An Historic Two-Way Street
Summer has ended and Newport is filled with bus and cruise ship day-trippers. It is an appropriate time to reflect on the visitors that the NHS serves, and to ask ourselves what, in fact, they want from us.
Our audience is not homogenous. We serve locals with lectures, programs and special events, and a fully international cohort of students and scholars with access to our collections for research. A percentage of the 3 million visitors to Newport take advantage of our museum, walking tours, and other programming. To further complicate the issue, each of these segmented audiences are also diverse: summer residents on Ocean Drive, Middletown school groups, a bus tour from upstate New York, a family from Mexico City. These groups have very different needs and expectations, and providing each of them with educational, entertaining, and useful experiences is a central challenge for NHS.
This year we participated in a national survey of history museum goers, and also surveyed our own audiences. This information will help us continue to shape the Newport Historical Society as a 21st century public history organization. If the act of public history is, in part, bringing historical information and understanding to people where they “are,” this requires an understanding of their needs.
What have we learned? Our audiences are interested in Newport! We have also learned that our most engaged audiences come to us interested in and opinionated about history. While they still trust history museums, that trust seems a little more fragile than it did a decade ago, when history museums were the most trusted institutions in America.
We are also learning that the relationship between a cultural institution and its audience is a two-way street. An institution that serves a primarily local audience will be a different place than one that serves a national, or international one. An institution that focuses on school programming will develop different strengths and perspectives than one which focuses on adults. While we have always known that we are shaped by our mission, our collections, and our history, we must now reflect also on how we are shaped by our audiences and their expectations.
All of this is fascinating, hard, and necessary. History teaches us is that the status quo is rarely sustainable. The landscape transforms, and we must respond. Even as our mission persists, the work to advance it is changing.
This is a lot of work for a small place. But, the importance of our mission is enhanced by the passion of the people who work at NHS – both on the Board and on the staff. Even with all that, nothing is possible without the support of our friends and members. The philanthropic landscape, too, is changing, and there is little that is automatic and predictable about the support that organizations like NHS receive. We need your thoughtful, meaningful and generous gifts in order to continue to preserve, interpret and share Newport’s important history. Thank you for subscribing to that history through your support of NHS; please use the button below and donate today.