Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities?

Engaging_ProgramsEducators and interpreters are increasingly expected to engage the community to build support, attract audiences, and confront contemporary issues. So how do you get started? What does an effective community engagement project look like? How do you maintain it?

On Thursday, September 7, 11:00 am – 12:15 pm at the AASLH Annual Meeting in Austin, I’ll be moderating a session that will bring together three projects—Haymarket Project in Boston, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, and El Pueblo History Museum in Colorado—to discover how they successfully engaged three different audiences in the local community—immigrants, African American descendants, and Latina teenage girls.  Joining me will be Ken Turino (Historic New England), Christian Cotz (James Madison’s Montpelier), and Dawn DiPrince (History Colorado).  Based on their experiences and with contributions from the audience, we will Continue reading

Engaging Places is Expanding its Vision

GWU-or-SHA.jpgThis year has been incredibly busy for me, so much so that I’ve been unable to share many of the ideas that I’ve discovered in my travels to historic sites across America through this blog. Along with my active consulting practice, I’ve recently agreed to become the director of Developing History Leaders @SHA and an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GWU).  Both positions were announced at the same time at the beginning of the year and because they were both attractive opportunities, I applied for both, thinking it was like submitting an application to IMLS and NEH and assuming only one or none would be funded.  I hit the jackpot when both came my way and I’m thrilled about the opportunities.  I’m already at work with SHA in November and teaching at GWU starting in January 2018.

As my friends and colleagues learn about this big change in my career, Continue reading

Be the Early Bird to Catch a Deal on AASLH’s Annual Meeting

Friday, July 21 is the deadline to catch the early registration price of $328 ($253 for members); it jumps to $393 the next day.  AASLH offers the widest variety of sessions and workshops for house museums and historic sites at a national level and attracts some of the best minds in the field.  This year, the annual meeting will be held in Austin, Texas from September 6-9 and include:

  • Awaken the Historic House: A Fresh Look at the Traditional Model, an afternoon workshop led by Brett Lobello of Brucemore.
  • Current Issues Forum: What Role Should Historic Sites Play in Teacher Professional Development? moderated by Sarah Jencks at the Ford’s Theatre Society.
  • Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities?, a session I’ll be moderating on different ways to engage more effectively with your local community.
  • Preserving and Interpreting Contested Histories of Missions and Missionaries moderated by Barbara Franco, an independent scholar.
  • Historic Preservation Never Ends: Practical Maintenance for Your Historic Buildings moderated by Evelyn Montgomery of the Dallas Heritage Village.
  • From Millstone to Crown Jewel: Revitalization and Transition of a “Tired” Site moderated by Mike Follin of Ohio History Connection.
  • Parks and Prejudice: The Legacy of Segregation and State Parks moderated by Cynthia Brandimarte of Texas State Parks.
  • The Great Debate: Engaging Audiences vs. Protecting Dollhouses moderated by Brandie Ragghianti of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum.
  • Lessons Learned: The Legal, Ethical, and Practical Issues Involved in Finding a New Steward for Upsala moderated by Carrie Villar of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • Open the Door! Approaches to Interpreting Historic Landscapes moderated by Sean Sawyer of the Olana Partnership.
  • Historic House Museum Affinity Group Breakfast featuring Ken Turino of Historic New England.
  • Bucking the Trend: Energizing Historic Homes in Central Texas moderated by Oliver Franklin at the Elisabet Ney Museum.

Of course, these are just a small part of the 85 sessions, keynote presentations, field trips, evening events, and an exhibit hall happening over a few days in Austin.  There’s usually much much more available than you’ll ever have time to do and I’m often torn between 2-3 sessions at the same time.

To register or for more information, visit go.aaslh.org/AMreg.  Although registration fees for this national conference are very reasonable, especially at the early registration rate, AASLH offers several scholarships to reduce expenses (although their application deadlines have already passed).  If you can’t attend, there’s also an online version where you can hear six sessions that are especially presented as webinars, including my session on Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities? (they’re not simply a broadcast of the conference session).  They’ll be available for six months and can be viewed as many times as you like at rates starting at $60.

James Madison’s Montpelier Unveils New Exhibition on Slavery & Enslaved

On Monday, June 5, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia opens “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” a major exhibition on the history and impact of slavery in the United States. It examines slavery both from the perspective of James Madison and his peers as well as from the 300 men, women, and children enslaved by the Madisons at Montpelier. It’s a complex and difficult story, but Montpelier has been researching and interpreting this topic for nearly 20 years. Thanks to a generous $10 million gift from David Rubenstein (co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group), that effort will be move to a higher level in this path-breaking exhibition. During the past two years, the museum staff worked closely with Proun Design, Northern Light Productions, and Mystic Scenic Studios to design, fabricate, and install the exhibition.

As an advisor and consultant to Montpelier for nearly fifteen years, I’ve watched its interpretation evolve. This exhibition is a major step forward for them and for Continue reading

How a Briefcase Led to a Clever Way to Conduct Visitor Research Online

Bolt Brief by WaterField Designs of San Francisco.

If you want to conduct visitor research for a potential exhibition, school program, or tour, you might want to check out WaterField Designs in San Francisco, who has been designing and manufacturing bags and cases since 1998.  A few months ago I purchased a Bolt Brief from WaterField. It’s a great bag and I recommend you check it out, but more importantly, I’ve become very impressed with their customer research and prototyping for new products, especially if the customers are all over the country. It’s an idea that can be easily adopted by museums and historic sites if they have Continue reading

Encountering Jefferson in New York

“I cannot live without books,” said Thomas Jefferson in this letter on display at the New-York Historical Society.

