History in Museums: It’s All About Audience, Focus, and Collaboration

Person in front a whiteboard taking a photo

B. Erin Cole photographs a whiteboard after a group brainstorming session at the History Colorado Center in 2014.

B. Erin Cole

Museums seem like the perfect place for historians to work, right? You get to talk about the past, teach visitors about why history is important, and show off cool artifacts and images from the collections and archives. It seems like a great job for people who are more interested in working with the public than going into academia.

Museums are great places to work. But in my nearly ten-year career in the exhibit field, I’ve had to learn a lot about audiences, collaboration, and how exhibits can work with the research and interpretive skills I learned as a historian. So here are three things I’ve learned about history in museums over my career.

  1. Know your audience

The most important thing I’ve learned in my museum career is that exhibits need to meet the needs of museum visitors. Who is this exhibit for? Older adults? Multi-generational groups, including school-aged children? Under-served audiences who don’t often visit the museum, or visitors who already visit frequently? People who already know a lot about the topic, or people with a more general knowledge?

Who the exhibit is for affects how the exhibit is put together, what interactive things there are to do in the exhibit, how the text is written, and so much more.

My first museum job was as a part-time exhibit researcher for the new History Colorado Center in Denver. I was still ABD. The Colorado Historical Society was building a new history museum with immersive and interactive exhibits. My first project was Destination Colorado, an exhibit about Keota, a small boom-and-bust farming town on the Colorado plains. The audience for this exhibit? School-age children accompanied by adults.

My job was to research and write short “context reports” for the exhibit developer, giving her information she needed on the Homestead Act of 1862, dryland farming, the development of the railroad, the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, and other topics contextualizing Keota’s rise and fall in the early twentieth century. To me, short meant three or four pages. To the exhibit developer, it meant much less—a page at most. What she needed from me was a simple ask: what are the one or two things this group of visitors absolutely needs to know about this topic?

Destination Colorado is hands-on: visitors learn about the history of Keota while they milk cows, gather eggs, buy things at the general store, drive through the Plains, and put together the Keota school yearbook. The focus was on active play, not reading panels. Having succinct interpretation helped the exhibit developer and the rest of the team layer historical information into interactives, programming, media, and more. The exhibit labels themselves were very brief, designed for either kids to read alone or for adults to read to children.

  1. Less is More

Knowing the audience is the first step. Museum staff then need to decide what the exhibit is actually about and what specific things they want the audience to come away with. This seems obvious, but I’ve been on more than one exhibit team that got lost in this process.

My next project was a large, 7,000-square foot exhibit called Living West, an environmental history of Colorado that opened in 2013. Living West focuses on climate change. How have people had to adapt to environmental change in Colorado in the past? What choices are people going to have to make to be able to live here in the future?

This concept seems straightforward, but it took a long time to get there. The team had so many ideas. Is this exhibit about tourism? The ski industry? Alternate sources of energy? Pine beetle infestations? Bears? Pretty pictures of Colorado’s mountains? We deliberated a lot; I did a lot of research on potential stories, images, and objects to support these ideas.

Having a lot of ideas isn’t bad, but eventually you need to focus on one or two main ideas and let the other ideas, no matter how beloved, go. Members of the exhibit team (including myself) kept trying to fit everything we thought was interesting into the exhibit. As a result of our inability to edit and focus, the project got stuck for more than a year. It wasn’t until we changed the team members that we were able to move forward with a narrow focus.

The final exhibit looks at environmental change at three times and places in Colorado history: the Mesa Verde region 800 years ago, the Colorado plains in the 1930s, and the mountains today. Living West uses the common themes of water, population growth, and animal interactions to link the three time periods and pose questions about our future.

On projects I manage now, I always keep the end product in mind. Our job is to produce a finished exhibit; when I’m doing research or directing others, I always emphasize that the end product for what we’re researching might be 25 words on a panel or two seconds in a video. We still need to put together accurate, engaging, and up-to-date interpretation, but knowing the limits of what can actually go in an exhibit keeps us from going too deep and getting away from the messages we want visitors to know.

  1. Collaboration gets things done

My current job is the lead developer on exhibits at the Minnesota Historical Society. I lead teams, oversee the research process, and guide project teams through audience research, narrative development, picking objects and images, and much, much more. I still use the conceptualization and research I learned as a historian, but my work is much more collaborative.

Exhibit teams where I work can include a project manager, exhibit designer, and people from our collections, education, media, diversity and inclusion, marketing, and other departments. All of us help shape the actual three-dimensional narrative environment we’re building in the exhibit; we support it with programming, online content, and more. Being focused on audiences and messaging from the beginning helps us all collaborate more effectively. We also collaborate with community members, other museums, external content experts, local artists, and many others to get exhibits done.

Museums are great places for historians to work. Seeing visitors engage with the work you do is really amazing and you will reach more people through museums than you would by writing a monograph or teaching a class. But museum work requires you to learn a lot about what visitors want. It requires you to focus on big ideas and be willing to collaborate. It requires you to think about how to welcome visitors into the story rather than telling them what you think they should know.

Erin Cole is an exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before that, she was an exhibit researcher and the assistant state historian at History Colorado in Denver. She has a Ph.D in the history of the American West from the University of New Mexico.

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