Recap of Historic House Museum Symposium at Gunston Hall

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On Saturday, the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington DC hosted an all-day symposium on “how are historic house museums adapting to the future?” at Gunston Hall in Virginia.  The sold-out symposium featured three speakers, a tour of Gunston Hall, and lots of time to chat with colleagues during breaks and over lunch.   The cost?  A mere $15, truly a bargain.  The symposium not only attracted professionals from Virginia, Maryland, and DC, but as far away as Connecticut!

I opened the symposium by discussing Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” as a way of identifying opportunities and threats to help historic sites prepare and adapt.  If you’re not familiar with the Five Forces, it’s a framework for identifying those issues that have the biggest impact on your operations.  This is a much more useful alternative to SWOT, which may be a good outline for summarizing an analysis, but it’s not a helpful way to analyze a situation.  If you’d like to get an introduction to the Five Forces and how it applies to historic sites, take look at my presentation (warning: it’s an 18 Mb pdf).  Even better was the discussion that followed, which explored a wide range of ideas from the growing role of photography to changing demographics to the interpretation of African American history.

Jana Shafogoj at Morven Park discussed how the current emphasis on STEM has allowed their site to strengthen their relationship with the local school district and attract funding.  It isn’t always obvious how science, technology, engineering, and math can taught at an historic site, so Jana provided lots of examples of activities on masonry construction, spatial analysis, and wall structures.  She’s willing to share her lesson plans as an inspiration to other historic sites.

Ken Turino of Historic New England closed the symposium by referencing some of the findings from the 2007 Kykuit Symposium on the Sustainability of Historic Sites and providing dozens of examples how house museums are reaching new audiences or achieving financial sustainability through new or expanded types of programs, such as farmers’ markets, temporary exhibits, community-based classes, forums on timely issues, and yes, even ghost tours.   It was a visual catalog of ideas that could be applied to other places (just a warning:  copying is okay if you’re in different markets, but if you are duplicating the same activity in the same market as another historic site, you’re creating a rival–that’s not a good strategy).

It’s always so enjoyable to attend a workshop or symposium not only because you have a chance to learn new things and kick around ideas with your colleagues, but it’s a rare moment to step back from the daily work and reflect on longterm and bigger issues–plus it’s an excuse to see another historic site.  I’ve haven’t seen Gunston Hall in thirty years even though it’s just 45 minutes from my house.  I was floored by its recent interior restoration work.  The house is modest on the outside but the interior is outstanding, so if you’re interested in the architecture of the elite in the 18th century, you’ll need to see this place yourself.

2 thoughts on “Recap of Historic House Museum Symposium at Gunston Hall

    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      I believe VAM or HHMCDC is placing all the PowerPoint presentations on their websites. My PPT may not make sense without an explanation, but I plan on discussing some elements of it in future posts in this blog (eg, a better way to identify your opportunities and threats; responding to your rivals).


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