Semiquincentennial? That’s the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—a quarter millennium! Let’s leave the huge words behind and consider that 2026 is coming up fast—and it’s a huge opportunity to raise the profile of your house museum or historic site. When the Bicentennial arrived in 1976, it significantly increased attendance, funding, and interest in history. You don’t want to let this chance get away from you and preparation will be crucial to make the most of it.
If you’re not in Philadelphia, don’t despair. Just because the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed in your town, no Founding Fathers lived there, and no Revolutionary War battles fought nearby, you can make important connections if you focus on the big ideas that came out of that event. After all, the Declaration of Independence was part of a larger move to separate from Great Britain and become Americans. Well, it’s more complicated than that and the process of becoming Americans continues, and boy, that’s a terrific story with ambition, conflicts, failures, and successes.
Every tour, exhibition, event, and school field trip should have a compelling theme to engage its audience.* Even better, themes should connect across these programs and activities. An overarching theme will help your visitors better recognize the ideas and content that you want to share with them. The ideas are continually reinforced and result in a bigger impact. Good teachers do this all the time in the classroom and it’s easily adapted to museums and historic sites.
What if we adopted a super-overarching theme, one that spanned museums and historic sites across the county or state? It would seem impossible, but help is on the way.
The American Association for State and Local History has developed five themes for the 250th with the help of historians, scholars, and museum professionals from across the country and funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. They’ve given me a sneak peak and any site (yes, any!) in American can easily adopt one of these themes to help them plan and implement smart and engaging programs for the next few years. You could adopt all five, but I’d recommend at most three–few visitors can hold that much information in their heads (I can’t even remember more than three items for the grocery store unless I write them down).
AASLH will hold a special free webinar to introduce the themes on Thursday, July 1 at 3:00 pm Eastern, plus they will be sending all of its members (and anyone who asks) a copy of the themes in its Making History at 250: The Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial. Learn more and register for the webinar at learn.aaslh.org/250.
*If you’re not sure how to do create a theme (which is different from a topic), read Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose (2013) by Sam Ham.