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Rebuilding the Past: Understanding the Role of Objects in Designing Authentic Experiences for Visitors to Living History Museums

Thesis by Marina H. Mayne (2017)

Over the past 30 years, living history museums have seen declining visitation and sites are continuously challenged to deliver compelling historic-based experiences in modern times. Living history museums are uniquely positioned in that they transport visitors into the past by creating what is often called ‘authentic experiences’, using tools such as interpreters, performance, and objects. Objects, including historic structures, antiques, and reproductions, are used in many ways to engage visitors, such as in displays and hands-on activities. The goal of this research was to understand the role of objects in creating authentic experiences for visitors to living history museums. This qualitative case study used semi-structured interviews with museum professionals involved in visitor experience design, at Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI, Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, VA, and Conner Prairie in Fishers, IN. Results show that the visitor experience at living history museums is focused on immersing visitors in human stories. Museum professionals believe that creating an authentic experience is a critical part of the larger visitor experience. Authenticity manifests itself differently depending on whether the stories being told, building connections between the past and present, or the visitors’ interests are more important to the museum. Museum professionals did agree that objects hold an important place in the authentic visitor experience, as tools to help immerse visitors in stories and build connections between the past and their own lives. These findings can be used to help inform living history museums of the variety of ways to interpreting their sites and engaging visitors in history.

Keywords: Class of 2017, museum, museology, museum studies, living history museums, authentic, authenticity, storytelling, stories, objects, visitor experience, exhibit design, museum, immersive, The Henry Ford, Greenfield Village, Colonial Williamsburg, Conner Prairie


Mayne, M., & O’Donnell, Wilson. (2017). Rebuilding the Past:  Understanding the role of objects in creating authentic experiences for visitors to living history museums. [University of Washington Libraries].