This week I’m attending the Small Museums Association‘s 29th annual conference in Ocean City, Maryland, where I’ll be giving a plenary address this morning on, “Mild-Mannered Superheroes Rarely Make a Difference.” As you might have guessed, it’s a mash-up of a quotation by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and the conference theme on superheros. I hope to encourage attendees to rethink their mission, vision, and strategy to become more relevant and engaging in their communities. Unfortunately, most museum mission statements are mild-mannered, with the usual phrase of “collect, preserve, and interpret” stuck behind the name of the organization.
Funding agencies, museum accreditation, and strategic plans require a mission statement, so many organizations create a least offensive version that can be approved by the board. The result is that mission statements are often so vague that they’re ignored, have little to no influence on day-to-day activities, and are viewed as empty public relations gestures that provokes cynicism. No doubt they’ve found that having a mission statement doesn’t have much impact, but a recent study shows that the right kind of mission statement can significantly improve financial success and organizational performance.
Ronald Mack. Photo courtesy of Indiana Plein Air Painters Association.
Indiana Landmarks, one of the most active statewide historic preservation organizations in the nation, has an innovative program that brings together local artists and historic sites. To preserve the tradition of plein air painting and focus artists on capturing historic places, Indiana Landmarks is partnering with the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association (IPAPA) on the third volume of the coffee-table book series, Painting Indiana.
“Plein air painting is an important tradition, famously practiced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by T. C. Steele, William Forsyth, Ottis Adams and other noted Hoosier artists,” says Indiana Landmarks’ president Marsh Davis. “When places are captured in paintings, it increases the public’s Continue reading →
The autumn 2012 issue of History News arrived in my mailbox a couple weeks ago and its four feature articles on interpretation that will be of interest to historic sites:
“From Quiet Havens to Modern Agoras: Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture” by Nancy Rogers, Susanna Seidl-Fox, and Deborah Mack is a report, including the key overarching messages, from an international seminar held in Salzburg, Austria in October 2011.
“‘No More Wiggle-Tail Water’: Interpreting the History of Morgantown’s Water Supply at the West Virginia Botanic Garden” by Barbara Howe is a case study on integrating history in a place that focuses on horticulture and nature.
“When Histories Horrify: Supporting Visitors’ Responses through Responsible Interpretation” by Linda Norris, Danny Cohen, and Stacey Mann is a continuation of a session at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting on the roles and responsibilities of museums in preserving and mediating horrific histories of crimes, violence, terrorism, and oppression, with references to the Kilmainham Gaol, Majdanek, Robben Island, and the Greensboro Woolworth.
“Entering the Mainstream: Interpreting GLBT History” by Ken Turino and Susan Ferentinos addresses four common challenges (institutional policies on discussing sex, lack of documentary evidence, applying modern labels to historical figures, pressure to avoid controversial topics) using examples from Pendarvis, Walt Whitman House, Beauport, Sarah Orne Jewett House, Alice Austen House, and Charles Gibson House.
Lee Wright at The History List has developed a clever interactive calendar for the holidays which highlights events at historic sites around the country with changing images and sounds wrapped in an attractive bright red package. It’s fun to play with it to find what’s hidden underneath each date and the best part is that any historic site or history organization can participate. So far, it includes a Victorian Christmas at the Ramsey House, a whiskey tasting at Jefferd’s Tavern, and a holiday masquerade at Tryon Palace. If you’d like to include your event, Lee provides instructions for participating via History List or Facebook.
December’s calendar is part of The History List’s, “Make this Holiday Historic” campaign, however, you can include events from the rest of the year as well. The History List is Lee Wright’s effort to create a one-stop place for history lovers to find places and events happening near them, whether at home or on the road, as well as provide a convenient, easy-to-use online calendar for Continue reading →
Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.
Although guided tours of period rooms is the most common form of interpretation at historic sites, audio tours, video tours, and virtual tours are growing in popularity thanks to technologies that are lowering the cost of production and increasing access to new audiences. From a short list of examples, the students in my “historic site interpretation” class at George Washington University developed a list of ten best practices for different types of tours of historic sites. You’ll discover that many of their suggestions emphasize the need for a plan, themes, and a focus–and projects that failed to have these elements were weaker and less effective.
