Before I left my position at the Minnesota History Center leading the gallery program there, I used to get plenty of unsolicited communications “over the transom”–phone calls, comment cards and letters with praise or criticism, suggestions for exhibitions and programs we just had to do, offers to partner on a project, or requests for informational interviews were the most common. Sometimes, I would get a whole packet of love notes from students who enjoyed their field trips. Other times I got apologies from students whose teachers or chaperones felt they had been too rowdy during a visit.
Because I think museums have a deep responsibility to serve the public with respect, I always tried to follow up as best I could. One thing I experienced over and over again was how surprised a messenger was that I took the time to reply, which made me realize how many people who reach out to museums expect to be rebuffed.
Sure, a few of the calls, comments and suggestions were pretty far out. However they went, more often than not, the exchange was limited to one message and one reply or a brief conversation.
But, occasionally, these incoming messages from complete strangers led to review and revision of exhibit content, a change in program direction, meaningful phone calls and face-to-face meetings, extended relationships, and even major initiatives.
Over time, I came to understand that the efforts of these strangers were a gift it was my privilege to receive, even in those instances when reading or hearing what the messenger needed to express was humbling and painful to me. When we are prepared to listen, messages over the transom from strangers help museum professionals stay grounded and focused on what really matters.
One of these exchanges stands out for me. Maybe it’s because it happened fairly recently, but I also think it’s because the questions of a 7th grader made caused me to revisit my career and, by extension, my sense of purpose. It also made me think about how I could explain something so meaningful and important to me to a kid.
[Received as a letter by mail.]
September 12, 2016
Dear Mr. Dan Spock,
My name is Jay M___. I am a 7th grade student at Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. We are trying to decide why it is important to learn history.
Two ideas we discussed are:
- History helps us understand what it was like before we were born.
- History helps us understand past and present culture.
We are writing to people who Mr. M_____ thinks need to know history to do their jobs. I have two questions for you:
- Why is history important?
- How do you use history to do your job?
I hope you are able to respond to this letter, but I understand if you are not.
[Sent as a letter by mail.]
September 29, 2016
Thank you for your thoughtful questions about history! You can probably imagine that I LOVE history and I’m happy to tell you why. I’ll start with a story about my dog.
I had a wonderful dog named Milo who died a few years ago. He was a good boy and did everything you would want a dog to do. He would fetch sticks, point at rabbits, bark when somebody came to the house, did some cool tricks and was always friendly and kind to me and everyone he met. Still, there were times when he could not resist doing something he wasn’t supposed to, like stealing food off the table, or sleeping on the couch. If I got upset, you could tell he felt bad about it, but if he had the chance to do it, he would do it all over again. The thing is, he could never really remember anything after a minute or two. And that’s OK — for a dog.
There are people who can’t remember anything after it happens, but it isn’t normal like it is for a dog. Most of us will know someone like this someday. When a person can’t remember things, they can’t take care of themselves, work with other people, can’t make decisions or plan for the future. They don’t know who they are or where they are going. They can only react to things in the moment. You need memory to understand yourself and the people around you who influence your life. When you get older, the memories of things that have happened to you become a source of wisdom for making good choices, that experience guides you and grows through your entire life because you keep it in your memory. When you lose your memory, you become helpless. It is a disaster for you and everyone who knows you. The word for it is dementia.
Now think about people living together in your family, in your neighborhood, in your country, in your world. History is the memory of all those people put together. It gets saved on paper, digitally, or as places and other things so we can learn from other people’s experiences, even when we don’t have that story in our own life. This is a gift that gives us amazing advantages. When we learn history, it helps us understand others, where we have come from, and helps us make smart choices about where to go in the future. Without history, our communities, our country, become like my dog or someone who lost their memory. Without history, we just react to things in the moment because we can’t understand what is happening or why. Without history, we can’t learn from the past. The worst part is that when people don’t know history, they can misunderstand people who have different values, cultures, life experiences and histories. Terrible mistakes like war, prejudice and violence are usually caused when people don’t understand the history of other people or don’t know their own history.
