The Power of Myth – Part 2

As educators, interpreters or reenactors we often encounter myths while working with visitors. These myths can range from a long propagated mis-truth to a family story. When facing these myths we need to find a way to educate while ensuring a good visitor experience.

In my opinion, the type of myth you need to be the most careful about when addressing it the family myth. This is a myth a person has grown up with, believing about their family. It is one which may or may not be rooted in fact, developing or evolving through the years. A family myth can come up at almost any time in a discussion with visitors. They may believe they have a connection with a person, a building, an artifact or a moment in history. The catch is, you have absolutely no idea whether their story is history or myth. With a visitor centered approach, I suggest you listen to what the visitor has to share. Even if everything they are saying doesn’t quite fit with what you know, listen. If you don’t listen to what they are saying, chances are they aren’t going to want to listen to you either. While you are listening, really listening, try to determine what level of additional information they will be receptive to. Some people will be open to a whole different version of the story, the researched and documented research you can provide. For these individuals, first compliment a specific aspect of what they shared, hopefully a piece that is documentable; then offer additional information beginning with a phrase such as “my understanding….” Be certain to offer the visitor a resource or two to go to for their own research such as a book at the library or website that is easy to find. For others, who are significantly attached to their story, possibly in an emotional way, an “opening the door” approach will allow the visitor to hold their story while you offer them a direction for self- inquiry. After acknowledging their story and offering a specific compliment, you could open the door with “have you looked at….?” or “I would be curious to know more about…” Yes, this is an extremely soft approach. But, you are allowing the visitor to retain the integrity of they family myth while encouraging research based education and giving the visitor a good customer experience increasing their likelihood of returning.

I’ll confess, teacher led myths  are the ones that really push my buttons. It is exceptionally challenging to have a tour designed for a class when the teacher continuously interrupts, pulling the students in a different direction filled with inaccurate information. It is also challenging to be giving an in-class presentation only to find the teacher has or is instructing with inaccurate information. Whether you are in their arena or yours, the key to avoiding these issues is communication before the visit. Provide the teacher or teachers with an outline of the tour or presentation as part of a teacher packet with grade specific information and resources. Most museums have a teacher packet for visits and outreach which include pre, during and post visit materials. If you are working with/for a museum, be sure to know this packet well. During one of your initial conversations with the teacher(s), ask about where your talk will fit into their teaching plan or curriculum mapping, what the students will have already learned, what points he or she would like you to address. This is an ideal time and way to focus or tweak your presentation plan and identify any potential areas of inaccurate information and provide the teacher with correct information and/or resources prior to being in front of the students. Of course, you may still have a surprise in the middle of a great talk with a group of students. In these cases, you need to convey the correct information and the importance of documentation all while still supporting the teacher. Yes, it is possible. You can start with something like “That information/story comes from ____. But, new research shows _______” or “That is true for these instances _____ But, at this time ______” (Teachers are one of the few groups you can get away with using the word “But” with without being defensive. They teach the use of the word. For most other people do you best to use words such as “and” to redirect the information.) Be certain to provide the teacher with resources to further research the information new to them after the conclusion of the talk.

Enough typing for tonight. I guess there will be a part 3. In the meantime, for regular postings regarding history myths, subscribe to History Myths Debunked. I enjoy the weekly posts.

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