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4
Anne Sprecher
Listening to Audiences at Museums and Breweries
Women In Beer
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By: Susan Evans McClure

What do craft brewing and history museums have in common? In my experiences working in both fields, I have learned that if you focus on your audience, whether they are beer drinkers, history lovers, or both, you can make personal connections with individuals that will stick with them forever.

I am currently the Director of Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and as part of my job, I direct programming related to food history at the museum. We use food, from cooking demonstrations to exhibitions to collections to brewing history, to help audiences connect personal with history. Food in museums is about seeing yourself in the story and understanding how you are making history today. But before I came to museum-land, I spent 4 years working in the craft brewing industry, in the Marketing Department of Magic Hat Brewing Company in South Burlington, Vermont. I ran brewery events, onsite and offsite, and managed public relations for the brewery. Now this was 10 years ago, so times have definitely changed with that company and with the whole industry, but many of the things I learned there continue to influence the work I do now.

When the National Museum of American History decided to launch an evening program series, we started with beer history. From my time in the world of beer, I knew that beer fans were curious, interested, and wanted to learn…all things that we wanted in a museum audience. For the first event, we brought together a brewer and a historian to talk about the history of American brewing, served amazing beers, and put objects on display from the museum collections related to brewing history. It was a huge hit, and the audience started asking for more.

After learning that our audiences were interested in this topic, our curatorial and archival teams surveyed the museum’s collections and found that the museum had a robust collection of American brewing history from the late 19th and early 20th century, but very little from the post 1960s craft brewing era. Not only did we have a gap in the collections during an important time period in brewing history, we also knew that brewing history topics were connected to larger themes in American history during the second half of the 20th century. In 2016, the museum launched the American Brewing History Initiative, a three year project, generously supported by the Brewers Association, to collect, document, and preserve the history of brewing, craft brewers, and the beer industry – with the goal to explore how beer and beer history connect to larger themes of American history.

In 2017, after a nation-wide search and lots of press attention, the museum hired historian Dr. Theresa McCulla to lead the research initiative. With this beer story, we realized, we were really on to something. If you start with a topic that people clearly already have an interest in, you have the ability to go beyond what they think they know and encourage them to think differently about the world around them. Imagine if every time you drink a beer, you think about how connected you are to the history of this country…to the enslaved people and women who brewed beer in the 1780s, to the German immigrants in the Midwest in the 1850s, and to today’s craft brewers. You are part of history. And your beer helps you see yourself that way. When we listened to our audiences, we were able to build something that is both popular and historically relevant. And we plan to continue the work of documenting brewing history at the National Museum of American History for years to come.

As the Director of Programs and Audience Development at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Susan leads a team responsible for inspiring national conversations on the importance of the humanities to civic life. From theater to music to food, she is responsible for public engagement around topics that help individuals see themselves in history and feel connected to their communities. Previously, Susan launched the museum’s Food History Program and managed on-site educational opportunities for visitors. Susan holds an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in Theater from McGill University. She is an adjunct professor in the Museum Studies department at The George Washington University and has spoken nationally and internationally on topics from food history to performance theory to museum education. Photo credit: Briget Ganske