In America, we are fortunate that we get to vote for the people who will make important decisions that will change our lives. When we know history, it helps us choose leaders who are wise. When our leaders know history, they are much, much wiser than leaders who don’t. If you learn history, you also learn that the greatest leaders in history learned from history too. A country full of people who don’t know history is like a person without memory — and that’s a disaster! The bigger and more powerful the country is, the bigger the disaster will be if too many people don’t know their history.
Sometimes I hear people say, “Why should I learn history? It won’t help me get a job!” I think that’s pretty ridiculous. If you use your brain for making a living, history will always give you an advantage. If you are a lawyer, knowing the history of law will make you better at your job. If you are a scientist, knowing the history of science will make you better at your job. If you are a car mechanic, knowing the history of cars will make you better at your job. If you are an architect, knowing the history of architecture will make you better at your job. If you are a designer, knowing the history of design will make you better at your job. If you are a musician, knowing the history of music will make you better at your job. If you are a coach, knowing the history of your sport will make you a better coach.
When I was a kid, I got interested in history by getting books out of the library that had a lot of pictures in them or by visiting old historic places where it felt like traveling back in time. When I read books, my favorites were biographies because I liked the stories of other people. It was especially cool when the biographies talked about someone famous when they were just a kid. My parents and grandparents also told me lots of stories about my family and I loved to hear about what they did in the past. I would think about somebody in the past and try to imagine what it was like for them. One important thing I learned was that everybody has a difficult time at some point in their life. I learned that you can make terrible choices, fail in front of everybody, but still bounce back. That meant a lot to me, because sometimes I had a hard time in school. When I was in 7th Grade, I already liked history, but I didn’t think I’d ever work in a history museum. I thought I would be a cartoonist! I spent a lot of my spare time drawing cartoons with my friends. When I went to college, I got my degree in art. I got my first job after college as graphic designer in a children’s museum. I found out that I liked to design museum exhibits even more than I liked drawing cartoons. I didn’t work in a history museum until I was pretty old — almost 40 — so it took awhile, but my interest in history really paid off. Now I get to run one of the coolest history museums ever.
When I think about running a history museum, I try to remember the things that interested me as a kid. For me, the facts and dates aren’t the most important part. For me, the stories of real people are the thing I feel are the most meaningful, that most people coming to the museum can relate to. I like to think about my museum being a big house of memories and stories for everyone to share.
Good luck Jay! It was really fun for me to figure out how to answer your questions.
Dan Spock, Director, Minnesota History Center Museum
[Received as an email.]
From: Jonathan M______
Date: Jun 9, 2017 3:15 PM
Subject: An Overdue Word of Gratitude
To: Dan Spock
Dear Mr. Spock,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to my student’s questions at the beginning of the school year. I very much appreciate you taking some time from your busy schedule to answer Jay’s questions.
Of all of the letters I received, yours resonated the most with my students and was one of a handful I plan to re-read to future classes (with your permission, of course). Speaking of which, I hope to bring future classes by the MN History Center next year!
Your response–along with the responses of 43 professors, politicians, non-profit leaders, writers, and others–helped provide a multitude of reasons for my students to actually care about history. Further, your explanation of how you use history to inform your own work helped my students appreciate the real-life applications of the class content.
On the final day of class, my students were tasked with providing their own answer to the question of why history is important. Here are some of the highlights:
- “History is important because it teaches us about the past and why things happen or why something is like it is. And it also teaches us to respect the older generations that went through harder things to create our country, and our society.”
- “History is important because it helps you understand why people behave in the way that they do. It helps us understand more about our own Hmong and Karen cultures, too”
- “History is important because we can learn from our mistakes and we are able to find out why things happen in this world. And we can really understand someone’s background more if we go back through time to see what they’ve been through.”
- “Learning history is important because understanding history allows us to make decisions that positively affect people.”
As educators, we are constantly seeking ways to engage our students in a meaningful way with our content area. Your letter helped me do just that.