During a recent visit to the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC, I encountered the most subtle donor recognition methods I’ve ever witnessed. I usually discourage donor plaques within an historic house museum because it doesn’t advance the educational mission of the organization, distracts from the visitor’s experience of “imagining the past,” and can be installed in a manner that permanently damages the historic materials but if a director or board insists, the Meridian Center offers a potential solution. The Meridian Center holds its offices and meeting rooms in two early twentieth century houses–Meridian House and White-Meyer House–that are listed on the National Register and although they aren’t museums, the donor recognition plaques are so subtle that they border on being acceptable in historic house museums.
Plaques can be found in nearly every room but are typically integrated into the existing decor with matching materials in small type or placed strategically and discretely to avoid attracting much attention, except if you take a close look. They are considering a donor wall for their upcoming capital campaign, but it will be installed outdoors under the supervision of preservation architect Belinda Reeder.
Interesting post. Your comment about materials that might “distract from a visitor’s experience of imagining the past” got me thinking – not just about donor recognition, but interpretation as well.
I think the notion that historic sites should create and maintain a step-back-in-time experience is prevalent at historic sites, but it’s one I have problems with. Stepping back in time requires visitors to abandon their disbelief… essentially shut off the little voice inside our head and immerse ourselves in the experience … and that’s a problem. I think most of us would agree that one of the key roles of historic houses/sites is to encourage visitors to think critically about the past. Yet thinking critically and abandoning disbelief are two opposing frames of mind.
I think that additions to the historic environment (particularly interpretive media) should be intentionally intrusive and make no attempt to blend with the historic fabric. Why? Because we should be communicating to visitors that the “stories” we choose to depict at our sites are crafted and applied … not inherent.
I also think it’s important to recognize that visitors react to historic spaces and assign meanings to them that are very different from the people who originally occupied those spaces and are often framed by contemporary references including film and interior design. With this in mind, perhaps we should use the design of interpretive elements to evoke a sense of the mood and temper of the stories we are interpreting, rather than obsessing about blending in.
Thanks for this thoughtful comment! I like your approach to interpretation–it’s strategic and intentional. I’ve often stated that interpretation is much like music–a series of notes chosen to create a melody, a carefully structured overall arc, etc.–but donor recognition panels and “do not touch” signs can sometimes come off as wrong notes in an otherwise enjoyable experience. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation accepts modern additions to historic buildings, but requires that they be clearly distinctive and compatible. This “distinct yet compatible” approach may also be a worthy goal for interpretation in historic sites, although figuring out that balance can be challenging. A good way to start is to first write down what you want visitors to know, do, and feel as a result of their experience at your site, and then figure out the appropriate methods (e.g., exhibits, period rooms, tours, signs) to make that happen.