Video: History is Essential

The Indiana Historical Society recently produced History is Essential, a 5:08 video that explains the value of history through interviews with teachers, business CEOs, and community leaders intercut with historic photos and films.  Thanks to John Herbst, President and CEO at the Indiana Historical Society, for sharing this at the recent History Relevance Campaign workshop in Washington, DC.

Video: Performing Art at Swan House

"When I Whistle..." by Bill Orisich and Benita Carr shot at Swan House, Atlanta History Center.

“When I Whistle…” by Bill Orisich and Benita Carr shot at Swan House, Atlanta History Center.

Swan House, the 1928 mansion at the Atlanta History Center, served as a canvas for When I Whistle…,” a site-specific performance artwork for video by Bill Orisich and Benita Carr.  The History Center partnered with the two artists on a Swan Coach House Art Gallery show called Print or Projection. They used the house as inspiration and shot everything over the course of eight nights, featuring local performance artists, original music and text. The final product, When I Whistle…, premiered at the show opening, and was projected in triptych onto three panels inside the house. Most readers may find the video strange and confusing (and there is some nudity, too) but an art critic called it “intelligent, thought-provoking, and brand new.” It’s another example of historic sites being used as a way of engaging new audiences or interpreting them in new ways. It’s not appropriate for all sites, but it’s something to keep in your toolbox of ideas.

Thanks to Jessica Rast VanLanduyt, Director of 20th Century Historic Houses (what a great title!) at the Atlanta History Center, for sharing this with us.

AASLH/MMA Meeting Recovery and Recap

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It took me several days to recover from my conference hop in Detroit last week.  I’m not sure why I ended each day exhausted. Was a joint meeting of the Michigan Museums Association and the American Association for State and Local History too rich for my brain cells? Was it the non-stop activities from 7 am to 9 pm? Was it the Cobo Conference Center, so large that I had walk two city blocks to a session after entering the building? No matter the cause, I was a mindless zombie for a couple days afterward but I did have a great time.  I’ll definitely be at AASLH next year in Austin, Texas.

The use of Twitter grew tremendously at the conference.  I heard that more than 1,500 tweets went out from sessions, so many that AASLH created a summary via Storify (and further proof that Twitter isn’t just for the young digerati).  I experimented with Periscope, which provides a live video feed on Twitter. I’m still getting the hang of it (first rule: be sure you’re pointing the phone camera at the scene, not looking down at your feet, when you’re fussing with the phone to start recording).  I was skeptical about its ability to attract an audience but surprisingly lots of people watched it immediately (Periscope provides statistics both during and after recordings; 96 people watched my video of the exhibit hall). You definitely will want to see how you might want to use this smartphone application for promoting events, lectures, and programs at your museum or site. Everywhere on the web a Tweet can go, a Periscope can go, too.


Tom Segrue’s plenary presentation about Detroit’s history also included observations about the impact of racial segregation, manufacturing, and economic redevelopment has had on its successes and failures, which is a cautionary example to other cities around the country.  My hometown of Rockville, Maryland is much smaller than Detroit, but I immediately saw the parallels around segregation and redevelopment for the last 50 years. His book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, has mostly attracted the attention of academic historians (and a couple prestigious awards), but preservationists and public historians should learn about him as well because of his analysis of downtown revitalization efforts and gentrification. His presentation is now available free from AASLH via SoundCloud and iTunes.  AASLH has provided another dozen audio recordings of sessions from this meeting, many that relate to house museums and historic sites, and in a month the webinars of selected sessions will be available. Thanks, AASLH!

I was involved with a couple sessions during the conference and in case you missed them, I’m sharing the handouts of resources and contact information that we distributed:

I also learned a lot, both in the sessions and in the hallways chatting with friends, so I’ll be sharing those in future posts so this annual meeting will continue to live on for a few more weeks.

Cruisin’ and Musin’ in Motown with AASLH

detroitI’ll be in Detroit for the next few days enjoying the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  I’ve been a member for about 40 years and I don’t think I’ve missed a conference during the last decade—does this make me a history nerd?

I hear this conference will be among the largest in AASLH’s recent memory and in partnership with the Michigan Museums Association, they’ve assembled some intriguing sessions and events.  As usual, I’ll have to split myself to attend several sessions at the same time but spending Saturday afternoon at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village will be the highlight.

