These Fusty Names Are History: Historical Institutions Update Their Brands

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Author: 
Robin Pogrebinoct
Publication: 
New York Times
Release Date: 
October 23, 2014

In conducting a series of focus groups with mothers of young children and history buffs recently, the Ohio Historical Society received high marks for its programs and services. But the organization also learned another important piece of feedback: Its name was off-putting. 

“They said, ‘We really don’t feel ourselves reflected in the Ohio Historical Society, that it has a connotation of being sort of exclusive — not a place that we would feel welcome,’ ” Burt Logan, the director, said. “That caused us to step back and think there was a disconnect between our image and the audiences that we’re trying to reach.” 

As a result, the society now calls itself the Ohio History Connection. The organization is one of several historical institutions around the country that are rebranding themselves to appeal to a more contemporary audience and compete in a competitive cultural marketplace.

The Colorado Historical Society is now History Colorado. The Chicago Historical Society is now the Chicago History Museum. The Fairfield Historical Society in Connecticut is now the Fairfield Museum and History Center. The Lancaster County Historical Society in Pennsylvania is now LancasterHistory.org. 

 “It’s kind of a transform-or-die model,” said Michael A. Jehle, the executive director of the Fairfield Museum and History Center. “You need to demonstrate relevancy. You need to demonstrate your role in the cultural needs of your constituents. If you’re a historical society that tells the same creaky story, people are not going to pay much attention.” 

Established in 1904, the Fairfield Historical Society changed its name in 2007 as part of a larger “re-envisioning” of the organization. This has included new programming. This year, for example, the museum celebrated 10 musicians from the region — including the Talking Heads, Keith Richards and Donna Summer — with the exhibition, “Fairfield’s Rockin’ Top Ten.”

“History doesn’t have to be colonial,” Mr. Jehle said. 

Already the institution has seen results. Annual attendance has increased to about 20,000, from about 2,000 in 2004. And where the museum’s educational programming used to reach fewer than 1,000 students each year, it is now drawing close to 6,000. 

The Chicago History Museum, founded in 1856, changed both its name and its physical presentation in 2006, jamming its front window with pieces from the collection so passers-by have a sense of what’s inside. It also redesigned its lobby, featuring as a centerpiece a 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo lowrider, because Gary T. Johnson, president of the museum, said, “it was built by a group of friends with a Hispanic background,” which is relevant to “today’s Chicago.” “It doesn’t hark back to another era in history,” he added, “but it talks about a changing city.” (The museum’s video about the car has received more than one million hits on YouTube.) 

“In a way we could say that the oldest cultural institution has become the youngest,” Mr. Johnson said. “The feeling was that, in today’s world, the word ‘society’ is a barrier, because to some people it sends the message that you have a club that maybe they’re not invited to join, whereas everyone understands that a museum is open to the public and a welcoming place.” 

History museums need to learn from science museums, Mr. Johnson added, adopting a “family strategy.” When the museum featured an exhibition of railroad photographs, for example, it included places where children could play with toy trains, climb into a caboose, don conductor caps and swing lanterns. 

“Families can move through the museum together,” he said, “and everyone will feel there’s something for them.” 

LancasterHistory.org said it had been “in major refashioning mode” since about 2009 and changed its name partly to accommodate the consolidation of other local history institutions under its tent. In 2012, for example, the organization took on the Heritage Center’s decorative arts collection. (The Heritage Center then closed.) “It really has to do with shrinking philanthropic resources during a tough economic time,” said Thomas R. Ryan, the president and chief executive of LancasterHistory.org. “Historic house museums have really struggled tremendously.” 

“We also wanted a name that spoke to a newer, younger demographic,” he added. “We took the name of our web address and thought it makes sense just to use that. If people have that, they know how to contact us and it’s worked.” 

In June, the Chester County Historical Society in Pennsylvania announced a grant-funded project to examine the marketing of its name as well as the names of its buildings and other spaces. “For years, we have been hearing — mostly anecdotally — that our name hindered our ability to reach new audiences,” Robert Lukens, the president, said. 

The society would simply like to get the word out to a greater variety of people about all the historical stuff it has, like one of the youngest images of Frederick Douglass that he gave to Susan B. Anthony and a rifle that was used on Robert Peary’s expedition to the Arctic in his quest for the North Pole. 

“We need to change the image of our organization,” Mr. Lukens said. “We want to make sure that the excitement that our programs and our collection bring to people is accurately reflected in what we call ourselves.” 

In addition to trying to bolster its annual attendance of 32,000 — the society would like to break 40,000 in two years — the organization is experimenting with programs like “History on Tap,” where speakers discuss historic topics at local bars and restaurants. The website promoted a recent one at Molly Maguire’s Irish Restaurant and Pub, noting that the event would “provide a brief history of the Irish in Phoenixville starting from the first immigrants in the 1810s to boxing in the 1950s.” 

“It’s just about reaching more people, and adapting to what our audiences prefer,” Mr. Lukens said. “Give people their history in ways that they want it, not ways that we think they want.”