Considering relevance

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Aaron Genton, collections manager at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky and co-presenter of the upcoming NCPH workshop, leads a tour at the Village. Photo credit: Tim Grove

Does your organization think about relevance often? It should. Every history organization or department should constantly be thinking of ways to be more relevant to its various constituencies, from visitors coming through your doors to parents of potential students. But what does relevance mean? A basic definition: relevance is the condition of being related or useful to what is happening or what people are talking about. On a personal level, relevance makes an individual feel connected. It answers the deep questions of: “Why does this matter? Why should I care?” Value and relevance are intertwined. If something is not perceived as relevant, it usually does not have high value.

As museum theorist Nina Simon has noted, relevance is necessary for any public-facing institution, or even movement, to consider. For history organizations, I can think of three areas of relevance that should always be on the mind. Of course, not every organization will be giving the same priority to each one, but all three are important. For each area of relevance, we should be consistently thinking about how we can collect solid data that will demonstrate our relevance. If we are honest, most history organizations will admit that collecting and analyzing data to show relevance is not usually a strong priority. But as our science-focused colleagues have recognized, nothing makes a case like strong data.

The first area of relevance is history as a discipline. If we can’t articulate to our audiences why the study and process of history adds value to the greater society, then we have a problem. The History Relevance initiative came together in 2012 to encourage the history field to be more intentional about demonstrating relevance and to use a unified language to make the case to its many audiences. The initiative’s Value of History statement is gaining traction in the field and has been endorsed by over three hundred history organizations. It highlights seven ways that history adds value to society.

The second area of relevance is organizational. Whatever your community, whether a university, a neighborhood or a town or region, you need to be able to articulate how your organization adds value to the community. Quantity only goes so far in making an argument. While certain stakeholders are impressed with data on the number of people through your doors or in your classrooms, at some point you must provide data on quality. How is your organization making life better for the community? You need to have an impact statement that you constantly measure and revise.

The third area of relevance is content-based. Whether you are communicating and teaching content through exhibitions, programs, tours, written materials, drama, lectures, etc. you must attempt to reach your audiences where they are. This is the micro level of interpretive themes, historical evidence, and analysis of events in history. This area can be a big challenge. I’ve visited many historic house museums and sites where the content is a collection of fascinating facts and stories, without a connection to deeper themes of life. The content stays in the past, and there is no attempt to bridge past with present to show how one impacts the other. We’ve all heard the statement “what happened in the past doesn’t affect me now.” We need to be intentional about connecting past and present. It comes back to why should your audience care?

James Madison’s Montpelier is working hard to expand relevance at this historic site. Their new exhibition about enslaved people, “The Mere Distinction of Colour” (shown here), brings voices from the descendant community into the dialogue. Photo credit: Tim Grove

For example, a colonial America site in Virginia may make slavery a main interpretive theme. A group of Chinese visitors might not care about slavery in colonial Virginia. But they are human, and a discussion of human conditions and hopes and desires might just make the connection. Or a brief comparison of slavery throughout the world in place and time might offer a more international perspective. And what about human trafficking today? This topic might be the ultimate bridge between past and present and make the topic relevant to every audience.

Two larger questions about relevance are worth asking. Can an organization be relevant to everyone? Should it even try? I’ve recently concluded that yes, an organization should try to be relevant to everyone. Is it easy? No! But stellar educators and communicators know how to adjust their presentation to make personal connections with their audiences. When we become more intentional about building empathy with people from the past, and about showing multiple perspectives on historical topics, we begin to build these connections. When we are willing to ask hard questions that may not have answers, and to be transparent to our audiences, we move closer to being relevant to all.

Join me in Hartford at the NCPH annual meeting for a workshop to dig deeper into this topic, “Demonstrating Relevance in Today’s World” on Wednesday, March 27 from 8-12.

~ Tim Grove is a co-founder of the History Relevance initiative and serves on its executive and steering committees. He is owner of Grove History Consulting ( where he consults on relevance, education, and exhibition development.

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