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3 things struggling historical groups can do to attract more people

Metro Detroit Ethnic Communities Collection/Walter P. Reuther Library

There’s a joke that historical organizations are stuck in the past when it comes to how they do things. You know, like they don’t have a grasp on using social media, and their museums and events are outdated and uninspiring.

And that joke might extend to the people who run historical organizations – many of whom are senior citizens and have often run their group in the same way for a long time.

Larry Wagenaar is the executive director of the Historical Society of Michigan. He says a lot of these small organizations end up in a rut, with the mentality of, “well, we’ve always done it that way.”

“When you hear a leader say that, you know it’s a dying organization, because you need new ideas that new folks can bring,” he says.

Wagenaar has some key points he likes to share with struggling groups.

1. Explore history from a variety of perspectives

Wagenaar says groups must step outside of their comfort zone. That includes really looking at what kind of stories you’re telling and from whose point of view. He suggests historical groups broaden their perspectives. For example, that might include looking at the experiences of Hispanic communities trying to gain acceptance in West Michigan, or exploring stories about African Americans in southwest Michigan.

2. History is stories – and people love sensational stories

It could story about a shipwreck or a Civil War tragedy, or a story about something that’s painful and difficult, like the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Michigan. Those are the kinds of stories people love to hear and that can attract big crowds.

3. Make history something people can experience

Wagenaar encourages groups to creatively bring history to life and think outside of the box. He says a great example is the Detroit Drunken Historical Society. The group meets in bars where a speaker gives a presentation about Detroit history. (Interestingly, DDHS is pretty successful at attracting a diverse crowd to its events.Listen to our conversation with the group's co-founder, Amy Elliott Bragg, here)

Even though history is something that’s old, it can help us talk about difficult issues in the modern world.  

Tamara Barnes is the Historical Society of Michigan’s assistant director for diversity and outreach. She says “a good museum or historic site is the place people can have a conversation about history and the modern world, and how they relate. It can be the spark to all kinds of conversations we need to have at this time in our history.”

Barnes says if historians do a good job at bringing history to life,  the result should be something that everyone can enjoy.

Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.
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