Video: How to Visit a Museum

Nick Gray at Museum Hack recently published this 2:27 video on how to visit a museum, which is surprisingly similar to how I visit them.  I LOVE museums but my friends are often disappointed that I’ll read the introductory label and then just walk through the galleries non-stop. You might assume I’m just a “streaker” but just like Gray, it’s to get an overall sense of the exhibits so I can choose where to spend my time. I’ve learned you can’t spend an equal amount of time on everything in a museum so I have to choose what will give me the most enjoyment and the best experience.  I’ll visit the galleries a second time, stopping at those objects or topics that most interested me in my initial run-through (but always allow for serendipitous exploration).   Still, it’s hard to fight museum fatigue and mental overload after a couple hours, but that’s what museum restaurants are for.

I do something similar for historic sites, but in this case I’m analyzing the architecture and landscape to figure out how circulation, organization, views, and alignments are expressed through design (a particular interest of mine).  That’s why I often become frustrated by guided tours of period rooms, whose slow circuitous crawl through a dozen rooms leaves me disoriented (and bored, sorry).

How do you visit museums and historic sites?  What experiences helped you understand them better or enjoy them more? Share them in the comments below.

Videos: Keep it London vs Lives Rooted in Places

Historic England, the overseas equivalent of our preservation organizations in the US, recently launched a “Keep it London” campaign to help shape the planning of its nation’s capital, urging that, “the city must evolve by building on its unique character and identity, rather than by turning into a generic city.” The campaign contains the usual list of recommendations, solicitation for contributions and letters, and offers of updates through email and social media.  More interesting, however, is the “I am London” video that accompanies the campaign.  Listen carefully and in four minutes, you never hear the words, “history,” “preservation,” “old,” “save,” or “historic.” Instead, the faces and voices of dozens of diverse people personify buildings, giving these mute places emotion and personality.  Compare that to the approach used by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation in their video, “Lives Rooted in Places.”

Who’s the target audience for each video? Which video would resonate better with your members and donors? With your community and neighbors? Which one speaks better to outsiders than insiders?  What emotions are involved? Do they tell viewers what to think or feel, or do they let them unfold in the viewer?

NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch Named a Washingtonian of the Year

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

The January 2017 issue of Washingtonian, the magazine for the Washington DC region, named Lonnie Bunch as one of its “eleven locals whose commitment to helping others makes Washington a better place to live.” Usually the list is made up of wealthy philanthropists, sports figures, political leaders, and education reformers, so it was a nice surprise to see an historian who works at a museum named among its most benevolent in a city full of history and museums .

Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall and whose continuing popularity makes admission one of the hottest tickets in town.  Bunch was previously the president of the Chicago Historical Society and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the California African American Museum, where I first met him twenty years ago when I was conducting research on jazz bands in 1920s Los Angeles.  I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with him, which often happen as happy accidents through a last-minute invitation to dinner in Chicago, running into him during the Folklife Festival, or sharing a car ride with him to the airport in Charleston.  So I was delighted when he agreed to write the foreword for my first book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

Washingtonian recognizes Bunch for his effort to find a spot on the Mall for the museum, raising much of the $270 million to match Congress’ contribution, and attracting donations from people across America.  I also know him as a Continue reading

What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for IMLS?

IMLS LogoPresident-elect Trump continues to demonstrate that he doesn’t plan to govern like his predecessors, having recently nominated department heads who are at odds with the mission of their departments.  What does that mean for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), whose Director and its National Museum and Library Services Board are appointed by the President and whose authorization and funding are approved by the President?  Most house museums and historic sites know IMLS for its grant programs (e.g., Museums for America) but they also conduct research on the state of the museum field (e.g., museum database); tackle national issues that are important to museums (e.g, preservation of collection, digital platforms); and fund the Museum Assessment Program (managed by the American Alliance of Museums) and Collections Assessment for Preservation Program (managed by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works).

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September 11 Memorial Museum visits by President Obama in 2014 and Presidential candidate Trump in 2016. Note the differences in how the groups are moving through the museum.

At this point, it seems President Trump will have little interest in museums or libraries, which could be good or bad, depending on Continue reading

Is Twitter Effectively Engaging Your Audiences?

twitter-afpWith the new year on the horizon, I’ve been evaluating my projects from the last year to determine how I can help historic places better connect to their audiences. For the past two years, I’ve used Twitter to share news about history, historic sites, historic preservation, and history museums.  Each morning I scan the New York Times and other newspapers for stories, aiming to tweet about three stories daily to my @maxvanbalgooy account so that my followers can quickly learn what’s happening.  The result? I have created 4,180 tweets and attracted nearly 500 Followers since I joined Twitter in June 2009.  This blog, on the other hand, has 1000 subscribers, so it seems my time is better spent on my blog than Twitter.  It could be very different for you, but how do we decide if Twitter is effectively engaging your audiences?

A useful place to start is with the metrics that Twitter provides: Followers and Likes.  Likes are a low level of engagement because they only require that readers support a specific tweet or find it especially useful or enjoyable—but that’s it. Followers are a mid-level form of engagement because it means that a reader wants to engage with you and read everything that you tweet (“read” is probably overstating things; “scan” is more appropriate for Twitter). Retweets engage at a high level because your Followers share your tweet to their Followers (did you follow that? it’s about the impact of the multiplier effect)—unfortunately, there’s no easy way to measure Retweets (but boy, we would have more impact if we promoted Retweeting instead of Liking).

