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 monticello.org/neh.

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 SlaveDwellingProject.org.

 

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

How to Evaluate the Visitor Experience with Journey Maps

A journey map can show you the strengths and weaknesses of the whole visitor experience at a glance.

A journey map can show you the strengths and weaknesses of the whole visitor experience at a glance.

When people visit historic sites, they not only take a tour but they probably explore your Web site, buy tickets for the tour, shop in your store, and use the restroom. While the tour might be outstanding, the entire experience can be spoiled if the visitor couldn’t find a parking spot, got soaked in a thunderstorm, was frustrated by a broken credit card machine, or encountered a dirty restroom. For most people, a visit to an historic site isn’t just about the tour, but the whole experience from beginning to end. If one element goes awry, the entire visit can go bad—even if you had absolutely no control over it (like the weather).

To improve visitor satisfaction and increase attendance and impact, historic sites are now examining the entire visitor experience to be sure every part functions well and works seamlessly from beginning to end. One of the best ways to analyze and improve the experience is through a “journey map,” a diagram that lays out every step in the visitor experience from home to historic site to back home. It can help organize planning and evaluation; simplify understanding of complex processes; and easily show how different parts of the organization contribute to an excellent visitor experience. For the past two decades, hotels, airlines, and other customer-oriented businesses use this technique to generate higher satisfaction rates and build stronger relationships for increased profitability. Only recently have non-profit organizations adopted mapping as a method for analysis and planning.

mentioned journey mapping previously but because there continues to be so much interest in the topic, I’ve Continue reading

Put Your Website to the PageSpeed Test

Google PageSpeed InsightsYou may have spent lots of time and money refreshing your website, but how well does it actually perform on people’s desktops and mobile devices?  If it’s too slow, people will give up and go elsewhere, so loading speed is important to monitor.  Thanks to Google, you can test the speed of your website plus receive suggestions for improvement for free.  Go to PageSpeed Insights and enter your website address. In a few seconds, you’ll receive a detailed report.  EngagingPlaces.net scored 70/100 for desktop performance and if you think that’s low, I checked a couple of my client’s websites and they fared much worse.  If you’d like to learn more, watch the Dotto Tech video “Episode #47: Importance of Site Speed” that explains how he redesigned his WordPress website to perform better.

 

San Francisco’s Newest House Museum is a Conceptual Artwork. Or Is It?

The David Ireland House, 500 Capp Street, San Francisco.

The David Ireland House, 500 Capp Street, San Francisco.

A couple weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit the David Ireland House, a house museum that recently opened in San Francisco.  Unlike New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington, DC, San Francisco has only a handful of house museums so the addition of the Ireland House is a significant one—and unusual.

David Ireland was a conceptual artist active from the 1970s to 2000s, becoming an artist in his 40s after serving in the Army and leading safaris in Africa. In 1975 he purchased a modest 1880s Italianate-style house in the Mission District from an accordion maker and proceeded to use it as his home while transforming it into an artwork, most visibly by peeling away layers of wallpaper and then coating the plaster walls in polyurethane varnish.  Yes, strange but true. With his death in 2009, the 500 Capp Street Foundation (the address of the David Ireland House) saved the house, hired the Architectural Resources Group to lead an extensive conservation process, included a sensitive award-winning addition by Jensen Architects, and opened the house last year to the public.

This is a difficult place to interpret because Ireland not only treated the historic house as a contemporary artwork, but it is conceptual art, which puzzles most people when encountered in an art museum (remember Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain?). It’s not only non-traditional, but questions the very nature of art.  When you encounter a pile of neatly stacked firewood, you’re wondering if you’re looking at an artwork or simply a stack of firewood.

"The Sound of Blue," by David Ireland.

“The Sound of Blue,” by David Ireland.