Did you know that one of the largest collection of manuscripts related to Thomas Jefferson are in Massachusetts, not Virginia? And for a few months, 36 of these documents and artifacts are on display in Thomas Jefferson: The Private Man at the New-York Historical Society. It’s not much but it’s amazing.  I’ve read about them over the years and sometimes seen images, but there’s nothing like seeing Jefferson’s actual garden book, his last letter to John Adams, his sketch of a slave cabin, manuscript leafs from his Notes on the State of Virginia, early drawings of Monticello, a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s hand, and the oft-quoted letter that states, “I cannot live without books.” Cool!

So how did they get to Massachusetts?  President Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph, married Joseph Coolidge of Boston in 1825. Their son purchased Jefferson’s documents from the Randolph family in 1898 and donated them to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he was a member.  The collection continued to grow with gifts from subsequent generations and are now digitized and available online thanks to a grant from Save America’s Treasures (a superb funding program that was eliminated by President Obama in 2010, alas).

But the ties between Massachusetts and Virginia continue. Their granddaughter, Dr. Catherine Coolidge Lastavica, loved the family history so much that in 1968 she built the Brick House on the family estate in Manchester, Massachusetts, modeling it on the George Wythe House in Williamsburg, Virginia—that’s where Jefferson studied law under Wythe’s tutelage. Historic New England recently accepted the Brick House as a study property and conference facility in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Center.  Wow, what a small world.

 

 

Is Your Historic Site Ready for Mobile Devices?

As we know, smartphones and other mobile devices are becoming a routine part of our visitors’ lives.  But did you know that more people search for travel information on their mobile devices than on their desktops?  It allows them to make immediate decisions while they’re on the go, including when they’re on vacation and at your site (if visitors are looking at their smartphones while walking in the door, they may be checking your admission fees and hours, not their email). Mobile users want information fast and they’re not discriminating: they’ll look for the information about your historic site from whomever gets it to them the fastest, even if it’s not your website. That’s the latest research from Think with Google on “Travel Planning and Purchasing has Evolved on Mobile.”  For historic sites and house museums, this means that you should: Continue reading

Making History Matter in a Shopping Bag

When I recently visited the NY History Store at the New-York Historical Society, they provided me with a sturdy bag to carry my newly purchased books, but also an engaging history game. On one side of the bag are a dozen questions, such as

  • Who kept live whales in Manhattan?
  • Who were the Death Avenue Cowboys?
  • When did slavery end in New York state?
  • Why is Broadway on an angle?
  • Who gave New York its famous nickname: The Empire State?
  • What is New York’s first museum?

To find the answers, to either have to Continue reading

Embezzlement: Is It Our Dirty Secret? (a five-year update)

Five years ago I posted an essay about embezzlement at history organizations while I was on AASLH Council and in the midst of recovering from the financial fraud perpetrated by its chief financial officer.  History News recently published my updated version and included a sidebar by John Dichtl to describe the fraud at AASLH.  When it occurred, AASLH wanted to be open and transparent about the situation and use it to help others, and yet, we often found ourselves silent and frustrated because it could have jeopardized the criminal investigation and lawsuits.  Now that the CFO has been sentenced, AASLH can discuss it more openly (although some aspects are covered by confidentiality agreements). Please share this article with your colleagues to help them tighten their financial controls and reduce the chances of embezzlement at their organizations.

By the way, this issue of History News has lots of good articles for historic sites, including:

  • “The Many Voices of a Historic House” by Jane Mitchell Eliasof (about the effort reinterpret the Crane House in Montclair, New Jersey as an African American YWCA from 1920 to 1965)
  • “Like a Phoenix: Opportunities in the Aftermath of Disaster” by Samantha Engel (about the fire that occurred during a construction project at the Whaley Historic House Museum in Flint, Michigan)
  • “A Please Touch Historic House Tour” by Christine Ermenc, Christina Vida, and Scott Wands (a case study of an award-winning program at the Strong-Howard House in Windsor, Connecticut).

History News is one of the best benefits of membership in AASLH.  Along with a quarterly copy in the mail, they recently added online access through JStor and send members a pdf version in advance via email. I’ve been a member for nearly 40 years and if you want to find consistently useful ideas for managing your historic site or house museum, there’s no better place than AASLH.

Can You Create a Mission-Related Petting Zoo?

A clever storage area for odd-shaped tools and equipment at Strawbery Banke.

I just returned from leading a historic house management workshop for AASLH at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s always an opportunity to pick up some good ideas from the host institution and at Strawbery Banke, there was no shortage. Most intriguing was their Heritage House Program which restores and leases fifteen underutilized properties, creating a virtual endowment fund to support their educational programs. It’s an outstanding combination of mission and financial sustainability, earning it an award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and a feature on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

In my workshop, we discuss the importance of combining mission and sustainability using one of my favorite tools: the Double-Bottom Line.  I often joke that if historic sites just wanted to increase attendance, they might as well become petting zoos of puppies and kittens. Incredibly, Strawbery Banke has figured out how to make a mission-related puppy zoo in an event called, “Baby Animals.”  For one week, visitors can learn about a dozen heritage breeds such as Jacob sheep, Nigerian goats, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs.  No, they can’t be petted but families can watch lambs, kids, and piglets play, eat, and sleep.  For those who are really interested, there are a couple lectures and a “meet the animals” program for children ages 4 to 8 where they can have a snack, feed the animals, and create a take-home gift for $25.  What a clever idea! I’ve attached the brochure on Baby Animals at Strawberry Banke with more details.