Field of Dreams gave us one of the most memorable, and oft’ wrongly-quoted movie lines ever- “build it and he will come.” Experience has shown me that go to them is a more effective approach. Recently while visiting Minneapolis, I saw one of the coolest forms of outreach ever. It was inspiring, interesting, relevant, and went straight to the people. Plus, it was easy for users to access. In other words, it did all of the work, but never let on.
While waiting for a table at the Harriet Brasserie in Minneapolis, patrons can browse exhibits from the historical society right in the restaurant. The restaurant and society partner to create ever-changing exhibits on the storied Lake Harriet neighborhood. Exhibits include permanent cases housing local artifacts, old photographs of buildings now housing doggy day cares, and even a decree on what it means to be a Lake Harriet citizen. The result includes a wait patrons mind less, neighborhood identity preservation, and a sense that the historical society actually cares that people access the collection.
Other historical societies are doing some pretty cool stuff. For example, the California Historical Society partnered with a not-for-profit publisher to open up a bookstore and community space designed to get the Society’s scholarship and collection out into the community. The Brooklyn Historical Society in New York partners with the Lyons Community School to create meaningful curriculum that incorporates primary-source research in the classroom in order to better connect with their surrounding community. Many airports including those in Kansas City, Chicago, and Milwaukee are finally allowing archives and historical societies to take advantage of captive audiences, using their vast space to host exhibits and artifacts.
Archives are full of rich possibilities in terms of outreach. They have materials many people are interested in and lots of opportunity for eye-catching visuals. Identify the appeal of your collection to local audiences: what do you have that is cool, interesting, unusual, and/or representative of your surrounding community? Who are potential partners for hosting them (think broad, deep, and out of the acid-free box)? Is there the possibility to create interactive experiences?
I dream of a world in which those waiting in line at the DMV or for WIC can browse local history exhibits. Senior centers and hospitals will host artifacts reflecting local tradition and culture. Our history will not only be preserved, but it will actively surround us, providing context, education, and entertainment.