Is it Disrespectful to Dance at a Battlefield?
There has been some controversy over our recent engagement with the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area. Thank you! We don’t expect every perspective to align with our own, and we appreciate the open dialogue. We’ve written the following as a response to the criticisms and praises we’ve received. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.
An Open Letter About Museum Hack’s Philosophy & Practices
Museum Hack breaks conventions, not rules. Our place in the museum world is to help re-imagine the adult museum experience for audiences that don’t inherently have a stake in museums. These are people who think that museums aren’t for them; they view the museum as entrenched in antiquated models of preserving and presenting information. To them, a museum may simply be a repository — a dull, lifeless place that houses objects someone else deemed “culturally significant.”
To get these kinds of people into museums, we have to push the envelope and shake people up. Museum Hack takes risks, and we aren’t afraid to share them.
Our work with the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area was no different.
How do we help visitors understand a battle in a place that has no physical markers, and communicate the emotion of soldiers’ experiences when overlooking vast fields and potentially, modern development? Our answer is to get them physically invested in the experience by using their bodies to recreate the battle plan. Some might call this activating bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. We call it a dance.
How do we help disengaged audiences make personal connections to objects? We give them a creative frame through which to view and connect objects to their own lives. Some might stay close to traditional models and ask audiences to imagine themselves in the Civil War. We choose to be more fantastical in our framing by bringing Civil War technology into conversations about the apocalypse.
The goal with both activities is a method of engagement that helps audiences — especially millennials — actively participate in the creation of their own museum experience. In so doing, they personally connect with the stories and objects presented. They can imagine the tension and emotion of battle through dance. They can contemplate various uses of technology — then and now.
But the most important part of these approaches comes from an access angle. By creating a varied experience, with moments of energy and levity, as well as we dive deeper into more challenging subject matter, you can ensure the audience remembers your story.
All good storytellers and educators know that a monotone experience — whether in approach, emotion, or subject matter — is the fastest way to shut down your listeners. By loosening up visitors (even physically, sometimes!) and varying the highs-and-lows of an experience, we grant ourselves the opportunity to draw audiences into deep dives on more challenging subject matter. We invite the audience in with “fun,” and keep them interested by connecting that fun to the deeper, more serious side of the story.
Museum Hack is all about multiple access points, especially for audiences that don’t necessarily have an “in” to the subject matter. By offering them an access point that feels unexpected and energizing, we grant ourselves the space to have deeper discussions — and to address the serious “dark matter” of history and culture.
Museum Hack prides itself on “reverent irreverence,” and we undertook this project with the same sensibilities. Prior to the project, we polled attendees to learn about their concerns and the number one response specified a concern about how our techniques would play on a charged turf, such as a battlefield. Our preparation was made in careful consideration of this and in-depth research on the real experiences of individual soldiers at the site.
We learned their stories, and then found ways to help interpret these stories on a site that had changed considerably since the Civil War.
After our workshop, we asked the stakeholders if they felt we were respectful of the sites and subject matter, and we received a resounding yes. In fact, we have received repeated follow-ups from the attendees acknowledging that they found our approach had credence for their sites.
This doesn’t mean that our techniques work everywhere or for everyone — but it does mean that taking risks can have immense, even unexpected, rewards. Our consulting services provide a framework by which museums can explore our methods and adapt them to their own spaces. What might take museum staff months or years to develop on their own can happen within a few days, with an immediate take-away to implement on site.
We worked with Heart of the Civil War Heritage District to look at their sites with fresh eyes. We found ways that not only help them engage new audiences with the stories of Civil War soldiers, but also bring new meaning and relevance to those stories. Through this engagement — the “fun” of dance and modern applications of technology — we open the doors to help audiences re-imagine their museum experience. We connect to them on a personal level by achieving what museums often strive for.
Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” By taking risks and having fun, we find new ways of achieving connections, relevance, and engagement. In so doing, we pursue a future where museums are not only cultural authorities, but are also facilitators of cultural dialogue about our past, present, and future as a whole. Where museums are for people — all people — and offer a variety of experiences that inspire us to uncover ancient mysteries, connect with those who have come before us, explore contemporary problems, and achieve our wildest dreams.
[Edit: The Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area 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.”]
Again, thank you for reading our work and for being part of the discussion. We don’t shy away from this kind of dialogue. If you’d like to continue the discussion via phone, please call 1-800-210-9676 and ask for Ethan Angelica, Tour Guide + VIP Partnerships and head of our Audience Development wing.