By Johanna Fassbender
In recent years, museums across the country have experimented with new program ideas to increase participation and engagement in their communities. My organization, the Hayward Area Historical Society (HAHS), is one of those places.
Our first stand-alone museum was in a fairly small building for a very long time. We literally outgrew the facility – collections storage, exhibit galleries, programming space and staff offices were packed to the ceiling and crammed. Our Board of Directors decided to buy a building in 2011 to expand services and give adequate space to collections, exhibits, and programs. We closed our little museum, but still wanted to be active and stay in touch with our members and the community by continuing to offer school and public programs.
Our goals were to:
- Improve school programs, so that what we had to offer was the best it could be;
- Actively reach out to a new audience – families with young children;
- Make the various communities aware of the fact that we are their historical society and care about them and their stories; and
- Experiment to figure out what works and what doesn't work.
In terms of improving our school programs, we tackled those teaching materials that had not been updated in years; we made sure everything was up to date, complete, and that it met educational standards. We also tried to put as many resources online to make it easy for teachers to find and download our information.
Another project was creating a new Downtown Hayward Walking Tour for elementary school students who learn about their community. The old tour mostly focused on “old white men,” and it was hard for our very diverse student body to connect with their stories. Lynn Houlihan, a graduate student from CSUEB helped us develop narratives told through the eyes of four children who all grew up in Hayward at various points in time. The children are of African-American, Mexican-American, Japanese-American and Portuguese-American heritage, and because the majority of our area's students are of the same diverse backgrounds, they can relate to the experiences of their long-ago peers.
To achieve our second goal, we developed a program series for families with young children. It was centered around a hands-on history room, Archie’s Playroom, inside the historic McConaghy House. The programs included crafts, games, story time, various components depending on the month or season, and free play in our hands-on history room. In terms of marketing the programs, we identified several local mommy groups on meetup.com.
As the Hayward "Area" Historical Society we are responsible for telling the stories of not only the City of Hayward but also the unincorporated areas of Castro Valley, Cherryland, San Lorenzo, Fairview, and Ashland. To succeed in making all these various communities aware of the fact that we are their historical society too, we developed a series called History Around Town. We experimented with many different formats – lectures, craft workshops, concerts, walking tours, a game night, and whatever else we could come up with that would be of interest to the communities we visited. Locations and partners changed nearly every month among area libraries, community groups, local universities and colleges, churches, schools, and businesses. These partnerships have increased our outreach, enabled us to host programs on an ongoing basis, and connected us a lot more with the community.
One example of making a specific community aware of us was the Castro Valley Pop-up Museum, which was a project spearheaded by our Curator Diane Curry in partnership with the Castro Valley Legends and other community members.
Many of the residents of Castro Valley are unaware that HAHS collects their stories. A Pop-up Museum within the community seemed the perfect opportunity to make them aware of us and what we do. The Museum was installed inside an empty store in a small shopping center. Historical photos, artifacts, interactives, a craft station, and even programs were all set up within one afternoon. Marketing was done by using only online and social media tools. All in all, 530 people visited, and they loved it. People brought personal photos and objects to share and even donate. They engaged with the exhibit, interactives and crafts, and many shared their stories with us and each other. What was most fascinating was that the participants just "hung out" for a really long time. I believe we had effectively created a third space experience for the community. [Click here to view the report Museums as Third Place. This report was created as part of the California Association of Museum's Leaders of the Future: Museum Professionals Developing Strategic Foresight project.]
These activities and our commitment to delivering an ongoing array of programs have increased awareness about the Historical Society; that we are "open" without four walls and engaged in the life and culture of our several communities. Our program numbers have also increased: in 2009, we had an audience of 673 people, and in 2012, 3,636 participated in HAHS programs and events.
We have learned valuable lessons during these last few years:
- Focus on the experience and the relationships between people. Our organization could provide a public space for people to meet, pursue interests together, and engage with the history of the area;
- Be a place that provides people with a sense of community and pride in their history and culture;
- Create a welcoming and comfortable environment where people feel invited to participate and can establish a sense of ownership;
- Keep experimenting!
Johanna Fassbender is the Education Director of the Hayward Area Historical Society in Hayward, California. She is responsible for all public programs, school programs and the Museum’s volunteer program. Ms. Fassbender has a degree in Cultural Anthropology and Museum Studies and over eight years of experience in the museum field. She participated in the California Association of Museum’s (CAM) Leaders of the Future learning group and currently serves on CAM's Strategic Foresight Committee.