Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Marketing Strategies for Historical Societies in a New Era

Having visited more than my fair share of museums, historical societies, and historic houses, I have become aware of some of the challenges that especially smaller institutions face in the wake of ever increasing competition for the time of their potential audiences. Not only has television and mass media in general changed the publics’ recreational activities, but many for profit corporations have seized a significant market share of what was once the domain of nonprofit museums and historical societies. They have become more relevant to the lives of “ordinary Joes” than the nonprofit community could ever hope to be, and one reason is their use of technology in the realization of cutting edge exhibitions, cultural programming, and edutainment. This alone threatens especially small institutions with small budgets.

This competition from the for-profit sector has made it necessary for small nonprofit cultural institutions like the local historical society to consider marketing strategies like they never have before. Marketing, with its traditions of competition, has often been seen by historical societies and many small museums as something for them to resist, as the collection, preservation, and dissemination of a community’s history or art has been perceived as a cause of a higher order and solely dependent on charity and altruism rather than the marketing strategies necessitated and used in pursuit of profit. The point still missed by many is that such strategies can make an institution greater at serving a larger portion of their community.

Successful marketing strategies are founded on an understanding of the public and their needs, or perceived needs. Small institutions, like the local historical society, need to step up to the plate and deliver new and attractive ways of presenting themselves. They must drive the point home that they are the real thing, a place where meaningful objects and trustworthy information can be found and serve a role in the lives of their community members. In doing this they negate all the fears about taking on the agenda of marketing.

Historical societies also need to embrace the history of more than the elite of the past, present other periods in history than merely the distant past, and, finally, take on the untraditional role of documenting and presenting their community’s more recent past through the mediums of our own time---digital photography and audio in order to more effectively disseminate the information they have, namely much of their collections that are in storage for long periods of time. They need to become more relevant to generations that have embraced new digital media.

Taking on the point of view of visitors, or potential visitors, may mean that the local historical society must transcend merely the historical narratives of the 17th-19th centuries and seek to satisfy the current demand for twentieth century nostalgia by baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and the like. This could be a strategy that will result in drawing more people into the institution’s fold for further growth and initiate some needed enthusiasm among greater numbers for the historical society’s existing collections.

In saying this, I am reminded of institutions in which very dedicated individuals scratch their heads and wonder why they have so few younger and middle aged among their membership. Of course, this is a demographic that is busy raising families and working, but they do have leisure time, and the question the historical societies should be asking is how do we make our institution relevant to this group and make them want to spend that leisure as a visitor to our facility or involved in the collecting of local history and its dissemination through education.

What might be some of the specific marketing strategies that would make these historical societies more relevant? The Andover Historical Society (AHS) in Andover, Massachusetts has sought to reinvent how their community members come to know about what they offer. Not long ago they struck upon the idea of organizing a farmers’ market where one no longer existed. Small farms have sprung up in increasing numbers in the past few decades in this suburban community not far from Boston. A local high school student actually sparked the idea when she contacted AHS and asked whether there were any markets in the area to sell garden produce. AHS sent out feelers about the possibility of them creating a market on the small village lot that they own, and many local farmers were ecstatic about the idea.

The Historical Society provided rental space for these local farmers right next to the historical house they maintain. This situation has allowed for this institution to participate in the making of local history rather than merely preserving the long-ago past. This scheme not only resulted in added revenues but renewed interest in the historical society. As people came out to buy produce, they seized the opportunity to walk the grounds, ask questions about the historic house, and visit it. The historical society used the opportunity of having the public on their grounds on a regular basis for the purpose of buying produce to provide outdoor programming and events more frequently. There was significant free press coverage through this arrangement as well.

This historical society has attracted a whole new demographic to their membership that includes young families. Many among this new membership admit never knowing about the historical society before or having dismissed it as not for them. Prior to this phenomenon, membership consisted almost exclusively of senior citizens who were largely interested in seeking genealogical information from the historical society’s research facilities. The farmers’ market also served thematically the 19th century offerings of the historic house; workshops in traditional crafts were eventually developed to coincide with market days.

Historical societies have other opportunities of making a greater connect with the public. These might include providing “edutainment” like summer film festivals which include discussion forums. Viewing could be offered outdoors. With the number of local cable channels available today small museums might present some of their collection holdings in televised exhibits, which may include simply having a curator or scholar talk about an artifact that stands before them. Video tours of historical houses and sites and re-enactments could be the stuff of such cable programming.

Digital videotaping has made such a possibility affordable. Programming could also be assisted by cooperative partnerships with local schools, colleges, and budding historians and media production professionals. It seems logical that a local historical society could market itself by taking a more active role in the technologies that pose a threat to their own survival as a strong competitor for the time of the public.

Historical societies could establish greater relevancy by actively participating in the current documentation of their community for future generations. An oral history project comes to mind which entails recording the stories of the living community. How about collecting artifacts and narratives from more recent history rather than waiting until they become a rarity or nonexistent? A community’s history is a complex fabric of individual and group experiences. So why not approach the mission to preserve history in new ways; for example, orchestrating a reunion of local amateur garage bands from the 60s, 70s, and 80s might serve to attract a whole new demographic to the cause and mission of the historical society.

Something as unique as re-uniting such bands and having them play for the community might be the lengths the historical society has to go to survive, for we have to ask ourselves who is it that is going to be preserving our community’s history after we’re gone? What will become of the chapters in history that we experienced first-hand in an age of few letter writers and a preference for the extraordinary by the news gathering media of our time over the more commonplace experiences of us all. Will the unique character of our community survive for future generations to know and appreciate when so little of it is destined to be preserved?

Historical societies have an obligation to preserve our more recent history now. Broadening the scope of the artifacts and narratives collected and making use of digital media, which makes it possible to store huge amounts of information in a very small place that can be disseminated to the whole world, is among the important steps to take in marketing the historical society to more of the public. By doing this we can better insure that there will be someone to inherit this institution and meet the responsibility of both preserving the past and sharing it with future generations.

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