For all you architecture and preservation buffs, a short fun video for Friday on The ABC of Architects from fedelpeye on Vimeo. How many do you recognize? Thanks to Conny Graft for alerting me to this new video.
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
- “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)
- “Guidelines for Preparing Historic Furnishings Reports: an Annotated Sample of Contents” by the National Park Service (retrieved September 2, 2012)
- “When Values Collide: Furnishing Historic Interiors” by Carol Petravage in Preservation of What, for Whom? edited by Michael Tomlan (National Council for Preservation Education, 1999), pp. 151-158.
- “Historic Furnishings Report: William Johnson House” (NPS, 2004).
Suggested Best Practices
- Develop an interpretive plan and themes
- Consult primary sources for the property
- Decide whether to have reproduction or original pieces Continue reading
During a recent visit to Middleton Place, an historic site in Charleston, South Carolina, I spotted an outdoor interpretive sign that’s so nicely crafted that it’s withstood several years of weathering outdoors. The wooden frame supports a one-inch thick plywood panel (two thinner panels secured together) whose edges are sealed and entire surface painted black (black is Middleton’s standard color for sign posts). The interpretive sign is printed on a 1/16″ thick sheet of vinyl (or a similar synthetic material) and glued onto the face of the panel. The top edge of the sign is protected from rain by a copper cap. One corner of the vinyl has turned up over time, but otherwise, the sign seems to be in perfect condition, despite the heat and humidity of summer in the Lowcountry.
Last week I attended the Association of African American Museums conference along with two hundred other people from across the country. I’d never attended before but since it was close by in Baltimore, I decided to take a chance and it turned out to both educational and fun. Although I only attended one day, I’d like to share some of the highlights from the sessions I observed.
In “Understanding Exhibition Design and Planning“, the panelists all stressed the importance of pre-design, which includes determining which spaces will be devoted to exhibits, visiting other exhibits to clarify what you like (and don’t like), conducting visitor research, identifying potential artifacts and images, roughing out a budget and schedule (is the exhibit feasible?), and determining the maintenance costs. The Harpers Ferry Center of NPS offers an exhibit planning template for FileMaker Pro. The panel also provided a rough estimates of exhibition costs for design and fabrication:
- $150-250/sf: 2D items, graphics, pedestals for 3D objects, little to no media.
- $250-350/sf: 3D object displays, more extensive use of graphics, some media elements
- $350-500+/sf: custom cases, media, electromechanical interactives, theatrical lighting/projectors.
They stress that costs could be lower, but it will then rely heavily on reusing ideas or elements from earlier exhibits or projects. The panelists also believed that better designs are the result of longer development schedules, not more money. More time allows for more iterations of designs to refine ideas. Finally, for new buildings, they suggest that exhibit designers be brought in early to the process because they help program the space because they tend to “design from the inside out”–but that will require that the architect is willing to collaborate. For a copy of the PowerPoint presentation, contact Chris Danemeyer at Proun Design.
Claudine Brown, the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access at the Smithsonian Institution, was the luncheon speaker. She laid out the new interpretive direction for the Smithsonian and why they matter to museums, especially those that focus on African American history and culture. The challenges facing the Smithsonian is that they need to preserve the evidence of the past, be relevant in the present, and be prepared for the future [and these are ideas all museums and historic sites can follow]. The three big topics the Smithsonian will be interpreting are:
- Americans All: a shared experience as immigrants, everyone came from somewhere else, but all share a common country.
- Waterways: Water is a serious problem and its estimated that 2/3rds of the world will suffer water shortages by 2025.
- Creativity and Innovation: With our current high unemployment rates, museums can be part of the solution by providing learning opportunities that simulate real life and helping the next generation learn how to organize, strategize, and act.
The session on developing mobile applications was led by the Digital Humanities Center at Michigan State University, which maintains an online clearinghouse of mobile museum applications. The session provided some estimated costs for producing various applications, as follows:
- $0-?: mobile-ready website (creating a website that can be easily viewed on a smartphone; most common solution)
- $5,000-$60,000: native application (self-contained program that’s downloaded and works without an internet connection)
The session stressed that mobile applications rarely generate revenue–the average return on investment is $688 and takes 51 years–so look for other benefits to the institution. It may be possible to generate revenues from after-market sales, such as an app that promotes a book, photoprints, music, and attendance at an event. When I asked about the effectiveness of applications, the person sitting next to me suggested I look at #SocialMedia Daily, a blog that aggregates news about social media and apps.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the great public museums established just after the Civil War, has recently opened “Art of the Americas,” a new wing filled with its outstanding collections of American fine and decorative arts. As some of you know, the Boston MFA underwent a controversial restructuring more than a decade ago, shifting from departments organized by media (e.g., paintings, ceramics, furniture) to geography (e.g., Europe, Asia, and America) and firing some longtime curators (including Jonathan Fairbanks, who created the American Decorative Arts and Sculpture department at the MFA). I’m assuming one of the results of this restructuring is “Art of the Americas.” This four-story exhibit consists of 53 galleries tracing the history of art from pre-Columbian to Modern periods for the continents of North and South America, so along with the expected Chippendale chairs and Copley portraits, there are Peruvian funerary urns and Acoma pots. It’s so large that it took me nearly three hours just to cruise through it at a walking pace and I didn’t make it to the fourth floor, which explored the 20th century.
