How We Tell the Fascinating Stories at the Heart of the Civil War

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Civil War Field: Zac and Kate awaiting the dawn of a new day of Audience Development training.

Stepping into a museum is a transcending experience, and for good reason.

In a moment, you can go from the bustling city street to a quiet temple devoted to the richest collection of history we have. On your left are REAL dinosaur bones, fragments of a time we didn’t even know existed until the 1800s. On your right are REAL WWI boots that an actual soldier laced up every morning for four long years. It’s intoxicating — the first time you realize that history isn’t just a grade 10 mandatory credit, but instead something that has been unfolding since the beginning of time.

In fact, museums are so f****ing awesome that it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of history actually happened outdoors. Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, and heck, pretty much the entire Atlantic Ocean all harbor the same richness of stories as the Louvre, the Met, and the Vatican.

But while museums can offer a consistent experience to each new guest, the “historical outdoors” have a challenge to overcome. How do you tell great stories when your battlefield has been turned into farmland? What if your Freedom Trail now passes by Chipotle?

Navigating this challenge is the subject of today’s case study.

Case Study: Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area

Groupshot! Sexy people learning about how to make the civil war stories captivating.

Earlier this year the management team from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, “HCWHA”, reached out to Museum Hack with a problem. As one of the leading curators of this period of American History, HCWHA had an important story to tell but were struggling to communicate it. As we investigated, we found a few key issues:

  • It’s difficult to get a sense of the vast outdoor space that makes up the historical area. There are still people living on and farming the land. You can’t go in the historic houses. It’s unclear what is part of the site and what is at the peripheries. There is an interstate going through the battlefield! How do you get a sense of the place and how do you interpret it in a meaningful way?
  • How do you talk about hallowed ground, where brave men and women gave their lives, in a respectful way while still having levity in approach? How do you bring energy, passion, and fun while being respectful?
  • Millennial audiences didn’t seem to appreciate the historical significance of America’s Civil War as much as previous generations did.

With these challenges in mind, we crafted a workshop tailored to HCWHA’s needs.

Oh the scenery! It was a grey and misty morning....perfect for a great story.

The Millennial Engagement Workshop, AKA How to be Cool

Our work with HCWHA centered around a Millennial Engagement Workshop. This workshop distilled our regular multi­-week training program into a 4.5 hour workshop, with a focus on high ­level audience engagement, the ‘hack’ structure of a tour, and playful activities in museum spaces. Some solutions to the HCWHA’s challenges began to form.

For many historical sites, reenactments are a fun and informative way to engage guests.  I.E., instead of just telling guests what happened, you dress up in full costume and act it out. But on HCWHA’s land, reenactments aren’t allowed. We had to get creative and find another way to recreate the experience.

As we explored the space, we asked the helpful curators of the land to walk us through a battle. A forward charge, a flank from the North, surprise reinforcements. As we waved our hands through the air, gesturing wildly to imagine the movements, we had a spark of realization. The movements of the battle looked a lot like a dance! Boom, breakthrough idea. So we simplified it, formalized it, and taught the dance to the curators. It was the first time a dance reenactment had been done, and it was a huge hit. Watch the video below to see our dance in action.

Recall, one of the difficult criteria of HCWHA’s work is to make learning about the Civil War fun and engaging, while still respectful. So we looked into how we can make sure our ­reenactment fit the bill. They confirmed that not only the dance routine, but all our work that day, had been quite respectful. Museum Hack for the win!

How the Civil War Can Help You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

Practice makes perfect! Workshop attendees practice storytelling about the Civil War, right in their museum!

Giving your guests an amazing experience isn’t about one fun activity, it’s about constantly awakening their senses. And let’s face it, you ARE competing with Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. One way you can overcome this is to stop competing and instead, Join the Resistance. Find ways to integrate social media into the experience. These efforts may include taking selfies with the exhibits to post on Facebook, tweet­-chatting with your guests, or using Snapchat for a flash scavenger hunt.

But another great way to engage guests, especially young guests, is to incorporate pop culture into your stories. We call this, Connect the Past to the Future, and here’s an example…

The Samuel Colt gun, the bayonets, and the scabbards at HCWHA are all slightly familiar because of the weapons used in popular shows like The Walking Dead, where a group of survivors are constantly running from and fighting with zombies. With this in mind, we developed an engagement activity for the weapons room, i.e., a lot of items in this space could be helpful for surviving a Zombie Apocalypse, so find the thing that will help you survive, and the thing you would definitely leave behind. In our trial runs, we found that this game helped people explore and connect to objects as they planned to “repurpose” them. Another win.

Civil War Weapons: Just poke the zombie with this: they will instantly turn into zombie soup.

Rounding Out the Experience with Stories

If you are familiar with Museum Hack’s work, you know that the power of great stories is core to our philosophy. And to boast a little bit, we’ve become world class at this. Our workshop at HCWHA included a segment on how they could re-frame Civil War stories to better engage and inform visitors. To learn a little more about how we do this, have a look at our museum consulting page.

Edit: About Our Approach

This article sparked a dialogue about our approach to engagement and storytelling at historical sites.  See our response to this discussion, About Our Work with the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area.

The Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area also posted a review of our work on their website.  You can read the full article to better understand how we work with museums, and here is a quote:

“Reverence through irreverence was a new principle for many of us, but the tangible structure and examples that Museum Hack provided proved to be thoughtful considerations.  You may not see workshop participants using interpretive dance, the threat of zombie apocalypse, or gangster talk to entice audiences to our battlefields, but almost all participants agreed that the workshop sparked innovative and creative thinking about how we attract and engage audiences of all ages.

Want a phone call with us?

At Museum Hack, we obsess over customizing every engagement to make sure we help you overcome your unique challenges. And we want to help you! Just send us a quick email at [email protected] or call 1­-800­-778­-5531. We’d love to talk about your museum and the challenges you are working on.

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