Last night in my Museology course, we had a very good discussion about how museum professionals can not only engage their communities, but how they can facilitate an “affective response” from their community. I define the term “affective response” as the emotion that visitors feel when they have an experience that impacts them on a deep, personal level. In other words, an exhibit at a museum they saw mattered to them personally. For example, I love roller coasters, but I wouldn’t miss it if Canada’s Wonderland suddenly closed their doors, I have not really had an affective response there. On the other hand, if the powers that be shut down the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, I would be devastated since I am such a huge hockey fan, and because my visit there in 1997 was a memorable day spent with my parents and younger brother.
I have had the privilege of visiting many heritage sites like art galleries, museums, and historic sites. I find that historic sites have a particular ability to evoke an affective response from its visitors. I believe it is because there is something inherently special about historic sites because an important person lived there, a special event occurred there, or the site represents something important to the visitor.
One recent experience I had was my latest visit to Banting House National Historic Site in London, Ontario. For those of you who are not aware, on October 30th, 1920 Dr. Frederick Banting, was preparing a lecture on the pancreas to be given at the University of Western Ontario. That night at 2:00 am on October 31, he had an epiphany which he wrote down, “Diabetus Ligate pancreatic ducts of dogs. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving Islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion of these to relieve glycosurea.” I don’t know what that means exactly, I’m not in medical school, but it was that idea that eventually led to the discovery of insulin, the saving grace of millions of diabetes sufferers around the world.
Due to my own ignorance, I didn’t realize the impact of Dr. Banting’s revelation and subsequent work. Prior to the discovery of insulin, diabetics would be advised to go on a strict diet to prolong their lives for a couple of years, but would eventually succumb to starvation. Banting’s discovery enabled millions of people to live full lives. The impact of insulin was almost immediate for diabetes sufferers. Check out this page from the Vanderbilt Medical Center which displays a picture of a three year-old diabetic before and after his insulin treatment (on the right-hand side). After just a few weeks, the boy went from looking sickly skinny to having a seemingly normal weight for his age. Incredible!
What affected me personally though, was not that before and after image of the child, or hearing about Dr. Banting’s numerous military accomplishments as a medic, or the fact that he became the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize. It was that Banting House has become a sort of “Mecca” for those who suffer from diabetes. People from all around the world come to Banting House to pay their respects to Banting and his selfless work in developing insulin. Upstairs in the bedroom, the bed where Banting woke up and had his epiphany still stand. People are free to sit on it to pay their respects or pour out their hearts out to him.
I don’t suffer from diabetes, but I have a few friends that do. I am sure most people know someone that is affected by diabetes in some way or another. As I wrote the previous paragraph I began to remember how I felt during the guided tour, and began to get a little choked up again. I know that insulin is not a cure for diabetes, and researchers are still working awfully hard to find one, but I still feel compelled to say, “Dear Dr. Banting, Thank you for rescuing my friends.”
Postscript: Some Questions to Consider
What makes your heritage site sacred?
How can you help your visitors have an affective response?
How does a visit to your site change lives?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but in my opinion, affective response is not always borne out of sad stories or groundbreaking historical events. Affective response can occur in a variety of ways. Maybe your institution’s strength is programming, facilitating social opportunities, or a special artifact. My affective response at the Hockey Hall of Fame occurred under different circumstances than my experience at Banting House. I loved the HHOF because of an artifact (the Stanley Cup), and because the Museum facilitated a wonderful family experience. It is imperative that heritage institutions figure out how they facilitate affective response because it lends significance to the work of their institution, and demonstrates to the community why they matter, and gives the community a reason to support and patronize the Museum.