The Laurel Historical Society has been exploring our museum’s role in the community. We began by asking ourselves, “How can our programs and activities encourage our community to feel invested in its history? How can we preserve and promote local history while simultaneously drawing on the personal and profound? How can we raise the museum’s community profile, promoting it as a center for conversations and information about the present, past and even the future?”

We first looked at how other museums used interdisciplinary models of innovative programming. Then, we developed a series of experimental activities to answer these questions. Piloting programs can be a little tricky for a small museum’s staff, so we decided to integrate our field-testing with established programming. With adaptations, tweaking and feedback from volunteers, colleagues, board members and our communities, this is what we’re learning:

Our adult audiences enjoy more interactivity at regularly scheduled monthly, evening programs. For example, we sponsored a wine-tasting evening at a local historic site, and asked participants what kinds of connections they saw between the art and Laurel’s history and culture. This fun-filled activity, not only showcased our collective and varying perspectives on the exhibit, it also demystified the art of label writing. And with the artist there, the conversation was even more meaningful.

Visitors engaged on their own terms in response to “Intergalactic Effect” by Patrick Delaney.

Visitors engaged on their own terms in response to “Intergalactic Effect” by Patrick Delaney.

Selected visitor label text transcription:

“This artwork captures Laurel’s relationship with space through JHU/APL and NASA Goddard Space Center”

“Reminds me of my hair some days!”

At another evening program, we unveiled a version of the popular NPR show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where we asked participants to guess which news headlines from the past were true and which ones were false. What began as a light-hearted exercise led to a deeper conversation about preconceived notions, interpretation, citizenship, and using museums as historical sources.

“Making your own exhibition” activities have been particularly popular among camp and after-school audiences. When you adapt activities to age, time constraints and themes, kids can still explore a topic, identify objects, and create artwork and labels to produce an exhibit representing their experiences. Sometimes this means using objects from the museum collection that might resonate, such as old high school yearbooks. Another approach is to develop a larger theme by drawing from kids’ memories and common experiences. When we expose kids to objects, images and stories, they not only learn about museum work, they also see why and how that work is important and relevant.

Campers in Laurel Summer Playground program create their own exhibit, August 2014.

Campers in Laurel Summer Playground program create their own exhibit, August 2014.

When you incorporate an experimental approach to programming, both audiences and staff members benefit. Working in concert, testing things out, and encouraging creativity sustains and keeps our practice flexible. And being transparent about our work helps foster increased accountability to – and investment in – our community.

We’re widening the circle so staff, volunteers, visitors, neighbors, community members empower each other and work together to preserve and promote local history.

Lindsey Baker is the Executive Director of the Laurel Historical Society. In her six years in the community, she’s worked on investing the LHS’ resources in benefitting the community of Laurel. In her free time, Lindsey serves on the SMC and SMAC boards for AASLH, AAM, and as President of the Maryland Museums Association.

Beth Maloney is a museum education consultant working with museums, historic sites and cultural organizations. She has partnered with the Laurel Historical Society on various projects including educational program development and visitor experience planning. Beth currently serves as President of the Museum Education Roundtable.