Friday January 27th was Holocaust Remembrance Day. Social media was rife with mentions of it as people mourned, remembered and discussed the worst atrocity of the 20th century.

Though it’s an uncomfortable subject, getting people to take a moment, one day a year, to think about the Holocaust isn’t an impossible task. But what if you’re a museum dedicated to getting people to think about it every day?

Unlike sports or entertainment, history doesn’t have natural urgency – it is literally old news. Much of it is negative (or at the very least, complicated), often impairing shareability and enthusiasm. And yet, the mission of history museums is to spread their knowledge as broadly as possible to their target constituencies.

These are challenges faced daily by museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana. And while digital channels can magnify a message, knowing how to craft the emotional hook of that message is key.

Below are three tips for spreading a complicated message when you don’t have the benefit of a designated day.

1. Tie it to current events

People are more apt to care if they can see a direct contemporary parallel. Consequently, museums should link their historic narratives to a news hook.

A great example of this is “Then They Came for Me,” an exhibit that revisits the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The installation draws a deliberate parallel to something of current interest to many Americans: the treatment of Muslims and Muslim Americans in the 21st century.

2. Find the heroes

Everyone loves an uplifting story.  While much of history is rife with villains, there are many heroes: individuals who stood for righteousness when it wasn’t easy. Some paid with their lives and yet, we can take pride in their stories – and hope that we would have behaved likewise when so tested.

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library has an entire exhibit of Presidential Medal of Honor winners, the majority of whom died in combat. By celebrating heroism, patriotism and selflessness, an emotional connection is made with the visitor, increasingly the likelihood that he or she will tell a friend about the experience.

3. Use the medium to convey the message

The Illinois Holocaust Museum has holograms of concentration camp survivors that visitors can question via moderator.  After a few minutes of Q&A, it really feels like the survivors are in the room with you.  Seeing a hologram’s toe-tap or seat adjustment suggests an unexpected reality.

But beyond the story itself, the technology is a draw.  Individuals who may have never considered visiting due to the subject matter may now attend based on the unique combination of medium and message. Once you’ve attracted the visitor through the unexpected, they’re more likely to stay engaged enough to absorb a complicated message.

A popular idiom is “the past is prologue.” History museums should embrace this whenever possible and look for dynamic methods of translating the past for their audiences in order to remain relevant, positive and innovative.

TeamWorks Media works with a number of museums to attract new and diverse audiences.  Learn more about what we’ve done with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum here.

Image by Gidonb via GNU Free Documentation License

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