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Do We Speak The Same Language? Theatre In Science and History Museums

17 Jan 2015 6:00 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

(From time to time in this space, we are publishing articles from past issues of INSIGHTS, the IMTAL Newsletter. This article is by Larry Roberson, who at the time of publication circa 2001, was the new Community Programs Manager at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, Missouri.) 

When I was invited by IMTAL to take part in a session at the recent Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) Conference, I thought there might be some mistake. I work at a History Museum. We don't do science and technology. However, it was to be a session on museum theatre, and since we have been pretty active in using theatre at the Missouri Historical Society, I agreed to participate.

Still, I was afraid I might be like Jerry Seinfeld in the commercial where he goes to England and no one laughs because they don't use the same language in the same way. Do those of us at history museums speak the same language as our colleagues in science museums? Would I, like Jerry, have to undergo a crash course in how to interpret my language?

The answer, from my experience at the ASTC conference is emphatically - no. I found an audience speaking not only in the same language, but having the same conversation. Our goals, our methods, and our challenges are indeed very much the same. Just like our science museum colleagues, those of use who are using theatre in history museums are struggling with ways to grab and hold the attention of our audience, whether that audience is students or adults. Just like science museums, we are finding that theatre can be very effective in telling difficult or controversial stories. Just like science museums, we are struggling with ways to convince sometimes reluctant administrators that spending several thousand dollars on something as ephemeral as theatre is the best use of always scarce resources. Sitting on the panel, and listening to the excellent questions and comments from participants, I was struck by the fact that I had heard much the same questions and comments at last year's American Association of State and Local History conference.

I was further struck at how much farther along the path of understanding theatre many science centers are than history museums and sites. It seems to me that science centers have much more readily embraced the notion that theatre in museums can be--yes, I'll saying the f word--fun. This is important as more and more visitors look to their museum experience to be a combination of education and entertainment. Theatre can be that. Especially with young audiences, theatre should be that. Done well, theatre engages all our senses in the process of learning--it is visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and most of all, it is wonder-ful.

But can we measure wonder? The question arose from a participant. We are all struggling with ways to measure the successes we have had. In most of the quantitative evaluations I have seen, theatre does very well. At the Missouri Historical Society (MHS), we have done random surveys of teachers who have seen Meet Me in St. Louis, our World's Fair vignettes, as part of their gallery tours. The theatre component is consistently rated a 9 or 10, and about sixty percent of those who responded said it was the best part of the experience. And yet, this doesn't explain the ways in which theatre captures the imagination and inspires the soul. I don't know that we will ever address this more that anecdotally. If quantified surveys remain limited, they are at least something to show to administrators and funders.

I heard another question in the IMTAL session that I also heard at the AASLH conference. In essence, the question asks whether museum theatre should play the emotion card. How much emotion is too much for visitors? Behind this question, I think, is the fear that we are not really teaching science or history if our museum theatre is about people who are in real and compelling situations. If the play deals in emotion, do audiences leave thinking about our facts and concepts or the passion of the actors?

But isn't this the very reason we are using theatre--to grab and hold the attention of our audience? And if our theatre is well crafted, isn't then our audience thinking about the science or the history in relationship to the compelling story? I believe that if our audiences get involved in the story, they are of necessity going to be involved in what we are trying to teach. The same things that make good theatre at our professional playhouses make good theatre in our galleries--a compelling story, well acted and directed. If our theatre is not compelling, there is no reason to do it. To compel visitors to engage is why we're here--that is the language of theatre.


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