Elena Strong is the Executive Director at the National Museum of Bermuda and a phenomenal woman with a passion for history, community and inclusivity. We sat down with Elena to learn more about her work, vision and notable strengths that make her truly a strong female role model.
How cool is the “Building the Future of History” page on the NMB website?
History is more than a collection of random dates, famous people and events. It is about the lived experience of people who came before us. Learning history is fundamental: it provides context and helps develop essential skills like critical thinking, being able to see multiple perspectives and empathy.
Heritage consists of the buildings, objects, stories, landscapes, the arts and performing arts, and the social practices with which we surround ourselves.
Both history and heritage have played a key role in shaping who we are today and simultaneously help to explain why we are the way we are. Knowing, understanding and appreciating our history and heritage enables us to effectively navigate the present, shape our identity, and strengthen our purpose in the world.
Why is it important to inspire the community’s involvement with the protection of Bermuda’s diverse cultural heritage and artifacts?
It is so important to have a collective effort in protecting, preserving, researching and sharing our history and heritage as it belongs to us all. The more people involved in this process, the more inclusive that heritage and history will be and thus reflect all the people who live (and lived) in Bermuda.
There are also economic, environmental and educational benefits to protecting our cultural heritage. Cultural tourism provides financial benefits and jobs and diversifies our economy; adapting historical structures for new uses is more eco-friendly and sustainable; and heritage sites like museums are exceptional educational resources for people of all ages.
Where did your passion for history & research come from?
My passion is more with objects— the stories they hold and their connections to the people of the past. When I was at university, my favourite classes were in material cultural studies (i.e., the study of objects and the people who used them). Objects are powerful conduits for telling personal stories and the wider history. At NMB, we preserve not only the objects themselves but the stories they hold.
While historical research is imperative, including the personal stories attached to objects gives voice and agency to the everyday people that used and made them – and especially those who have historically been under-represented in history books.
What was the motivating moment that inspired you to dedicate your life to “move the needle” towards a stronger, wiser and inclusive community through educational awareness of the preservation of historical society?
I believe that education is a key determinant of Bermuda’s capacity to effectively navigate today and the future – it drives opportunity. At NMB, we use our free education and community programmes to limit the barriers to learning Bermuda history. We are working to shift how and whose history is shared and taught on Island through our programmes and the reframing of Bermuda history in an Atlantic World lens. We are providing new entry points to engage people in learning Bermuda history. One of those methods is to use objects to make history relevant and accessible for modern day learners.
How has “limiting beliefs” shared by facets of the community created challenges with your efforts to preserve the Island’s stories and diverse voices of the community?
When you invite someone to share personal stories about their family and when community members donate objects to the Museum, you need to establish trust and a mutual understanding of how their story will be shared, in particular with groups of people who have been excluded from the historic narrative. Trust takes time to build.
It is important to be able to demonstrate you will properly take care of their family heirlooms and share the associated stories that will honour their ancestors, the people who made and used the object.
How does NMB merge technology with history?
Technology is making it easier to capture and share personal stories and in a way that is dictated by the individual. Recently, we partnered with the US non-profit StoryCenter to pilot a digital storytelling workshop for a small group of Bermuda educators. Participants created a short digital story based on a personal object with the aim to bring newly acquired skills into the classroom. Digital storytelling builds important skills including communication, digital literacy and empathy, and expands interest and pride in family, community, and national histories. One educator’s story was showcased at the International Storytelling Conference.
We recently launched Bermuda Family Scrapbook, a crowd-sourcing project inviting people to submit their old family photographs to NMB, so more people see themselves in the walls of the Museum. This project is open to anyone who lives or has lived in Bermuda.
Our next project, “The Objects that Make Us” will take sharing personal stories even further and include object-based interview methods. We will invite people to select an object of family significance and use Conversation Studios (a modern approach to recording oral histories and community stories using digital technology and an interview method and process developed by US non-profit StoryCenter) to share their personal stories associated with the object of their choosing.
How does the culture and values of NMB reflect on your personal beliefs?
I believe that everyone should have equitable access to education, specifically learning (a more inclusive and diverse) Bermuda history. My beliefs that align with NMB’s core values are:
Inclusiveness: To be inclusive of multiple perspectives; reflect the diversity of Bermuda’s cultural heritage; be accessible to our diverse audience; and recognise Bermuda’s history as an encompassing multifaceted story involving multiple groups of people and their experiences
Relevance: To be relevant to our local and global context and our diverse local and visitor communities. To engage the local community and create exhibitions, programs, and publications that spark curiosity and a sense of discovery
Engagement: To engage the local community and create exhibitions, programs, and publications that spark curiosity and a sense of discovery
Integrity: To be honest, ethical and fair, and demonstrate those values in all aspects of Museum practice, governance, and internal and external relationships
Excellence: To provide excellent visitor experience, customer service, scholarship, and education programming, and follow museum, archaeological and preservation best practice, and establish high standards for everything we set out to do
Sustainability: To manage the Museum’s resources to ensure its long term viability
In what ways has the waves of change in Bermuda’s community further developed NMB?
There are many examples of female leadership in Bermuda in the present and past and they take many different forms—from heads of households to teachers, from political leaders to social justice advocates and entrepreneurs.
How are the changing dynamics of Bermuda’s people impacting your engagement and growth as a female leader in this space?
Women have played a significant, yet often overlooked, role in the development of Bermuda over the past five centuries and their diverse experiences have shaped the Bermuda we know today. Learning about their stories through NMB’s research and work, illustrates the importance of ensuring that multiple perspectives are included in the historical narrative and shared. My role at the Museum is to facilitate this work.