Historic Sites Gather in Tennessee to Share Challenges and Solutions

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Last week I led an AASLH workshop with George McDaniel on the management of historic house museums at Oaklands, a mid-nineteenth century house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Eighteen people participated, most from Tennessee, but we had a couple from as far as Alaska!  Adding to the diversity were several graduate students from Middle Tennessee State University (which has strong programs in history, public history, and historic preservation) and even though it was near the end of the semester and finals were on their minds, they helped enrich the discussions.

One of the features in the workshop is that every participant brings an issue or problem that they’d like to address.   The range is wide and unpredictable, but it’s a helpful way to check the pulse on the challenges facing historic sites.  In this class, these issues were:

  1. How to prevent staff burn-out (how to keep growing despite small staff; finding the right mix of skills for staff)
  2. How to fund preservation and staffing.
  3. Want to engage younger local audiences (ages 40-60 years)
  4. How to engage the local community with limited resources.
  5. How to leverage upcoming centennial of the city and the house to develop a mission and plan for the future of the house (viability, publicity, attracting visitors, etc.).
  6. How to balance daily demands with longterm plans and goals (e.g., collections, program development, preservation).
  7. How to move historic preservation advocacy from the site to the surrounding neighborhood
  8. How to engage local community beyond school tours.
  9. How to engage local community and be more relevant (especially diverse audiences—missing college students, 30-50 year olds).
  10. How to manage volunteers.
  11. Providing a consistent visitor experience across many sites. Aligning goals, practices, and standards for governance across many sites.
  12. Balancing two different interpretive stories/narratives at the same site.
  13. Connecting historical narrative given in the tour with the objects on display.
  14. How to identify preservation/maintenance issues before they occur and find good craftspeople/consultants.

By the end of the two-day workshop, most participants found they weren’t the only ones tackling these issues and had identified the next steps to address them, often recognizing that they may need to take a step back and tackle more fundamental aspects such as mission, vision, or strategy.

I always enjoy the workshops as well because it’s great to be surrounded by so many people who care about historic sites.  Plus it gives me a chance to see a new part of the country and experience it through their food–the barbeque pork, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese were excellent and for the first time I encountered fruit tea, “congealed” salad, and two new kinds of corn bread (hoecakes and hot water)!  This country hasn’t homogenized yet, thank goodness.