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Response to Review of Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museum and Historic Sites

I am pleased to accept Ms. Murray’s reviewed of my edited book and concur with her findings and recommendations. I share her concern that the book lacks an adequate study of visitors and to further the discussion with the field, it is a weakness that affects all museums and historic sites, even beyond those who interpret African-American history and culture.

In Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites by Kristin Gallas and James DeWolf Perry, a companion book in Rowman and Littlefield’s Interpreting History series, Conny Graft contributes a chapter on visitor research with a handful of examples but notes that she, ‘could not find many history organizations that are actually interpreting slavery as a core part of their program and are evaluating the experience’. The absence of sufficient data is indicative of the broader field. As part of the History Relevance Campaign (www.HistoryRelevance.org), Ms. Graft, Tim Grove (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum), and I are studying the impact of history on the lives of Americans and discovering a dearth of reliable data. Although many history organizations (which includes museums, historic sites, historical societies, and archives) claim their programs and activities have a significant impact on their visitors and patrons, very few have conducted an evaluation with visitors in the last five years. Among those evaluations, most measured satisfaction (e.g., ‘how satisfied were you?’ ‘how would you rate our exhibit?’) and rarely measured impact (e.g., ‘how has the exhibit changed your thinking?’ ‘what current events are related to the exhibit?’). 

At this point, the unsettling news is that despite all of our arguments about the importance of history to society, our field is relying on anecdotal observations and hardly any reliable studies (should I admit this publicly?). It not only makes it difficult to improve and enhance the programs and activities at history museums and historic sites, but fails to provide a persuasive argument to funders and elected officials. Science centers and art galleries are far ahead of us in this regard. Nevertheless, we are continuing our research, both on our own and in concert with history organizations across the country, to both document the impact of history on Americans and to develop standards and best practices. I welcome your suggestions and ideas at [email protected].