History Museums and Community Relevance: Explorers Reflection

Author: Megan Jones, student majoring in Languages and Cultures of Ancient Egypt and the Near East at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

The Explorers of the International Federation of Public History (IFPH) is pleased to showcase this text written by Megan Jones, History student at Macquarie University. Megan focused on the interview with Margaret Koch, Director at Bullock Texas State History Museum on September 9, 2021. Click here to see the entire event. Follow us on Facebook and @pubhistint. If you would like to respond to a previous Explorers presentation, check out our Vimeo page.

Poster for Margaret Koch's Explorers presentation, "History Museum and Community Relevance"
Poster for Margaret Koch’s Explorers presentation, “History Museum and Community Relevance”

The image of museums is transforming rapidly as they venture into realms of Public History that invite a more collaborative effort towards exhibitions. It has become far more important to display issues that relate to the people, and encourage their involvement and discussion within the museum. It was refreshing to hear such a forward-thinking and passionate speaker in Margaret Koch. It was inspiring to learn about her extensive experience from all around the United States. 

Margaret captured the essence of public history through her emphasis on the educational qualities of museums, and how to enhance their relevance for the communities they are built within. Her thorough description of her current workplace at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum helped set the scene for a modern museum and its potential to expand further into the realm of public history with strategic planning focused on progressive goals. 

Margaret’s emphasis on education and building museums around diverse relationships is admirable as it resonates with public history’s goal of community engagement and involvement. She outlines goals of being “scholarly, honest, and accurate,” wanting to present the history as untouched as possible through primary sources. She recognizes the importance of providing this raw evidence to the public, using the example of Texas demographics, as different members of the community may have different memories and connections to Texas’ history. Seeing something that challenges this can be confronting, argumentative, and troublesome for the public. Margaret recognizes this issue and seeks to rectify it by designing the museum environment as a place for discussion, analyzing perspectives grounded in primary sources, and an area to broaden scopes in order for the public to draw their own conclusions. This drastically transforms the perception of museums from an institution that presents facts, to a public space encouraging community experiences and input to enrich the culture of the museum. 

Margaret’s goals for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum are largely unique from an Australian perspective. While museums seem to be expanding their community engagement, reaching out to local areas and people to provide input and inspiration for exhibits, they don’t appear to mimic this welcoming aura that Margaret describes. The atmosphere of museums still appears considerably stoic and formal, and could benefit greatly from encouraging discussions, and providing exhibits that resonate more with the local area. As Jimena and Margaret were discussing, the idea that objects go to die in museums is heart-breaking and can be addressed through more modern, transformative, and progressive mindsets within museums. 

Of particular importance was Margaret’s discussion of their Mental Health: Mind Matters exhibit. In general, mental health has been drastically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, this is an extremely relevant discussion. She used interactive components and a basic approach to target essential aspects of what people need to know, without overwhelming them with information that cannot be absorbed in the short time spent within the exhibit. Her desire to expel myths and open conversation provides a welcoming and safe environment for survivors and learners alike to discuss and is particularly admirable. This interaction between the experienced and the unsure allows the information to resonate far deeper. Hearing a firsthand experience provides an emotional aspect to the conversation that cannot be accessed any other way. As stated by Jimena, it is exhibits like these that allow museums to bring history closer to the people. Moving it away from the distant, foreign, and decided past, and moving it into a closer, and more fluid present. Mental health is something that has impacted, and will continue to impact, many people every day. By implementing exhibits such as this, museums will help expand their image into the public history sphere through more active community interactions.

Margaret’s openness to recognize successes, and room for improvement emphasizes the space for museum development and need to be constant and respectful. While she cannot reach everyone, Margaret has gone to great lengths to ensure the active involvement of Native Americans. Such a healthy relationship with a diverse community of people is exemplary, and significant for ensuring the continuation of such a rich history’s existence within the museum. A current process of including Spanish information within the exhibits, and offering space for alternative activities are fantastic ways to welcome communities. Margaret continues to fight against misinformation, a constant presence in current times, and strives to implement the rawest, primary sources possible. She acknowledges that every exhibition is a decision, and that not everything can be included; making these tough decisions is not something that is taken lightly. 

Margaret’s success in creating a space that is welcoming and supportive of discussion and interaction within a diverse community is extremely admirable. She has provided examples and ideas of how to progress museums into the twenty-first century, through a greater emphasis on public history. Bringing the history to the people in a way that is easy to consume and discuss with others is an integral part to the survival of museums and should be reflected in museums worldwide.

Megan Jones is in her final year of a Bachelor of Ancient History, majoring in Languages and Cultures of Ancient Egypt and the Near East at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She has had a particular passion for Ancient Egypt since she was very young and is interested in going into museum work, and, eventually, secondary school teaching.

Cite this blog post
Bridging Editor (2022, May 9). History Museums and Community Relevance: Explorers Reflection. IFPH-FIHP. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pvqc

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