Of course, seeing friends and colleagues from around the country is always great fun (sometimes it seems the entire conference is just one long reunion) and if you’ll be attending, I’d love to chat.  I’ll be at the evening events on Wednesday and Thursday, plus I’ll be participating in two sessions this year: Continue reading

Wikipedia Welcoming Historic Sites and Landmarks This Month

wike-loves-monuments-2016Wikipedia, the most frequently used source for information on the Internet, just launched a month-long campaign to improve its coverage of historic and cultural sites in the United States.  Called, “Wiki Loves Monuments,” it is an international photo competition where participants capture cultural heritage monuments and upload their photographs to Wikipedia. For the first time in several years, Wiki Loves Monuments is back in the United States. The contest is inspired by the successful 2010 pilot in the Netherlands, which resulted in 12,500 freely licensed images of monuments that can now be used in Wikipedia and by anybody for any purpose. The 2012 contest in 35 countries resulted in more than 350,000 images submitted by over 15,000 participants, adding to the sum of all human knowledge gathered on Wikipedia.  The contest ends on September 30, 2016.

Anyone is welcome to contribute to the project by uploading photos they’ve taken of cultural and historical sites throughout the United States. Once September is over, the best photos will win cash prizes and will be submitted to the international competition.  In addition to taking photos, Wikipedia is also encouraging editors to write Wikipedia articles on historical sites and monuments as part of the event.  They are also developing state-level guides to historic sites and have already created versions for California, Ohio, and Washington.  Here’s a chance to fix that skimpy or inaccurate entry about your site or show a stunning photo (in my home state of Maryland, Belvoir is a particularly awful example).  Better yet, engage those photographers among your members to help you promote your site and others in your community.  Just remember, you’re putting this into the World Wide Web, so content will be freely and easily used by others (what will Getty Images do?).

If you’re looking for inspiration, Wikipedia is providing links to the National Register of Historic Places, Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks, and Daughters of the American Revolution Sites (hey, where are the Colonial Dames?).

Professional Development is Taking on New Forms This Month

Historic Annapolis logoProfessional development (aka staff training) is one of the key elements for developing capacity at house museums and historic sites, but it’s often considered a luxury because of the cost.  This month, for example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland, and Historic Annapolis are hosting a two-day workshop, “Preservation Leadership Training: Invitation to Evolve” on September 8-9, 2016 in Annapolis, Maryland and next week, the American Association for State and Local History and Michigan Museums Association are hosting their conference, “The Spirit of Rebirth” in Detroit, Michigan.  Both demonstrate the continuing trend of partnerships among organizations to provide professional development to increase attendance, reduce expenses, and improve the quality.  I’m not sure if others do this, but I can only commit to two conferences per year: one is always AASLH and the other rotates among one of the other organizations where I’m a member.

But lately, I’ve noticed new forms of training popping Continue reading

Big Summer Sale at Rowman and Littlefield

Difficult HistoryRowman and Littlefield, publishers for AASLH and now AAM, are offering a 35% discount on most of their titles through September, including both print and ebooks.  That includes the Interpreting series, which was recently joined by Interpreting Naval History by Benjamin Hruska and Interpreting Difficult History by Julia Rose (Julie will be sharing a panel with me at the AASLH meeting in Detroit) and by the end of the year it’ll have ten titles. Other areas of interest are museum studies, architecture and historic preservation, and museum administration.  Browse their web site at and use the code 16SUMSALE when you order online or by phone at 1-800-462-6420. The sale will continue to be in effect during the AASLH annual meeting in September, so you’ll want to be sure to stop by the Rowman and Littlefield booth to look at what’s available.  On Thursday, September 15 from 3-4 pm, several authors will be available to chat and sign books (including me) and they’ll be providing coupons for deep discounts on forthcoming books.

Two National Conferences Coming Up on Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites

Slave cabin with contemporary sculptures at Whitney Plantation, Louisiana.

Slave cabin with contemporary sculptures at Whitney Plantation, Louisiana.

If you’re interested in interpreting slavery, you’ll have a tough time choosing what to do this fall. At the same time that AASLH is holding its annual meeting in Detroit, Monticello and the Slave Dwelling Project are hosting outstanding national conferences.

