Category Archives: Books and articles

Embezzlement: Is It Our Dirty Secret? (a five-year update)

Five years ago I posted an essay about embezzlement at history organizations while I was on AASLH Council and in the midst of recovering from the financial fraud perpetrated by its chief financial officer.  History News recently published my updated version and included a sidebar by John Dichtl to describe the fraud at AASLH.  When it occurred, AASLH wanted to be open and transparent about the situation and use it to help others, and yet, we often found ourselves silent and frustrated because it could have jeopardized the criminal investigation and lawsuits.  Now that the CFO has been sentenced, AASLH can discuss it more openly (although some aspects are covered by confidentiality agreements). Please share this article with your colleagues to help them tighten their financial controls and reduce the chances of embezzlement at their organizations.

By the way, this issue of History News has lots of good articles for historic sites, including:

  • “The Many Voices of a Historic House” by Jane Mitchell Eliasof (about the effort reinterpret the Crane House in Montclair, New Jersey as an African American YWCA from 1920 to 1965)
  • “Like a Phoenix: Opportunities in the Aftermath of Disaster” by Samantha Engel (about the fire that occurred during a construction project at the Whaley Historic House Museum in Flint, Michigan)
  • “A Please Touch Historic House Tour” by Christine Ermenc, Christina Vida, and Scott Wands (a case study of an award-winning program at the Strong-Howard House in Windsor, Connecticut).

History News is one of the best benefits of membership in AASLH.  Along with a quarterly copy in the mail, they recently added online access through JStor and send members a pdf version in advance via email. I’ve been a member for nearly 40 years and if you want to find consistently useful ideas for managing your historic site or house museum, there’s no better place than AASLH.

Third Edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History Arrives with a Thud

Encyclopedia of Local HistoryThe latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History just arrived with a thud on my doorstep. Weighing nearly three pounds and two inches think, it’s a small beast. I served on the advisory board, suggested writers, and contributed entries and photographs, but didn’t realize what a hefty book it would become until a copy arrived at my door.  At 800 pages, the third edition added another 150 pages to the second edition of 2013, so if this keeps up, the fourth edition will need a handle.

Edited by Amy Wilson, the Encyclopedia is a wide-ranging assortment of definitions, topics, organizations, primary sources, historical approaches, and individual state histories, along with appendices on studying various ethnic groups and religion, and contact information for state historical societies and National Archives facilities.  Certainly it’s a reference tool for “local history” jargon that you might be able to find online (what is “historical thinking” or “repatriation” or “Soundex”?)  but it also contains mini-articles on provocative subjects (such as “Building Bridges through Local History” by George McDaniel, “Local Historical Societies and Core Purpose” by Anne Ackerson, or “Museums and Families” by Linda Norris).  The contributors are among the best people in our field, so the information is solid.  You’ll not only want to use it to look up a term occasionally but to let it open to a random page to explore the many aspects of local history (Cyndi’s list? fakelore? social purity? Tweedsmuir History Prize?).

At $145, it’s not a book everyone can afford, but it would be great addition to a reference library of a historical society or local public library.

This Blog Post is about a New Book about Museum Blogs

Museum Blog Book 2017Soon to be released is the Museum Blog Book, a collection of “today’s most interesting, innovative and passionate writing about museums and galleries…hidden away in hundreds of carefully-crafted museum blogs.” I’m delighted that my post, “Creating a 21st Century House Museum” is included among the writings of my colleagues Gretchen Jennings, Linda Norris, Steven Lubar, and Robert Connolly along nearly 70 others from around the world in this fat 630-page anthology published by Museums Etc.

The book is divided into five sections related to management, collections, learning, interpreting, and visiting at museums, and historic sites will find particularly interesting:

  • Replacing Mission Statements with “Why Should I Care?” Statements by Nick Sacco, Public Historian, National Park Service
  • What Does Democracy Look Like at a Historic Site? by Linda Norris, independent museum professional
  • Why Co-creation in Archaeology Works by Robert P Connolly, Director, C H Nash Museum, Chucalissa, University of Memphis (who recently retired to balmier places)
  • Using Virtual Reality to Preserve the Past by Jenny Kidd, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University
  • Informing Restoration by Peter Trowles, Mackintosh Curator, Glasgow School of Art

Until release on February 20, it’s available for a 15% early-bird discount of £49 plus free shipping.  With the pound trading at $1.27, that’s $62.23 (okay, that is expensive, but it’s published in the UK where books are always expensive and it is a big 630-pages—more than a ream of paper!).

