA group there for Medieval Day.


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