A. Guided Tours of Period Rooms
Reviewed by Johanna Bakmas, Melissa Dagenais, Emma Dailey
“Historic House Furnishings Plans” by Bradley Brooks in Jessica Donnelly’s Interpretation of Historic Sites (2002)
“I Wish You Could Take a Peek at Us” by Nancy Bryk in Donnelly (2002)
Views of the exhibit gallery under construction in January, February, March, and April 2012 at the Museum of History and Industry.
The Museum of History and Industry in Seattle is moving into a new facility this year and to give the public a chance to experience the work and construction progress behind-the-scenes, they’ve installed a webcam overlooking the main exhibit gallery. Webcams aren’t a new idea (remember the panda cubs at the National Zoo?) but what’s clever about the construction camera provided by OxBlue is that users can see timelapse movies and four views for different dates at the same time.
Many historic sites change their programs, events, and exhibits throughout the year to reflect the changing seasons, but I wonder if this same system could be used to Continue reading →
Business card rack with directions to frequently requested destinations.
At the reception desk at the Inn at Middleton Place, I spotted a clever way to share directions to frequently requested places. It’s a plexiglass business card rack filled with written directions to the airport, downtown, and other historic sites on slips of paper. Guests just pick up the directions they need and they don’t need to worry about remembering them or jotting them down correctly.
Here’s an example of the written directions:
Downtown Charleston/Meeting Street
Turn left out of the Inn onto 61. Follow road approximately 13 miles until the road splits. Veer right onto bridge. Travel through 1st light and get in left lane. Follow signs to Calhoun St. Once on Calhoun, travel 9 lights up to Meeting St. Take right on Meeting St. to go to Battery. Turn left on Meeting St. to go to tourist visitor center. Times to avoid: 7 am-9 am and 5 pm-7 pm.
Now you know why they wrote down those instructions!
By the way, if you like contemporary architecture and historic gardens, the Inn at Middleton Place in Charleston is a perfect place to stay. The Inn has received an AIA Honor Award for its contemporary design and fits in peacefully with the surrounding landscape on the banks of the Ashley River. Your stay includes admission for two to the adjacent Middleton Place, where you can enjoy the gardens, even after it has closed to the public.
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) recently announced they will work together to raise awareness of national museum standards and align their assessment programs in order to streamline application and self-study processes. The agreement outlines ways in which applicants of AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP) will benefit after completing AASLH’s StEPs program, in other words, AASLH and AAM have linked StEPs with MAP. If you understand that sentence, you’ve been working in this field a long time.
What’s this mean for historic sites? Both StEPs and MAP are great programs for improving your organization’s work, but they’re very different from each other. StEPs allows you to Continue reading →
Community engagement has become an increasingly important aspect in state and local history as a strategy for increasing impact, gaining support, and becoming relevant. The challenge for most organizations is that engagement can be so daunting and difficult, they don’t know where to begin, how to prioritize among several good ideas, or measure success.
Lorraine McConaghy, Deborah Schwartz, and Max van Balgooy at AASLH 2012.
At the recent AASLH annual meeting, I moderated a session on the experiences of two very different history organizations—the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Museum of History and Industry—whose work in community engagement is not well known in the field yet offer exemplary case studies to examine common strategies, how they should be modified to suit each place’s unique characteristics, and steps to avoid.
In this uncertain environment, many organizations are unsure about the direction to pursue for their historic site or house museum. Through a self-study process and a personal assessment by an external professional colleague, the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) offers a thoughtful and proven approach to refine your operations, programs, and collections. I’ve participated in several MAPs and clever organizations have used it to confirm a strategy, refine a project, resolve a vexing issue, support a funding proposal, or move to the next level of operations. I can’t think of a better program available, except if you’re accredited by AAM, you have a large professional staff, or if you’re able to afford a large team of experts. Really. To stay sharp, every historic site and house museum in America needs to go through this program every decade and in between, they should be tackling a section of AASLH’s Standards and Excellence Program. Really. If you’re not sure, call the director of the historic sites that participated this year: Montpelier Mansion (Maryland), Old Barracks Museum (New Jersey), Louis Armstrong House (New York), Seward House (New York), Stewart House (Ohio), French Legation Museum (Texas), Poplar Forest (Virginia), and Pabst Mansion (Wisconsin).
To participate, your organization needs to meet some basic requirements (such as be open to the public at least 90 days a year), Continue reading →