On September 17 from 10 am to 12:30 pm, Monticello will host a public summit on race and the legacy of slavery in Charlottesville, Virginia. Historians, descendants of those enslaved at Monticello, cultural leaders, and activists will engage in a far-ranging dialogue on the history of slavery and its meaning in today’s conversations on race, freedom, and equality. Participants include Marian Wright Edelman (Children’s Defense Fund), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Harvard University), Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard University), Jon Meacham (Random House), and Bree Newsome (filmmaker and community activist). Registration is free but seating is limited. For more information, visit

On September 19-21 the Third Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference will be held in Columbia, South Carolina. The conference brings together incredibly diverse perspectives, from preservationists and archaeologists to writers and film producers, to understand how these modest homes can change the traditional narrative of American history. Speakers include Mary Battle (Avery Center for African American Research), Lana Burgess (McKissick Museum), Toni Carrier (Lowcountry Africana), Elizabeth Chew (James Madison’s Montpelier), Latoya Devezin (Austin History Center), Regina Faden (Historic St. Mary’s City), Fielding Freed (Historic Columbia), Tammy Gibson (travel historian and blogger), Jennifer Hurst-Wender (Preservation Virginia), Brent Leggs (National Trust), Betsy Newman (South Carolina ETV), David Serxner (Historic Hope Plantation), Rhondda Robinson Thomas (Clemson University), and Robert Weyeneth (University of South Carolina). Full registration (which includes some meals) is $250 with an early registration price of $235 (deadline August 19). More information available at


IMHO: Historic Preservation Needs to Move the Goal Posts

Goal posts movingOne way to measure the success of historic preservation is to count the number of listings on the National Register of Historic Places. In its first year nearly 700 properties were registered, and today the National Register has more than 90,000 entries representing nearly 1.8 million buildings, sites, and structures and is growing at a rate of about 1,500 listings annually. We could easily celebrate that as an achievement of the National Historic Preservation Act, however, the sobering truth is that fewer and fewer Americans find historic sites “inspirational” or “beneficial,” to use NHPA parlance. In the last thirty years, the number of adults who visited an historic park, monument, building, or neighborhood has dropped, from 39 percent in 1982 to 24 percent in 2012. A similar pattern appears in a study of cultural travelers in San Francisco, which showed that while 66 percent said that historic sites were important to visit, only 26 percent had actually visited one in the previous three years.

There are probably several reasons for this decline, including the near-elimination of history from public schools and a decreasing amount of leisure time, but our own field of historic preservation may also be at fault. Over the past fifty years, historic preservation has become more complex, often requiring expertise in legal strategies, real estate development, fundraising, and architectural conservation. It’s become more focused around technique, such as how to designate a property, navigate Section 106, or repair a double-hung window. It’s become more intellectual, with battles fought over statements of significance, National Register criteria, and applicability of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s become an endless circuit in which we seem to fight the same battles and hear the same objections: “We can’t save everything,” “It’s not historic,” “We can’t stop progress,” and “You’re taking away my rights.” Historic preservation seems to have become less, rather than more, relevant and meaningful to Americans since the passage of the NHPA.

Maybe we’ve confused the ends with the means and are chasing the wrong goals. Preservation is not a destination but a means of reaching a destination. So what is the goal of preservation? According to the NHPA, it’s a “sense of orientation” and a “genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.” We need to rebalance the term “historic preservation” so that there’s equal emphasis on both words, rather than just the latter. We need to move the goal posts so that historic preservation is not about something but for somebody.

As management guru Peter Drucker reminds us, the nonprofit organization’s “product is a changed human being. Non-profit institutions are human-change agents. The ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adults, a changed human life altogether.” Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings; it’s about changing the lives of people.

Protecting, preserving, and interpreting is not sufficient. These are simply methods, tasks, jobs, works, or actions that define a purpose and explain how it will be accomplished. What is needed is a goal, a destination, a target, an idealized description of the future that explains “why.” To borrow from grammar, we need Continue reading

What Does Relevant History Look Like? There’s a Podcast for That!

Mutual-SignificanceHistoric sites are usually skilled at explaining the history of a place, event, or person but when it comes to relevance, it can be a mixed bag.  They often can’t make the leap from sharing information about the site to sharing information that’s meaningful to visitors. Historic sites have important messages to share (i.e., why does this place matter? why is it significant?). They just need to find the spots where it overlaps with issues and topics that are meaningful to visitors (what is significant to them?). That overlap is the “mutual significance” or relevance.

Relevance isn’t about topics that are “interesting.” That’s such a vague term it can be used to describe a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, a Hollywood cocktail party, or a wedding where the groom’s ex-wives are bridesmaids. Relevance isn’t about an amusing fact or story that leaves visitors smiling.  “Relevance” is something that meets current needs in a practical and useful manner. It finds its origins in the Latin word for Continue reading