Stumbling into the Future at the McLean County Museum of History

“Museums are for somebody, not about something” – Steven Weil
Over the past few years, it has become clear to me that this venture, called here Visualizing the Past, is one of addition not of subtraction. That is, museums will add digital media to their skill sets, but this media is unlikely to replace the current ways we connect to communities of learning. Museums will increase the number of people we serve, primarily by the elimination of geographical constraints of collection sharing.
Smaller not-for-profit and very local organizations like mine (annual budget $1m, FTE equivalent 9.5) will be particularly challenged to ensure they engage broader audiences though these means. We’ve all heard the joke of being roadkill on the information highway. This is a real problem for museums focused on local history. About 40% of all museums in the US are history museums. We are tied in a very real sense to place. As a result the media which trumps geography also trumps localism. Not to add digital media to the work of local history is to disappear from the view of huge numbers of people. With our limited circumstances, local history museums are going to have to learn to adapt existing platforms such as Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, and open web sources such as Weebly. It was encouraging to see Phil Katz’s posting of Merete Sanderhoff‘s report to Danish museums on practices in the US. The work of local history museums, will at best, be workman like, solid, not necessarily cutting edge, inexpensive, forgiving and fun for their users.
The McLean County Museum of History has identified five projects to initiate our efforts to address this work:
Online historical topic resource kits— Fifty local historical topics will be selected by the Museum’s Librarian/ Archivist, and Education staff as suitable and interesting for 3rd though 12th grade audiences. These will be reviewed by our teacher advisors. Documents and images relating to the topics will be digitized and placed on our website. Accompanying those resources will be short interpretative papers providing background on the topic, as well as bibliographies for further study. These will be prepared for students to download and use for history fair projects, PowerPoint presentations, websites and other related projects. Such a kit will include source content similar to this:
Historic house imagery project— The Museum will post low resolution files of over 4,000 digital images of McLean County historic houses on our website. Notations will accompany each image identifying style, architect, and current condition. The images date from 1850 through the present. The audience for this includes the thousands of local residents who live in pre-1950 houses, as well as students of architecture and the built environment. A Google Maps interface will be used to access the files. It would look something like this:

Online archival finding aids— The Museum will continue its project to post finding aids of its archival holdings on our website. We currently have 90 collections on our website. This project will post an additional 110 collections. The Museum has found that since it began posting online finding aids relating to our archival holdings, the number of research queries from researchers around the world has increased dramatically.

Collections database— The Museum will create or adopt a public portal to its object collection. With 98% of the Museum’s collection cataloged on the PastPerfect database, the Museum will explore affordable ways to share this data though the internet. We may select the national portal being developed by American Heritage Magazine.

Integration of digital technologies into exhibitions— The Museum has taken on a project to renew its longterm exhibit, Encounter on the Prairie. One of the enhancements is to use digital technology in creative ways to reinforce the interpretative themes. We are currently testing and evaluating Quick Response code interactives, targeted at smart phone users. A current application of QR code we developed connects people to downtown architecture. Other enhancements call for the use of Facebook as a platform for visitors (virtual or real) to post images of their office environments,encouraging comparisons make to a circa 1945 State Farm Insurance office recreated in the exhibit. A kitchen vignette/Facebook page will invite similar comparisons. Smart Boards will be installed in two galleries. Presentations on them will be conducted by Museum staff to enhance school tour presentations. There are numerous opportunities where we can engage visitors in participatory exploration of historical topics. The Facebook pages will require management, and the Smart Board presentations will need design work.

The Museum will use interns and volunteers to supplement staff for this work. We currently work with an average of 12-15 university interns a year. Our volunteer program engages 217 active adults in over 15,000 hours of learning activity a year. These projects will also connect volunteers and interns in new ways— providing an opportunity for students and lifelong learner/volunteers to engage in the development and dissemination of digital based information. We have already been very successful with interns and volunteers in digital projects, such as PastPerfect cataloging, desktop publishing, internet publishing and the development of online archival finding aids. We will also use this project as an opportunity to recruit high school students for digital-based volunteer projects. We have been successful in recruiting and training a diverse group of community members to work with us, due to our policy of engaging them as fellow workers and learners. Our annual retention of volunteers is at 98%.
This is not glamorous, but it is the day-to-day work of a local history museum. With our resources, this is how we will be Visualizng the Past.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by gregkoos. Bookmark the permalink.

About gregkoos

I've worked with the McLean County Museum of History since 1977 - so I tend to take the long view on museum work. My skill set on digital stuff is so-so - what drives me is to figure out the many ways these platforms can be adapted for historical interpretation.

2 thoughts on “Stumbling into the Future at the McLean County Museum of History

  1. As the initial designers of the ‘Encounter on the Prairie’ exhibit over 20 years ago, and now as part of the team selected to integrate digital solutions into the existing galleries, we are thrilled that new technologies can enhance visitors’ experience, both on-line and at the museum itself. It is important to remember however, that technology is never an answer. The McLean County Museum is far from stumbling–it respected its own collections, its stories, and its visitors from the start. New technology simply provides the museum with new avenues of expression and interaction. It’s a pleasure to work on this project.

  2. Very interesting to read this real-life account of how your site has creatively engaged the digital revolution despite modest resources. Thank you!

Leave a Reply