Be an Upstander: Youth Programming and the 2011 AAM Conference

By guest blogger Linda Neylon

This year’s American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas, was the third of these that I have attended. And while each year varies in usefulness to me,  this year’s conference in Houston proved to be one of the most interesting I have been to. Though it has been a few months since the conference I still have many thoughts running through my head from the sessions, as well as from the city itself.

I have never been to Texas, and was looking forward to the experience. One of the people I met at the conference grew up in Texas, and told me that people often ask her if she rode a horse to school.  While I did not think that would be the lifestyle, I will say I was surprised that the only people I saw in cowboy boots at the conference were from the north.  Besides the clothing expectation, I am not sure exactly what I thought Texas would be like—but Houston was definitely not it.

PODS ArtThe city was sprawling, and parts of it reminded me of Levittown, Pennsylvania.  But the area around the conference (downtown, and near Minute Maid Park) was great.  There is a park there call the Discovery Green, that I wish I could have brought back to Pennsylvania.  There were basic science experiences, such as seats with concave backs where two people could talk from a distance and still hear each other.  There were PODS set up in which artists had created pieces, including a “box of curiosities” with an exhibit about Joaquin Squirrelieta: The Battle for Campo De Los Cacahuetes.  This particular art piece spoke to me, seeing the artists’ interpretation of what museums—particularly history museums, are.  And if this is the case, it needs to change.  It was a funny and creative parody, but it would be a sad, sad museum.

So how should we be moving forward with museums?  Many of my colleagues and I are realizing that we need to think beyond the traditional methods of interpretation in museums, and to look at perhaps the scariest audience group we have…teenagers!  I think many of us have something to learn from the Holocaust Museum Houston.

The mission of this museum is: “Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors’ legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.”  This mission is summed up very succinctly throughout their website, marketing materials, and gift shop, in sentences like “Stop Hate.  Starting Here.”  The museum is a very powerful one, with a very active group of volunteers who are also survivors.  The topic, artifacts, and exhibits are moving, but every step of the way, visitors on a guided tour are reminded of a triangle that the docent carries.  This triangle has three points- “perpetrators,” “bystanders,” and “upstanders,” with “victims” in the middle.  The triangle is used to show that everyone outside of the victims, or targets of hate, have a choice in how they handle it.  Will you pretend that you don’t hear your friend making racist jokes?  Will you stand up for the people your friend is making jokes about (be an “upstander”), or will you participate in making those jokes?

This idea is carried throughout the museum and its programming.  Its program,  Youth and the Law, takes these ideas to at-risk juveniles, as part of the city’s anti-gang task force.  Listening to the educator, I became truly inspired.  She told us that the recidivism rate (the number of times someone re-offends) for teens in her program is lower than that of the standard punishment for juveniles considered at-risk for gangs. While not every museum has the content and ability to participate in something exactly like this, I do think we all have the ability, no matter how hard it is to see at first, to connect to our youth in an important way.

While most of the conference was full of thought-provoking sessions, the time spent at the Holocaust Museum Houston has stuck with me.  It has reminded me of what is possible, and where I have been.  When I worked at the York County Heritage Trust, I worked with teen volunteers (ages 13-18) each year, teaching them history and how to interpret.  Today, many of the teens that have reached college age are studying history in school.  They connected to their history, and it has had a lasting impression.  I feel like I have lost sight of that possibility in recent years, and my time in Houston reminded me of my love for working with teens, and the endless opportunities this age group really does present.  If the Holocaust Museum Houston can have the impact it has had on teens, imagine what more our history museums can accomplish!


Linda Neylon is a public historian with experience in youth and adult education and interpretation.  She is a graduate of American University’s Public History program, and most recently directed the education program at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

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