Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

History brands

Battery Point, Hobart Tasmania.  Photo: Meredith Foley

Robin Pogrebin, These Fusty Names Are History, The New York Times, 23 October 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.

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