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If a Sense of Time Went Traveling

June 25, 2011

Are you one of those people who doesn’t RSVP until the last minute?   You’re motivated by the deadline, right?  Don’t want to miss the fun?

This sense of deadline often leads to a rise in visitation at historic sites that are about to go broke, or shut down, or move (the tragic saga of the Barnes, anyone?).

Without the ax looming, could healthy historic sites capture new audiences if they were available for a limited time period only, creating that sense of urgency?  (I’m not talking about limited opening times — that’s generally a sign of low visitation or limited staffing and still assumes a potential guest will make the trip to the site itself.)

Let’s have history hop on the “pop-up” trend.

Fabulous chefs are opening pop-up restaurants that become the must-have reservation of the month.  Retail impresarios delight shopaholics with fabulous pop-up stores full of goodies.

Going! Going! Gone!

Now you see it — now you don’t!

There’s a limited time frame to enjoy the experience and you’d better get there now or you’re going to miss it.  The limited run aspect makes it fashionable.  If you don’t get one of the few spots available for the experience, you’ll miss out.

What if a historic site brought its compelling tales to the people with a pop-up historic site?  In a sense, the notion is completely contrary to historic site DNA — the place that’s noteworthy for its years and years and layers and layers connected with a specific place.

But we’re not rejecting that place.

It’s just that if you can’t get the people to come to you (and let’s admit right here, chez nous, that it’s a problem for many historic sites and small museums), why not load up a magic carpet and go to them?  Give them a taste of the secrets you might reveal if they were to come visit the real site.  Tempt them.  Answer some of the mysteries, but not all.  Demonstrate that there’s more to the place than butter churns and egg & dart detailing.  The historical society might look up their house on old insuranc surveys or vintage photos.  The museum with gorgeous gardens might bring their plant sale to the local farmer’s market.  Sell them something; people love to take a little something home to show to friends (and it’s one more way to get the word out).

If you want them to pop over for a visit, why not try popping up first?

Photos for this post by Sabra Smith (and then photoshopped into a fantasy of every small historical society -- a line out the door) Sites still working on the "if we open the doors, they will come" model need to look for new opportunities to connect with the community.

It was Nina Simon’s post about the process of developing an exhibit celebrating the sesquicentennial of Minnesota (combined with the NYT touting the pop-up trend) that got me thinking about this idea of taking the story to the people if the people won’t come to the story.  The Minnesota History Center wanted to honor 150 major influences on the state’s history and culture.  Simon’s team started with a web-based survey.  Concerns about “preaching to the choir” led to meetings with community groups to reach a more diverse audience.  When an opportunity to staff a booth at the Minnesota State Fair arose — the biggest state fair in the country — it seemed an ideal opportunity to connect directly with a wide cross-section of Minnesotans.

A meet n’ greet of this kind works on so many levels — you get direct answers to the questions you’re asking, you get unsolicited feedback about your organization that, if you pay attention, can provide some insights about awareness/branding/customer service issues, and you have an opportunity to capture people’s imagination and make an impression.  Simon’s group found that the face-to-face activity at the fair helped drive traffic to the website (underscoring the need for a well-organized, informative web presence).

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