Unlike most art museums, the exhibit mixes Continue reading
During a recent visit to the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, I spotted a clever way that allows them to easily remodel their lobby from a visitor reception area to an event space. You don’t notice it at first because the furniture is so well designed and complements the appearance of the building. The reception desk is busy selling tickets and greeting visitors, and next to it are panels explaining what to see and do. But look below or behind, and you discover it’s not a panel but a moveable storage wall. Clever!
Historic sites are always looking for good models for online activities, such as websites and mobile applications, and one of the best places to look for inspiration is the annual Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet. Established in 1996 during the Web’s infancy, the Webbys are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.
The 2012 Webby Awards received nearly 10,000 entries from over 60 countries and all 50 states and awards were given in over a hundred categories for website, interactive advertising and media, online film and video, and mobile and apps. As a result, there is a lot to cull through but here are several that seem to be most related to historic sites (and hang on, this is a long list):
The Civil War: 150 Years has the form and content of websites that will be most familiar to historic sites, except that it commemorates “a defining event in our nation’s history and its legacy in the continuing fight for civil rights” rather than a specific place. I like their use of Twitter to create a virtual “Civil War Reporter” whose tweets report on events from the 1860s but the major innovation is the featured Then and Now Timeline that compares similar events during the Civil War and today (although I was only able to jump months, not years). Another way to compare the past and the present is demonstrated by Slavery Footprint, a website and mobile app that was launched on the 149th anniversary of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s designed to raise awareness of modern-day slavery and can tell you approximately how many slaves have pitched in to make the goods you enjoy on a daily basis.
- Timelines appeared in several other forms in the winning entries and along with the Then and Now version is Continue reading
Yesterday I joined a meeting of the curatorial and education staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to discuss a potential partnership with Drayton Hall, and it was great to see again Rex Ellis, Debbie Mack, Bill Pretzer, and Michele Gates Moresi as well as meet so many of the other staff who are working to make this new museum a reality. The museum recently broke ground on the Mall in Washington, DC and is scheduled to open in 2015.
While I was there, I spied a three-dimensional model of the new museum in the lobby and it thought I’d share some photos to give you a close up of the design (and sorry for the reflections–it’s in a vitrine near a big window). Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, a consortium of four independent architectural firms that designed the building, laid out this vision: Continue reading
James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia sports some very attractive interpretive signs that looked so good, I had to figure out how they were made. With a bit of prodding and poking, I discovered they were printed plastic attached with Velcro to a sturdy wooden frame. Very clever! The signs are great looking even after a couple years outside.
Peggy Vaughan, Vice President of Communications and Visitor Services, generously shared that the three signs cost about $900 total: $90 for each 30″x 40″ PVC sign and $210 for each base. The content, design, and bases were created in-house (yes, Montpelier is fortunate to have a graphic designer and master carpenters on staff) and the signs were printed by FedEx Office (formerly Kinkos). This sign was created using Adobe Indesign, saved as a pdf, and printed directly on PVC–the image isn’t as sharp but they last longer outdoors than the alternative method of laminating a printed image onto PVC. Peggy said that, “The big advantage to these signs for us was that they are relatively cheap, and because everything around here is always changing, we did not want to spend $2,000 on a proper museum sign, as we had in the past, that would be out of date before it wore out. And, frankly, even if things don’t change at your museum, your messaging should change from time-to-time to keep up, don’t you think?”
If you’re looking for more ideas for signs at historic sites, I’ve collected more than 200 images of places around the world on a web album at http://bit.ly/JdsE8v.
The March 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review focuses on U. S. business competitiveness in the world and won’t interest most readers of EngagingPlaces.net, however, there are a few smaller stories scattered around that are relevant. Thales Texiera’s article on “The New Science of Viral Ads” lays out five techniques that encourage people to watch and share their commercials (in other words, “go viral”) and I’ve modified three of them to address the needs of visitors at historic sites:
- Play down the logo, play up the brand. If your logo is too dominant or intrusive, visitors will be turned off by this obvious attempt to manipulate them. A few places are fine and expected (e.g. letterhead, entrance sign, mugs in the store) but I’ve visited sites where a logo is on every sign, including the one pointing to the bathroom. It may make your board happy, but it’ll turn off your visitors. Instead, unobtrusively weave your brand (not logo) throughout the visitor experience. Texiera uses Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Factory” ad as an example (how was the Coca-Cola logo used?).
- Create joy and surprise right away. Visitors stay engaged in large part if they encounter joy or surprise. So in tours, for example, add an element of joy or surprise into the introduction rather than saving it only for the conclusion. Each site will need to figure this out for themselves, but it can be a surprising fact or an earnest welcome. Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” ad is an example of delivering humor and surprise to maintain viewers’ interest (and just a warning, this ad may offend some people and because it promotes the drinking of alcohol, you’ll need to register as an adult on YouTube to view it).
- Build an emotional roller coaster. Just as in a good novel, the rhythm or flow helps carry the visitor along and keeps them engaged with fresh twists and turns. Tours too often are presented as just one fact/object/room after another. Instead of building a tour solely on cognitive elements (e.g. facts, names, and dates), integrate some affective ones (e.g., humor, surprise, suspense, drama, fun)–just make sure it’s appropriate, authentic, and based on fact. Evian’s “Roller Babies” cuts between scenes for an emotional roller coaster of continual surprises. With more than 50 million views on YouTube, it’s a major hit.
For more, read Thales Texiera’s article on “The New Science of Viral Ads” online or watch the five-minute interview that accompanies the story.