What Historic Sites Have Learned After 25 Years with ADA

ADA logoThis month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensured equal access to persons with limited mobility, limited vision, limited hearing, and other disabilities. Shortly after this law was enacted in 1990, museums and historic sites were scrambling to figure out the consequences, especially the cost of installing ramps or hiring sign-language interpreters.

Much of it also revolved thinking bigger and realizing that improving access for the disabled would improve the experience for everyone.  For example, lever handles replaced doorknobs, which makes it easier to open a door when you’re carrying a package; enlarging type and increasing contrast on exhibit labels makes them easier to read (which I really appreciated as I grew older); and integrating ramps and removing thresholds is nice for visitors in wheelchairs and for staff who are always hauling tables and chairs for events.  For several years, professional associations hosted sessions and printed books to explain ADA to help museums figure out how to respond in an effective and thoughtful manner.

Little discussed, however, is that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) also investigated several museums and historic sites for Continue reading

Interpretive Planning Workshop coming to Tennessee

AASLH Historic House Museum workshop at the Oaklands Museum, 2013.

AASLH Historic House Museum workshop at the Oaklands Museum, 2013.

On Monday, August 17, I’ll be leading a one-day workshop on interpretive planning for history museums and historic sites in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, Humanities Tennessee, and the Tennessee Association of Museums, the workshop will layout effective strategies for interpreting history and the humanities at museums and historic sites, explain how to use StEPs as a model for standards and best practices, and show how to conduct a self-evaluation of interpretation in order to prioritize activities.  It’ll be hot in Middle Tennessee but the workshop will be held in the comfortable and cool visitor center at the Oaklands Museum.  Registration is $75 and $15 for members (you read that correctly–$15!) and includes lunch.  To register or for more details, visit AASLH.org.

“State of the First Amendment” Survey Results Released by Newseum

First Amendment 2015The State of the First Amendment survey, conducted each year since 1997 by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, tests Americans’ knowledge of their core freedoms and samples their opinions on First Amendment issues of the day.  The survey again found that most Americans are unable to name more than one or two of the five freedoms in the First Amendment —religion, speech, press, assembly and petition— and that one-third cannot name any of the five.  Looks like a great opportunity for history organizations!

The 2015 survey questions also covered topics including the use of Confederate flags Continue reading

Openluchtmuseum Requires Mental Gymnastics in Historical Interpretation

Telephone booth, 1933-1965.

Telephone booth, 1933-1965.

The Openluchtmuseum, or Open Air Museum, in Arnhem in the Netherlands is one of the oldest outdoor/living history museums in the world. Opened in 1918, it preserves traditional and folk cultures by collecting vernacular buildings, furnishing them to specific periods, and using them to demonstrate historic crafts and skills.  In the last decade, they’ve expanded these approaches by adding multimedia presentations along with interpreting the post-war period as part of an effort to create a national history museum interpreting the “Canon of the Netherlands” (the canon is a divergent idea worth investigating).  In this post, I’ll examine their interpretation of the post-war period and in a later post discuss various unusual exhibition techniques.

At first glance, the Open Air Museum seems to be comprised of distinct clusters of farm buildings from a distinct region and time, where you can wander through houses and barns and watch someone in costume making brooms or working a plow.  But the layering of history is complex and I found myself continually asking, “what time is it?” and “how are these things related?” to make sense of my visit.  There are lots of historical anomalies, such as a 1960s phone booth in front of a 1910s train depot, but perhaps they’re not anomalies if you mentally reinterpret the scene by finding the overlapping period, such as the 1930s.  These intellectual gymnastics don’t always work, but then again, the entire concept shaping the Open Air Museum allows for the artificial juxtaposition of historical places, times, and objects–which is what often happens in art museums and can also be bewildering (ever visit the Robert Lehman Gallery at the Met?)

The experience caused me to think hard about the role and purpose of interpretation Continue reading

Using Archaeological Research to Interpret Your Site?

Archaeological excavations at James Madison's Montpelier in Virginia.

Archaeological excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia.

