Gamble House’s Clever and Attractive Sandwich Board

I have to admit that I’m the strange visitor at historic sites.  I not only take photos of the architecture and landscape, but reception desks, walkway paving, light fixtures, wheelchair ramps, and signs.  These are the things that make a visitor experience good, bad, or ugly, but they’re often overlooked and it’s hard to find good examples.

Gamble House Tour Menu Sign

Gamble House Tour Menu Sign

Here’s one from the Gamble House in Pasadena, California.  It’s a sandwich board placed on the driveway leading from the sidewalk to the garage, which now serves as the bookstore and admission desk.  The sign isn’t big, but the bright color and location makes it easy to spot from the sidewalk.  Visitors can comfortably learn about the options and then go inside the bookstore to buy their tickets.  Notice it’s called a “tour menu,” using familiar terms so that visitors quickly grasp the purpose of the sign.  The sign is placed outside in shady spot in front of the bookstore (those are the doors behind the sign).  The store is small and often busy so encouraging people to make their selection outside is much more comfortable, especially because these types of decisions are typically Continue reading

Video: YAP! The North Star Journey

In this 5:29 video, students in the Youth Ambassador Program (YAP) discuss their visits to historic sites as inspiration for their music.  Featured are the Nathan and Polly Johnson House in Connecticut and the Bucktown Village Store in Maryland.

Recap of NCPH Annual Meeting in Monterey

The National Council on Public History held its annual conference in Monterey, California a couple weeks ago.  More than 600 people attended from around the country plus ten countries, making it the largest stand-alone meeting (at times, NCPH will co-host a conference with another organization, such as AASLH).  Monterey, of course, is a wonderful place to enjoy history and nature, especially if you’ve been enduring a long winter.  This year’s theme was sustainability and a task force is developing a white paper, which is available for public comments.

I attended primarily to discuss the History Relevance Campaign and collect more comments and ideas on our goals and projects.  I also participated in a couple sessions, a morning of speed networking (graduate students and new professionals rotate among several mid-career and seasoned pros), and ran into lots of friends and colleagues in the hall and on the street.  NCPH is a mix of Continue reading

Video: A Content-Free Social Studies Classroom

James Kendra, who has been teaching social studies at Kenowa Hills Middle School for the past nineteen years, explains his approach of a “content-free social studies classroom.”  In this 12:35 video from TEDx Muskegon, he explains that social studies is the most important class students take in school but not when the emphasis is on facts and dates. “Students want to know why these events are happening,” Kendra says. “Historical events (if they were truly significant) would connect to events of today.  We shouldn’t be telling students which events were important, but them discovering how past and present connect.”  How would your tours or exhibits change if they were based on current events and then looked to the past for explanations and understanding?

Program in New England Studies Offering Diversity Scholarships

Program in New England Studies at Hamilton House, 2013.

Program in New England Studies at Hamilton House, 2013.

Historic New England presents its Program in New England Studies, an intensive week-long exploration of New England from Monday, June 16 to Saturday, June 21, 2014. Now entering its second decade, the Program in New England Studies features lectures by noted curators and architectural historians, workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and special access to historic house museums and collections. Last year I had a chance to talk with some of the participants and they said they were attracted by the chance to see the houses and collections, but found that they really loved the expert lectures.

This year, Historic New England launches a diversity scholarship to support a mid-career museum professional or graduate student.  Applicants must represent a racial or ethnic minority group in the U.S.  The scholarship covers the full registration fee of Continue reading

Video: Tom Explores Los Angeles

Tom Carroll explores “places that might change people’s perceptions of Los Angeles” in a series of thirteen short hip videos and demonstrate what is possible to create with just a handful of people.  Carroll studied art at Occidental College and led tours at the Los Angeles State Historic Park and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In creating these videos, he uses, “a lot of what I learned as a tour guide, speaking loudly and slowly, knowing when you are losing your audience.”  Could you create a short video exploring an historic place in your community?

Corcoran Dismantlement Offers Lessons for Museums and Sites

Corcoran 2014The recent news that the Corcoran in Washington, DC, will be mostly dissolved and its parts distributed to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and George Washington University (GWU) is generating lots of discussion on whether this is a good thing or not, and who should take the credit or blame.  For those unfamiliar with the Corcoran, it’s an unusual museum because it’s a combination of art gallery and art college.  Students use the art collection for study and inspiration, and the art gallery exhibits student and faculty artworks along with historic American paintings and sculpture, connecting past and present.  It’s a great approach for providing a rich environment for the study and appreciation of art for both students and the public.  Other museums have followed similar paths to create deeper places of learning, including the Henry Ford Museum with its charter school, the Academy of Natural Sciences in its merger with Drexel University, and the American Museum of Natural History offering a Masters of Arts in Teaching.  Yes, museums and historic sites can offer more than just an hour-long tour or a morning field trip.

The Corcoran was created in the Gilded Age, the era of the first major public museums.  Unlike its contemporaries such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran seems to have gone asleep in the mid-twentieth century and like Rip Van Winkle, it couldn’t wake up.  It made attempts to move out of its slumber, including Continue reading

Recap of Historic House Museum Symposium at Gunston Hall

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On Saturday, the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington DC hosted an all-day symposium on “how are historic house museums adapting to the future?” at Gunston Hall in Virginia.  The sold-out symposium featured three speakers, a tour of Gunston Hall, and lots of time to chat with colleagues during breaks and over lunch.   The cost?  A mere $15, truly a bargain.  The symposium not only attracted professionals from Virginia, Maryland, and DC, but as far away as Connecticut!

I opened the symposium by discussing Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” as a way of identifying opportunities and threats to help historic sites prepare and adapt.  If you’re not familiar with the Five Forces, it’s a framework for identifying those issues that have the biggest impact on your operations.  This is a much more useful alternative to SWOT, which may be a good outline for summarizing an analysis, but it’s not a helpful way to analyze a situation.  If you’d like to get an introduction to the Five Forces and how it applies to historic sites, take look at my presentation (warning: it’s an 18 Mb pdf).  Even better was the discussion that followed, which explored a wide range of ideas from the growing role of photography to changing demographics to the interpretation of African American history.

Jana Shafogoj at Morven Park discussed how the current emphasis on STEM has allowed their site to Continue reading

Video: Luminous Hall

The Centenary of the University of Western Australia was celebrated with “Luminous Hall” on February 8, 2013, a 20-minute performance created by Illuminart.   Luminous Hall is a “narrative architectural projection” on the exterior of the historic Winthrop Hall that combines mapped projection with music, stories, and drama interpreting the history of the university and local community. Moving beyond son et lumier, the form engages the viewer in history in an extraordinary way.  Other examples using Norwood Town Hall and a Night Mural Picnic are available.