The David Ireland House handled this very well by starting the tour with a conceptual artwork (or was it two?).  Visitors first step into a sparse room, where you purchase tickets and are welcomed by the guide.  After a few minutes of chatting, the guide points out an artwork that was discovered in the house: a butane torch mounted on a stand made of copper plumbing pipes.  He proceeded to explain it was called the “Sound of Blue,” lit the torch, and turned on a cassette tape recorder whose microphone was aimed at the torch.  We watched it together for a minute, when another guide picked up a newspaper laying on a table, read aloud the date and a headline, and then placed the newspaper on a stack forming in the corner of the room.  The tape recorder was then turned off along with the torch.

That was weird. What just happened? This is art? What does this mean? What’s going on? Is this serious or an elaborate hoax? Is the whole tour going to be like this? What’s going to happen next?

Yup, that’s exactly the reaction they want you to have. It provoked the kinds of questions and reactions that David Ireland would have liked, so the rest of the tour was a combination of short explanations followed by a lot of questions from me, which they encouraged.  Although the entire house is treated as an artwork, there are no stanchions and you can wander where you want.  Tours are guided and intentionally kept small to protect the objects, so you have a great sense of freedom to explore and wonder if you’re looking at an artwork or it’s just a chair hanging on the wall.  It is at times bizarre (you encounter a piece of birthday cake preserved in a Mason jar) and amusing (a pile of firewood stamped with the artist’s initials), but it did cause me to think about the nature of art, art curators, and art museums. Others, however, might find it silly and shallow, but that’s one of the points of conceptual art as well: the viewer determines the significance and meaning of an artwork, not the art dealer, curator, or museum. Indeed, is this an art museum, an historic site, or just David Ireland’s house?

Google’s New Data Gallery Suggests Directions for Historic Sites

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.16.58 AMGoogle has regularly shared findings from studies conducted from various sources (including its own analytics from searches and YouTube) in Think with Google, which I receive as an email a couple times each month as a subscription.  They’ve now gathered those studies together in a new Data Gallery which, of course, can be searched by topic.  There’s nothing for “museums,” “historic sites,” or “tourism,” but there is lots for “travel & hospitality.”  You can also narrow your search by industry (e.g., “travel & hospitality”), by platform (e.g., mobile, video), by themes (e.g., consumer trends, Millennials, U.S.).

A quick browse through the “travel & hospitality” shows the growing importance of video.  For example, their research shows that two out of three U. S. consumers watch online travel videos when they’re thinking about taking a trip and nearly 90 percent of YouTube travel searches focus on destinations, attractions/points of interest or general travel ideas.  This suggests that historic sites and house museums need to Continue reading

Video: Evaluation Consultant Randi Korn on Impact

In this 2:01 video, Randi Korn explains how museums and historic sites can define impact and how an “impact statement” integrates personal passion, the organization’s strengths, and the audience’s interests and needs.  And to measure impact you have to go beyond the usual numbers involving attendance and income and instead look at the experience that people had.  This is one in the “Questions of Practice” video series produced by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Vision Statement: Encyclopedia Edition

The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.

The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.

Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Vision Statement.”  Businesses and nonprofit organizations have been adopting vision and mission statements for the past two decades but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history and see where they might be headed.  Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):

Vision Statement. A vision statement describes a business’ or non-profit organization’s long-term major goal or desired end state and directs the planning, implementation, and evaluation of its programs and activities. There are many definitions for vision statements, some that conflict with each other, but the consensus is that they describe an ambitious but achievable long-term goal (10-30 years ahead, beyond the term of the current board or tenure of the executive director); that the statement is clear, compelling, and short (about 25-50 words); and yet is sufficiently vague and abstract to be unaffected by typical economic cycles or social fads.

An often-cited example of a vision statement is found in John F. Kennedy’s address to Congress in 1961 on urgent national needs: Continue reading

Video: How Collectors Influence the Art Market

Artsy: How and Why Patrons Support an Artist

In this 4:03 video, Artsy explains why a patron supports an artist and how this influences the art market. What compels patrons to support artists’ careers? How has the model of commissioning impossible ideas lasted from the ancient Egyptians until today? This short film is the third and latest in a series of four short films about the art market by Artsy.  Even if you’re not interested in this topic, the interpretive presentation may be a model for your videos.