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Have Fun Storming the Castle!

September 2, 2014

New! The word conjures up images of a shinycar, a pristine house, a bright toy. New can be fun, magical and exciting. But new can also be scary.

In the world of history and museums, we are used to looking at the past the old, the nostalgic and the comfortable. New can be intimidating. Why? Because new often involves risk. It involves leaving our comfort zones to venture into untried territory. And that can be daunting. But it can also be very, very rewarding.

In Local History Services, we are often trying new things (such as our Living Graphic Novel). A few months ago, one of my co-workers, Tamara Hemmerlein, attended an IMLS summit where they employed graphic facilitation/recording (drawing the ideas during a group discussion) for the meeting. Here’s how it works: a (very) large piece of paper is taped to the wall in view of the participants, and as the discussion progresses, an illustrator depicts the ideas visually through images, symbols and large text. The process allows the participants to see the conversation develop, make connections and think about key points. Tamara loved the experience and thought that it might be something we could try as well, so I attended some basic training on the subject. We decided to start employing it at our Bicentennial Brown Bag meetings.

The first time we did it a few months ago, I was excited, but also terrified (and still am, a little). I had practiced, I had all the tools but what if I couldn’t keep up with the conversation, misspelled a word or couldn’t think of an image for an idea? What if nobody liked it? It seemed like so many things could go wrong. Basically, it was new and exciting, but it was scary!

In the end, it all went swimmingly there were no spelling errors (that time, anyway), the conversationwas fun and the attendees enjoyed the experience. We are continuing to do graphic recording at our Bicentennial Brown Bags and will be expanding it to some other programming as well. And I’ll keep learning and developing the technique.

Ultimately, trying new things in museums and historical societies, as well as in Local History Services is all about our visitors/audience. The reason we push the boundaries is to make the our services better for them. It doesn’t mean we abandon tried and true approaches, but it does mean we need to keep thinking about what creates meaningful interactions. Do we fail occasionally? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dust ourselves off and try a new approach, as long as we keep our audiences’ best interests as our goal.

Will the graphic recording be successful in the future? I hope so, but only time will tell. And if it turns out not to be the best fit for our audience, we’ll move forward to a different idea (and yes, historical societies and museums must always move forward). Because in order to create change, serve our visitors and improve ourselves we must leave our comfort zones and try something new. So have fun storming the castle! (quote from The Princess Bride)


Jeannette Rooney is the coordinator for Local History Services at IHS. She travels the state with her LHS team members to assist local history organizations. Why? Because history rocks (and we get to make lots of ice cream stops)!

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