Tackling Challenges for Historic Sites in St. Louis

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Last week, Ken Turino of Historic New England and I gave a one-day workshop on reinventing historic house museum in St. Louis, Missouri for the American Association for State and Local History.  It was a sold-out workshop with more than 50 people participating, mostly from the St. Louis region, so it was a great opportunity to meet so many of our colleagues, including a couple places who were starting new house museums (glad to have people learning about this specialized field before they open the doors!).  A big thanks to Andy Hahn at the Campbell House for hosting the workshop and to the St. Louis Public Library for allowing us to meet at the historic Central Library.

Ken and I continue to refine the workshop based on the evaluations we receive from the participants, and one of the elements we added to the beginning of the workshop is asking, “What is the biggest challenge facing your house museum?” and “What needs to be reinvented at your historic site?”  Here are some of the responses we received:

Historical Content and Collections

  • Servants are an afterthought in the tours; how do we integrate them and balance the story?
  • Finding enough historical information to tell a full story.
  • Interpreting sensitive or unpopular topics (e.g., gunmaker who owned slaves).
  • Empty house (have little to no authentic furnishings so what to do?).

Audience Interests, Needs, and Motivations

  • Trying to get attendance up.
  • Accommodating the “selfie” culture.
  • Encouraging repeat visitation.
  • Making a tour relevant to a wide range of people on the same tour (children, adults).
  • Expectations for families is unclear (e.g., can’t touch).

Interpretive Methods and Techniques

  • The buildings on our site are far away from each other so you’re spending more time traveling among them than interpreting them.
  • Lack of a sufficient endowment.
  • Recruiting and retaining docents (shift from a ladies auxiliary to the next generation who are not as interested).
  • Support from the local community (successful but not too successful to cause traffic conflicts or competition).
  • Disconnect between what visitors see and interpretive relevance.
  • Boards and funders are old fashioned about expectations and not willing to try new things.
  • Consistency in interpretation among docents to tell the same story.

Of course, a one-day workshop can’t address every one of these issues so what we provide is a process and a set of tools so people can figure out what’s best for them.  Every site is different so what succeeds at one place may not succeed at another.  I share the tools I’ve gathered and developed over the years for my own work, which includes conducting an inventory of interpretive activities, assessing each activity according to mission and sustainability, refining ideas using a Five Forces analysis, finding a Unique Value Proposition, and finally developing a plan that can be rapidly tested and implemented.  I use the tools as needed, in whole, in part, and in different orders, so don’t view it as a rigid and required approach. If you’re interested in learning more, AASLH is planning another workshop in New Orleans on May 20, 2016 or you can explore:

  • On Competition by Michael Porter (Harvard Business School, 2008)
  • Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy by Joan Magretta (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012)
  • Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur (2010).
  • Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan that Works by Ash Maurya (2012)

1 thought on “Tackling Challenges for Historic Sites in St. Louis

  1. Richard Layman

    Sounds like a great workshop. The Great Tours workshop I attended at the 2004 Nat. Trust for Historic Preservation conference had a significant impact on my thinking about cultural heritage interpretation and presentation. (The multiple timelines point I utilize in other contexts.)

    It’s a real shame that NTHP discontinued much in the way of coverage of cultural heritage tourism at the national conference. For me, access to workshops such as that one (and from the Alliance for National Heritage Areas) and I seem to remember an affinity group, were a big value and reason to attend the conference.


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