Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Promoting Culture - Think Outside of Your Space

This past Sunday I participated in a fun event at the Nashua Public Library here in New Hampshire. I was told that this was the library's second annual local history fair, showcasing local history centers and speakers. I was invited to set up an ArchivesInfo exhibit table. The library event generated an enthusiasm that demonstrated a public desire for more sharing of cultural heritage and more information about cultural heritage institutions.

My fellow exhibitors included: local authors who were there to sign their books about Nashua and New Hampshire History; The Nashua Family History Center, that was demonstrating family-search web site; the Nashua Historical Society; the New Hampshire Historical Society; a local columnist specializing in historical newspapers, photos and ephemera; and the Friends of the Hunt Memorial building, who were looking to restore the city's first library building. Speakers showed slides from the library's local history collection, introduced the institution's genealogy software, discussed local building renovation projects, introduced the topic of researching your house, talked about local baseball and one room schoolhouses, and showed films and of parades from Nashua's anniversaries.

Most of the people who came through the gallery where I was set up seemed to come out especially for the occasion. They were there to celebrate their town and their ties to the City of Nashua. One lady came through with her walker, wearing a nametag that stated beneath, "Member of Nashua High School class of 1929." (Definitely remarkable!) I talked to many long time residents with lots of interesting stories to share. One woman told me that she ran into a classmate whom she hadn't seen in about twenty years. There was definitely a sense of festivity here. Local history professionals and volunteers were able to show how they could help feed into attendees' memories of the past. We aimed to raise awareness about the need and value of preserving those memories.

Though cultural heritage professionals may be available to the public at our institutions on a regular basis, we often remain largely invisible to them. Are our organizations overlooked in favor of downtown storefronts with brightly colored displays? (One representative from an institution chatted with me on Sunday about how a "local history fair" at her institution would not generate the same crowd as the one in which we participated. Though her building was just a five minute walk up the street, it was not right in the heart of downtown, had difficult parking and was more easily overlooked.) Do people bustling through their day rarely take the time to reminisce? What if we offered them more of an opportunity to do so in more convenient environments.

It is important for those involved with cultural heritage to seek connections beyond our traditional institutions. As I listened to stories from enthusiastic residents, I suggested that the town seek to do targeted oral histories. For example, perhaps those seeking to restore the City's first library building could ask people about their memories of it. They were very willing to share them at the fair. Why not ask them to come back and tell us more?  Why not ask people to come to various places throughout the City for recording events. Make it a celebration. I also suggested that the City might try an "Open Doors" history event to encourage residents to explore local facilities preserving local history. Every year the City of Waltham, MA holds such an event in Historic Waltham Days that has grown tremendously in the last fifteen years since I was an archivist there. The short celebration they once created now spans a month. This is something that every town can do with a little planning. My favorite part of Waltham Days was a "passport" that people had to get stamped at each cultural heritage institution they visited. The passport encouraged many people to make a goal of visiting us all and also gave them a souvenir to remember the event (and us) when the celebration was over for the year. I don't know if Waltham still does their passport system, but if they do, it would be fun to identify people who have filled passports for all the years the event has taken place...

Promotion is one key to making cultural heritage a vibrant part of our modern society. I am reading more and more articles about people who consider libraries and museums out of touch with contemporary society. To prove them wrong, be creative about your activities. Hold very visible events, outside of your own space and in collaboration with others to make yourself relevant to the lives of your potential audience members.What we do is fun! Get out of your institution and let everyone know about it.

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