US History Museums Are More Than Old Flags And Rusty Cannons

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

People may soon start to ask: "What's new at the history museum."

Across the country, museum administrators and curators are taking a fresh look at museum-going and museum goers. And many are concluding that it's time to make changes.

"You used to see a bunch of cannon balls and some flags and maybe some documents [and it all would be] crowded together with very dense labels," says Nancy Rogers, director of the division of public programs for the National Endowment for the Humanities Museum Program (NEH).

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All that has changed these past 10 years, Dr. Rogers says. "Now when you go to history museums one of the things you'll see is much more emphasis on the individual."

The Oakland Museum of California is an example. Recently the museum opened a big new exhibit called "Gold Rush! California's Untold Stories" on the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold. Over 6,000 historical objects are on display. But the story is told not by curators' labels, but by using the actual words of people who experienced the gold rush.

Visitors are issued head sets and hear actors reading from letters and journals.

"We're trying to reconnect the past," says L. Thomas Frye, who directed the project and is chief curator of history emeritus for the museum. The exhibit attempts to help visitors "relate their own experience to the objects on display ... and to the people who made and used them."

"Things are just symbols," says Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society and immediate past president of the American Association for State and Local History. "Objects don't have intrinsic value except the values people subscribe to them."

Dr. Archibald believes museums must help visitors reconnect with their communities. "People are detached from their past and isolated in the present."

At the Minnesota History Center, a new exhibit is set in a barber shop - a place where the black community would meet. "You walk up to the exhibit like you're walking into a mid-20th century barber shop," says Carol Schreider, head of education. "Then you walk up to the mirror and the mirror disappears and a multimedia presentation appears."

Photos, music, audio programming, and artifacts are all included in "African Americans in Minnesota - Our Gathering Places."

This fall, Indiana's Conner Prairie will offer another vivid way to connect with the past. Visitors to this re-created pioneer settlement can become fugitive slaves in a program they call "Follow the North Star." Groups of about a dozen visitors will visit nine outdoor museum stations and be presented with situations such as those an escaped slave might encounter.

"This is a very active program," says Bryan Kwapil, director of education. "Visitors will be walking a total of about 1-1/2 miles."

Ten years ago, according to Mr. Kwapil, the museum, located 20 miles north of Indianapolis, paid little attention to visitors and the need to change programs. "Virtually every fourth-grader in Indiana had come here [and seen the 1830s Prairietown community]," Kwapil says. "But they hadn't come back."

After visitation had dropped 10 percent a year for four years in a row in the early '90s, Conner Prairie hired a new director and turned visitation around as it created new interpretive programs. "I want visitors to say, 'I'm bored. Let's go down to Conner Prairie to see what's going on.' "

Other museums are freshening their presentations in less dramatic ways. At Mount Vernon, visitors are learning not simply about George Washington's triumphs, but about the struggles he and his dependents had making a living off the farm. Visitors can try their hand at farm chores and examine the re-creation of his highly inventive 16-sided barn that was completed a year and a half ago. Of course the centerpiece of the museum continues to be the home itself.

Two Massachusetts museums long recognized for their interpretive work are Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. Both are putting greater emphasis on re-creating events of the past.

At Old Sturbridge, visitors on some dates may witness a wedding, a dance (participation encouraged), or even a funeral. Meanwhile, at Plimoth Plantation one of the recreated events is a 17th-century dinner, complete with flies and dirt.

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