To better understand how effectively Twitter can engage audiences, I collected statistics for a variety of major history organizations to measure Tweets, Followers, and Likes as of today (December 8, 2016) to develop the following chart: Continue reading

Stabilizing Sandy or Uneven Paths with Mobi-Mat in Cape Cod

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On a recent visit to the Cape Cod  in Massachusetts, I often encountered unpaved sandy paths down to the beach.  It can be tough slog walking up and down those sandy hills but people also trample the nearby vegetation to get a solid footing.  At the Cape Cod National Seashore, they covered these sandy paths with Mobi-Mats, a flexible woven recycled plastic mat that stabilizes the path and reduces erosion, while allowing water and sand to filter quickly. It was so much easier to walk to the shore and I immediately saw that they could be helpful at historic sites that have muddy or uneven paths to make travel easier for persons with limited mobility or in wheelchairs. Although the mat is bright blue, it feels much nicer to walk to the beach on this mat than it would on a concrete or asphalt sidewalk—you get the sense you’re walking at the beach, not in the parking lot (I suppose it’s blue because light colors would be blinding in the summer sun and dark colors would become too hot for bare feet).

Mobi-Mats are made by Deschamps, a French company with an office in New Jersey.  According to their website, these mats are also in use in New York City Parks, Traverse City State Park in Michigan, Arches National Park in Utah, and Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. And in case you need to move vehicles or heavy equipment temporarily through landscaped areas for an event or construction project, these mats were originally designed for beach landings by the U.S. Marine Corps so they can handle the traffic (they say a 50 foot long roll can be installed by two people in ten minutes!).

EngagingPlaces.net Celebrates a Belated Five-Year Anniversary

five-candlesOn October 24, 2011, the Engaging Places blog launched with the mission to both continue and expand a blog that I established for National Trust Historic Sites in 2007 (it was so unusual, we called it a “weblog” to explain what it was).  I’ve been so busy that the five-year anniversary slipped by unnoticed.  That’s traditionally the anniversary for wooden gifts but instead I’d appreciate “likes” and “shares.” 🙂

Here are some stats that suggest what’s happened over the years:

  • 454 posts. The most popular posts are Let’s Give SWOT a Rest; The Truth About the Customer Experience; and Welcoming New Members.  What does this mean?
  • 168,516 views.  Most visitors are from the United States, followed by Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia (and a surprising number from India, Germany, Brazil, and France).
  • Google is the search engine that overwhelmingly brings most people to the blog and “community engagement” is the most popular topic.
  • 719 comments. Thanks!—the discussions have always been helpful.
  • nearly 1,000 subscribers.

Thanks to all of the house museums and historic sites that were willing to share their experiences and activities through this blog with others around the world.  Thanks to my readers for your kind words and ideas when I meet you at conferences and workshops. More posts are coming (although it’s hard to keep up with so much happening).

Lefferts Historic House features Monument to the Unelected

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“Monument to the Unelected” by Nina Katchadourian at the Lefferts Historic House. Photo by Jaap Grolleman.

The Lefferts Historic House in New York is featuring Nina Katchadourian’s Monument to the Unelected, a temporary art exhibit consisting of 58 signs bearing the names of the losing candidates from every presidential election in American history. Designed to look like modern campaign yard signs with names boldly displayed on white corrugated plastic, Katchadorian wanted to recognize that “these markers tend to crop up in the weeks leading up to an election, after which they disappear, with some of the names going on to take office and others being largely forgotten.”  The exhibit now includes Hillary Clinton and will be on view on the house’s front lawn until this Sunday, November 13, 2016.

Lefferts Historic House is owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, operated by the Prospect Park Alliance, and is a member of the Historic House Trust. This project is supported by the Historic House Trust’s Contemporary Art Partnerships program and the New York State Council on the Arts.

More at the Prospect Park Alliance and Huffington Post, plus a Periscope video on Twitter.

Interpreting African American History Workshop offered in January 2017

nmaahcThe National Museum of African American History and Culture, in partnership with the Association of African American Museums, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission at James Island County Park – Charleston, SC, and the National Association for Interpretation are offering a week-long workshop on the interpretation of African American history and culture from January 15-22, 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston is an ideal place to study historic sites and African American history because of the diversity of interpretive methods used in the region (plus it’s a wonderful place to be in January). The 32-hour workshop includes:

  • The history of the interpretation profession
  • The principles of interpretation
  • The thematic approach to developing and delivering interpretation that connects audiences to historical resources in meaningful ways
  • Current literature in the field of interpretation

In addition to the training course, the workshop will include 18 hours visiting and analyzing the interpretation of African American history and culture, including methodology, at a variety of historic sites in Charleston.  Upon completion, participants receive Interpretive Guide Certification from the National Association for Interpretation.

Registration is $300 and includes tuition, most meals, lodging, and local travel. Applications must be received by Monday, November 21, 2016 by 5 pm EST and applicants must be members of the Association of African American Museums (not a member? It’s easy to join for $55 as individuals).  Note: the application process is competitive and extensive, so this is not a last-minute process.

IMHO: Trump’s Election Reflects Trends in History Museums and Historic Preservation

change-sameDonald J. Trump’s election to the U. S. presidency is a shock to many pundits and career politicians because he never held elected office and didn’t seem to care about politics or government, except as it might benefit his businesses. His interest is business, following his father into real estate and receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School, and then pursuing real estate development, professional sports, beauty pageants, for-profit education, branding and licensing, and entertainment. While the 2016 campaign will be heavily analyzed for years to understand its unfolding, my sense is that it’s not just about “change,” but a change in the skills and qualifications required for effective leadership.  It’s no longer about mission, vision, or values, but the expertise and perspective of independent business entrepreneurs.  And it’s a trend I’ve been witnessing in house museums and historic sites as well.

In the last decade, several major history and preservation organizations have selected CEOs who have little passion for or experience with the mission of the organization but instead offer outsider perspectives, often informed exclusively by an MBA: Continue reading