If your historic site or history museum is using or would like to use archaeology in your research (even if you’re not conducting archaeology), the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is seeking your suggestions and advice to improve and enhance the “For the Public” section of their website via a survey (open until July 22).

SAA launched For the Public in 2006 as a clearinghouse to share resources, best practices, and general information about the discipline of archaeology with both the professional community and the interested public.  The site has now grown to a complex tangle of over 400 linked pages. Many of the pages need substantive revision in content, function, and aesthetic perspectives. As they continue the process of revision, they would appreciate Continue reading

Hangout with Historians to Discuss the Nation’s Report Card

NAEP History Scores 1994-2014Discuss strategies to improve history education in our schools with people coming at it from different perspectives on Tuesday, July 7 at 12 noon (Eastern) in a Google Hangout co-hosted by the National Assessment Governing Board and the American Historical Association.  It’s in response to the latest results of the Nation’s Report Card, which shows that many students lack a strong understanding of our nation’s history (as seen in the chart, scores have been flat for the past twenty years, and the conversation will explore ways that students can become more engaged and informed.  Hmm, can historic sites and house museums play a role?

Participants include

  • Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association
  • Chasidy White, history and geography teacher at Brookwood (Ala.) Middle School and member of the National Assessment Governing Board
  • Judith Gradwohl, MacMillan associate director for education and public engagement at the National Museum of American History
  • Libby O’Connell, chief historian at the History channel
  • Frank Valadez, executive director of the Chicago Metro History Education Center

and the conversation will be moderated by Jessica Brown, contributing writer at Education Week.

To register or for more information, visit Why History Matters at the National Assessment Governing Board.

So Many Possibilities for Historic Sites at AASLH Annual Meeting

AASLH Louisville 2015The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) just delivered the preliminary program for its annual meeting, which will be held in Louisville, Kentucky from September 16-19, 2015.  Obviously, the conference is centered around history but there are several sessions, workshops, and field trips that focus on historic sites and house museums, including:

  • Heritage Tourism in the 21st Century with James Stevens of ConsultEcon Inc., who recently studied the heritage tourism sector in Philadelphia
  • Restoration and Reconstruction: Fulfilling the Possibilities of a 21st Century Museum, a discussion about the reinterpretation of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in South Carolina (also reviewed in the recent issue of the Public Historian and the Journal of American History; not to be confused with the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Georgia)
  • Old House, New Diverse Stories, a brainstorming session led by Ken Turino of Historic New England
  • An Untapped Resource: How to Locate and Use Legal Cases at Historic Sites, a session to learn how to mine legal case files to find compelling narratives for exhibits and programs
  • Interpreting Religion at Historic Sites, a discussion on leveraging “historical truth when interpreting religion” led by the historian of the Navigators.
  • An afternoon tour of the exuberant Second Empire Culbertson Mansion and Farmington, the Federal-style home of Lucy and John Speed.
  • There may be bourbon at the breakfast for historic house museums when Dennis Walsh from Buffalo Trace Distillery discusses the preservation of this historic sites (and it’s pretty cool website, too)
  • An evening at Locust Grove, a National Historic Landmark, with costumed interpreters, live music, and a three-course buffet.
Sam Winburg

Sam Wineburg

With 65 sessions, there is much, much more happening and you’ll be torn about what to do.  There’s certainly enough to appeal to directors, curators, historians, educators, and preservationists.  I’m particularly eager to hear Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (see “A History of Flawed Teaching“), and the follow-up discussion led by Tim Grove, chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  Wineburg is currently developing new forms of assessment to measure historical understanding and undertaking a longitudinal study on the development of historical consciousness among adolescents in three communities.  But I don’t want to neglect the three other outstanding plenary speakers: Wendell Berry, James Klotter, Renee Shaw, and Carol Kammen.

I rarely ever skip the AASLH annual meeting and I plan to be there this year.  Registration is $250 if you jump in before July 24 and there’s the alternative online conference featuring six sessions.

 

What’s the Twack Record for Your Tweets?

