Museums are informal lifelong learning environments; that’s what lured me to this profession. More polarized than ever, our society needs these types of learning environments, as underscored by a program we hosted a few weeks ago. How do I know the program resonated with people? More than 70 individuals turned out on a steamy August afternoon in the middle of the week – higher than our pre-pandemic numbers.

Our Western Spirit family regularly lives up to its name; I frequently receive a spectrum of spirited feedback about our activities. I appreciate knowing that our audiences care, and that something they experienced through Western Spirit moved them – one way or another. When I was a curator, the response I always dreaded after asking someone what they thought about an exhibition was: “they were such pretty pictures.” The best responses involved stories about how something experienced at the museum intersected with a person’s life.

Storytelling brings us together, helping to bridge differences. The stories shared by attendees at our recent programs were palpable, demonstrating that we are both illuminating the past to shape our future and contextualizing our present to the past, increasing our audiences’ interest in history.

Take for example the stories shared by health care professionals at a recent Western Spirit program. A sixth generation Arizonan shared with me the story of her abuela (grandmother), who passed away on a remote Arizona ranch during the 1918 influenza epidemic. And a gentleman whose family relocated to the Phoenix area in the 1940s from Mississippi to pick cotton in the vast fields that once covered the region shared a heartbreaking story about being struck down by the polio epidemic in the early 1950s. He and his twin brother both contracted polio; his twin brother eventually succumbed to the illness.

Neither of these busy professionals considered themselves history buffs; they hadn’t thought about those stories in a long time. Our program, about a contemporary historical topic (in our fast-paced digital world history is literally what happened yesterday), made a connection between their everyday lives and the past. Western Spirit now has two new members with a budding interest in history.

That’s a mission fulfillment win! See you at a program soon.