On Ferguson and Related Events: How Should Historic Sites Respond?

Storefronts that were covered with plywood during the protests in Ferguson were painted by local artists and collected by the Missouri History Museum.

Ferguson and related events are sparking broad protests over the treatment of African Americans by the police and the courts.  Should museums and historic sites be involved?  Should they be collecting, preserving, or interpreting these present-day events? Should they provide a place for protest or response?  Or are these beyond their roles and responsibilities?  There are no easy answers because every site and every community is different, but ultimately, people engage with historic places because there’s a personal connection–historic sites are collecting, preserving, or interpreting topics that are relevant and meaningful to the visitor.

Identifying what is relevant and meaningful isn’t always easy but contemporary events offer a glimpse.  People discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues that matter to them, and the more people that are involved around the same issue, the more significant it is.

Museums and historic sites inhabit a special “third space” in society that allows us to do things that can’t happen at home or work. They allow diverse people to discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues in a safe place.  As Presence of the Past has shown, we are Continue reading

Video: The Future of History

In this 16:01 video, Kristen Gwinn-Becker asserts that there is a necessary—indeed, urgent—need to build easily accessible digital archives of our primary sources.  She says that,

As an historian, I understand there is a vast amount of historically valuable information to be processed, but I believe it is worth the effort to make that heritage digital and discoverable to the public.  As a technologist, I know that it is possible to make this happen.

Her presentation was given at TEDxDirigo and you may have met her at the AASLH annual meeting where she was discussing her company, HistoryIT.

Looking for Interpretive Inspiration? Head to Charleston

What historic sites are doing great interpretation?  

Behind the Velvet Ropes tour at the Gamble House.

Behind the Velvet Ropes tour at the Gamble House.

That’s a question I’m often asked by my clients and while I can usually rattle off a half dozen examples, it’s usually not very satisfying.  If I suggest a ranger-led tour of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the behind-the-velvet-ropes tour at the Gamble House in California, and the Dennis Severs’ House in London, you can quickly see the problems—you need to experience them to understand them, plus they’re thousands of miles apart.

Although I’ve been working in Charleston, South Carolina for more than a decade, it was just this past month that I realized that it’s an ideal place for experiencing a wide range of interpretive approaches for historic house museums.  In November, I joined Mike Buhler, the executive director of San Francisco Heritage, in Charleston to study a wide range of interpretive methods, from guided to self-guided, from furnished to unfurnished, from exhibits to period rooms, from grand mansions to humble cabins.  Heritage is in the midst of re-interpreting the Haas-Lilienthal House, so Mike found the research trip to be incredibly helpful because it showed him various possibilities and clarified what methods would be most effective for his historic house museum.

If you’d also like to be inspired, here’s my suggested itinerary: Continue reading

Plenty for Historic Sites at 2015 NCPH Meeting

National Council on Public History annual meeting 2015The National Council on Public History will be holding its 2015 conference in Nashville from April 15-18 and there are lots of sessions that will interest house museums and historic sites, including:

  • Best Practices for Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites and Museums
  • Re-imagining Historic House Museums for the 21st Century with President Lincoln’s Cottage, Roger Brown Study Collection, and others
  • On the Cutting Edge of American Historic Preservation:  The Role of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
  • Religion, Historic Sites, and Museums with Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, Ephrata Cloister, and others
  • Historic Sites, Racialized Geographies, and the Responsibilities of Public Historians with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Weeksville Heritage Center
  • The Woodrow Wilson Family Home: Our Story of a Radical Makeover
  • Pulling Back the Curtain: Displaying the History-Making Process in Museums and Sites
  • Hidden Histories:  Cultural Amnesia, Interpretive Challenges, and Educational Opportunities
  • Haunted Histories: Ghost Lore Interpretation at Historical Sites

Nashville also has many historic sites and NCPH will be offering walking tours and field trips on musical heritage, the state capitol, crime, Civil War, civil rights, and Fisk University.  Nearby are several notable historic house museums, including the Hermitage, Belle Meade Plantation, and Belmont Mansion.

Registration is $240 and for members it’s $192.  Sign up before March 4 as a member, and it’s only $167.  For a copy of the preliminary program, visit http://bit.ly/NCPH2015prog.

At the press: Interpreting African American History and Culture

Cover Interpreting Af Am History smallMy book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is now at the press and will be available in December from Rowman and Littlefield.  I’ve been assembling it for the past two years and just completed the index, so now it’s firmly in the hands of the publisher.  This book is part of a new “interpreting” series launched by Rowman and Littlefield and the American Association for State and Local History.  Also released this year are books on topics that include slavery, Native American history and culture, LGBT history, and the prohibition era.  If you’d like to order a copy of any of these books at a nice 25 percent discount, use the code 4F14MSTD by December 31, 2014.

Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is another step in a path being laid by many people for nearly 150 years. Although much has been accomplished at museums and historic sites to enhance and improve the interpretation of African American history and culture, we’ve also learned Continue reading

Is it Time for a Membership Program Tune-up?

Museum Membership Pyramid QuestionOne of the basic ways to raise funds for museums and historic sites is through membership. It’s particularly valuable because those funds are unrestricted and pay for utilities, insurance, office supplies, maintenance, and yes, even salaries–those essential expenses that usually don’t excite donors.  We hope that most members will renew, thus increasing revenue while maintaining expenses, and a few will become more engaged and eventually become donors who contribute the funds that really make a difference.

On the other hand, membership programs are a continual management challenge for non-profit organizations.  The expense of maintaining a basic membership rarely covers the cost of administration (the printing and mailing of member newsletters, membership cards, and renewal notices).   Complicating matters is that it doesn’t seem that people want to be “joiners” any longer–membership  in all types of organizations, including unions, service clubs, professional associations, political parties, churches, and even bowling leagues has fallen.  If the membership piece of the pyramid is getting smaller, that means the number of donors will fall as well.

Museums and museum associations are rethinking membership to overcome these challenges by exploring some new directions and possibilities, including:

1.  Enlarging the pool of potential members (and other supporters).  Begin with a preliminary step of gathering contact information for as many potential supporters as possible.  Some may become members who pay annual dues, others will pay admission to attend events, and some will support a cause with money, time, or talent.  The Dallas Museum of Art went so far as to Continue reading

Video: Mapping Historic Sites Through Internships

This 6:38 video describes a partnership between the Etowah Valley Historical Society and the Kennesaw State University to map historic sites throughout Etowah Valley in Georgia using GIS with the aid of college interns.  Jennifer Leifheit-Little directed the project.  You can find some of the results of this project in the interactive historical maps on the historical society’s website, with such topics as African Americans, Native Americans, mining, cemeteries, and Civil War (note: these maps take time to load and most didn’t seem to show any data in my Chrome browser).

AAM’s Education Committee revives its Web Page

AAM EdCom web pageEdCom, the Education Professional Network of the American Alliance of Museums, recently revived its web page after a few months on hiatus.  You’ll not only find basic information about EdCom, the group that’s focused on education and interpretation in all types of museums (including historic sites), but resources, such as “Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards,” and a suggested bibliography.  If you want to keep on news, you’ll want to join them on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

With the recent restructuring of membership at AAM, you can join any one of the 22 professional networks (there’s even one for Historic House Museums) for free if you’re an individual professional member.