Followers Dashboard from Twitter.

Followers Dashboard from Twitter.

The growth of social media has added new layers of complexity to the promotional efforts at museums and historic sites.  Along with mailing newsletters and event announcements and maintaining a website, we feel an increasing need to connect with our supporters through blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  But is all this work having any impact? How can I better use these tools to engage my audiences?

You may have noticed that I’ve been experimenting with Twitter this past year, adding a feed to the sidebar of my blog and sending out about three tweets each morning on news related to museums and historic sites using @maxvanbalgooy (@engagingplaces was already taken) and tagging them with #museum or #preservation.  It’s nice to see the number of Followers grow and merit a Favorite or Retweet occasionally (thanks Bob!), but what’s the impact?  You may find some answers in the Followers dashboard that Twitter recently launched.

The dashboard provides several analytical tools that not only highlights Continue reading

Historic House Museums a Special Focus for the Public Historian

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

The May 2015 issue of the Public Historian was just released and provides a dozen articles related to historic house museums.  Lisa Junkin Lopez, associate director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and guest editor of this special issue, provides the criteria that helped her select the articles and her vision of historic house museums:

Though a number of sites have turned to revenue-generating activities like weddings and farmers’ markets to stay afloat, rigorous historical content has not necessarily been quashed in favor of parlor room cocktail hours and heirloom tomato beds. Many sites have recommitted to the project of excavating their own histories, digging deeper to find relevance with contemporary audiences and identifying new methods for engagement along the way.

The individual essays are case studies of various projects at historic house museums, but many question and even break the basic assumptions of museum practices and historic preservation standards.  This shift will need to be watched because Continue reading

AAM Provides Update on the Direct Care Debate, but no Solution

Direct Care“Direct Care” is the most troubling word in the museum lexicon but it doesn’t look like the specially-charged task force at the American Alliance of Museums will be able to resolve it, according to their recent update:

The Direct Care Task Force met during the Alliance annual meeting in Atlanta to discuss the results of the opinion survey conducted in February and to frame the forthcoming White Paper. Their lively and thoughtful discussions covered discipline-specific issues, philosophies and viewpoints, and frequently went back to the topic of financially motivated deaccessioning.

Representatives from New Knowledge, the non-profit think tank and planning group that conducted the survey for AAM, presented their findings and analysis of the data.A very broad range of museum types and job functions were represented by the survey’s 1258 respondents.

• Nearly three quarters of the respondents identified their primary role in the museumindustry as responsible for Collections (74.1%) while a quarter (24.4%) hold executive office. Nearly all the remaining respondents hold primary roles that are either executive or managerial; a handful are in other roles.

• The types of museum participating broke down as: History 32%; Art 28%; Specialized, Multi-disciplinary or visitor center 17%; Natural History 11%; Science/Technology 5%; Arboretum/ Botanical or Public Garden 4%; Children’s / Youth 2%; Aquarium/Zoo 1%.

Before seeing the results, the Task Force hypothesized that a respondent’s position in an organization and the discipline of participating institutions would influence the outcome of the survey. However, the analysis found no statistical differences. In examining both the open-ended responses and general ratings, it appears that respondents were most likely considering their audience, the Alliance, and answering altruistically as professionals in the field rather than as representatives of a particular disciplinary viewpoint.

Survey results showed 1) a few areas of consensus from a statistical perspective and 2) a vast gray area. The most common of the open-ended final comments expressed appreciation for the timeliness of the survey and the need for resolving the parameters for direct care. As a result, the Task Force focused on identifying guiding principles and criteria for decision-making, not creating a definitive yes/no list or a singular definition of “direct care.”

The survey results provided the Task Force with a useful scan of the attitudes on the issue of direct care and acquisition costs, from a wide variety of viewpoints. They will inform the White Paper to be released in the spring of 2016. The Task Force agreed that the White Paper should not be prescriptive but should clarify the ethical issues surrounding the topic of direct care and provide guidance for museums in their decision-making.

Looks like they’re agreeing to disagree and won’t be Continue reading