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How to Market History’s Importance as Infrastructure

"What would it take to inspire more local history organizations to be the infrastructure they are? While “two broken hips” may be reality, such all-too-common statements hardly inspire respect for the work. How do we market our infrastructure-ness?" Tweet by @DavidGrabitske, February 3, 2020
“What would it take to inspire more local history organizations to be the infrastructure they are?
While “two broken hips” may be reality, such all-too-common statements hardly inspire respect for the work. How do we market our infrastructure-ness?”
Tweet by @DavidGrabitske, February 3, 2020

Last week’s blog post, “Two Broken Hips Away from Closing,” was inspired by a tweet from historian Larry Cebula. This week’s post is inspired by a tweet from historian David Grabitske (as seen above) in response to that post.

Last year around about this time, I came to the realization that history is part of a community’s infrastructure and I wrote about it here. Since then, any time I have the opportunity, I tell people that history is infrastructure and then, depending on where the conversation is going, I may give examples of how history and the local museums that save this history serve as community infrastructure.

In answer to David’s question about how local history organizations can better market their “infrastructure-ness,” some of us are going to have to come up with pithy, awe-inspiring and accurate messages about how critical history organizations are to society and we are going to have to repeat these messages over and over again until they start boomeranging back at us.

“History is infrastructure” is one such message and I say it a lot.

You’ll know the message (whatever pithy history-positive message you decide on) is taking hold when someone says it back to you unprompted, almost as though they thought of it themselves.

If you need inspiration to craft your own history-positive, history-as-infrastructure message, look no further than the results of a survey done at Conner Prairie living history museum in Indiana regarding how relevant Americans of all ages feel history is to their lives. To paraphrase Sally Field, “People like museums … they really, really like us!”

And they trust history museums and sites. “When asked which sources they most trusted for knowledge of the past, Americans put museums and historic sites first, ahead of grandparents, eyewitnesses, college professors, history books, movies, television programs, and high school history teachers.”

History museums rank higher than grandparents. Now that’s saying something.

Meanwhile, too many of us in the history field tell ourselves that members of the public aren’t that interested in our sites. Some of this is out of an excess of humility in the field. Many of us go about our work quietly, not calling attention to ourselves. We’re just doing our jobs. That humility on the part of museum staff could be part of why history museums receive such a high degree of public trust.

But, it also works against us. We haven’t been very good about arguing for the resources we need to further build our institutions’ capacities as community infrastructure. And we see the lack of an appropriate level of public support as evidence that people are not that interested in history. Can’t people just see the good work we’re doing and support history museums without us having to brag or nag?

So sorry. That’s not the way it works. Attention is in short supply and there are far too many people, organizations, and events vying for that attention. Local history organizations have to get in the game and frame our own “history is infrastructure” messages, which we can deliver without bragging or nagging.

As linguist George Lakoff is known for saying, “The first frame gets the advantage.”

In the case of history organizations, the fact that we haven’t done much in the way of communicating our importance as infrastructure and have often crafted messages that downplay our importance means we’ve got to not only create new frames, we have to fight against old frames and stereotypes in the field.

There’s great hope for this effort because I’ve seen this reframing happening over the past decade or so and gathering momentum. We simply need more local history organizations passing along similar messages in order to shift the public’s perceptions.

Along with the messages “History Is Infrastructure,” “History Matters,” and the History Relevance campaign, what messages do you suggest local history organizations use to encourage more people to become involved and provide the necessary support for history as community infrastructure?

Close-up of barn board clock painted dusty black with grayish Roman numerals, 2018.
Close-up of barn board clock painted dusty black with grayish Roman numerals, 2018.

 

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