Big Summer Sale at Rowman and Littlefield

Difficult HistoryRowman and Littlefield, publishers for AASLH and now AAM, are offering a 35% discount on most of their titles through September, including both print and ebooks.  That includes the Interpreting series, which was recently joined by Interpreting Naval History by Benjamin Hruska and Interpreting Difficult History by Julia Rose (Julie will be sharing a panel with me at the AASLH meeting in Detroit) and by the end of the year it’ll have ten titles. Other areas of interest are museum studies, architecture and historic preservation, and museum administration.  Browse their web site at Rowman.com and use the code 16SUMSALE when you order online or by phone at 1-800-462-6420. The sale will continue to be in effect during the AASLH annual meeting in September, so you’ll want to be sure to stop by the Rowman and Littlefield booth to look at what’s available.  On Thursday, September 15 from 3-4 pm, several authors will be available to chat and sign books (including me) and they’ll be providing coupons for deep discounts on forthcoming books.

IMHO: Historic Preservation Needs to Move the Goal Posts

Goal posts movingOne way to measure the success of historic preservation is to count the number of listings on the National Register of Historic Places. In its first year nearly 700 properties were registered, and today the National Register has more than 90,000 entries representing nearly 1.8 million buildings, sites, and structures and is growing at a rate of about 1,500 listings annually. We could easily celebrate that as an achievement of the National Historic Preservation Act, however, the sobering truth is that fewer and fewer Americans find historic sites “inspirational” or “beneficial,” to use NHPA parlance. In the last thirty years, the number of adults who visited an historic park, monument, building, or neighborhood has dropped, from 39 percent in 1982 to 24 percent in 2012. A similar pattern appears in a study of cultural travelers in San Francisco, which showed that while 66 percent said that historic sites were important to visit, only 26 percent had actually visited one in the previous three years.

There are probably several reasons for this decline, including the near-elimination of history from public schools and a decreasing amount of leisure time, but our own field of historic preservation may also be at fault. Over the past fifty years, historic preservation has become more complex, often requiring expertise in legal strategies, real estate development, fundraising, and architectural conservation. It’s become more focused around technique, such as how to designate a property, navigate Section 106, or repair a double-hung window. It’s become more intellectual, with battles fought over statements of significance, National Register criteria, and applicability of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s become an endless circuit in which we seem to fight the same battles and hear the same objections: “We can’t save everything,” “It’s not historic,” “We can’t stop progress,” and “You’re taking away my rights.” Historic preservation seems to have become less, rather than more, relevant and meaningful to Americans since the passage of the NHPA.

Maybe we’ve confused the ends with the means and are chasing the wrong goals. Preservation is not a destination but a means of reaching a destination. So what is the goal of preservation? According to the NHPA, it’s a “sense of orientation” and a “genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.” We need to rebalance the term “historic preservation” so that there’s equal emphasis on both words, rather than just the latter. We need to move the goal posts so that historic preservation is not about something but for somebody.

As management guru Peter Drucker reminds us, the nonprofit organization’s “product is a changed human being. Non-profit institutions are human-change agents. The ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adults, a changed human life altogether.” Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings; it’s about changing the lives of people.

Protecting, preserving, and interpreting is not sufficient. These are simply methods, tasks, jobs, works, or actions that define a purpose and explain how it will be accomplished. What is needed is a goal, a destination, a target, an idealized description of the future that explains “why.” To borrow from grammar, we need Continue reading

Thump! Interpreting African American History and Culture Arrives

Interpreting African American History and CultureThis morning brought the first snow of the season.  While schools closed and cars were slipping on the road in front my house, the mail arrived with a thump on my doorstep.  Inside was Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, the book I worked on for the last few years with two dozen contributors.  I try not to judge a book by its cover, but Rowman and Littlefield has increased its attention to graphic design and it really paid off.  It’s a handsome book. But it’s even better inside!

If African American history isn’t a topic at your historic site, do check out the others in this major new series produced by the American Association for State and Local History.

At the press: Interpreting African American History and Culture

Cover Interpreting Af Am History smallMy book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is now at the press and will be available in December from Rowman and Littlefield.  I’ve been assembling it for the past two years and just completed the index, so now it’s firmly in the hands of the publisher.  This book is part of a new “interpreting” series launched by Rowman and Littlefield and the American Association for State and Local History.  Also released this year are books on topics that include slavery, Native American history and culture, LGBT history, and the prohibition era.  If you’d like to order a copy of any of these books at a nice 25 percent discount, use the code 4F14MSTD by December 31, 2014.

Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is another step in a path being laid by many people for nearly 150 years. Although much has been accomplished at museums and historic sites to enhance and improve the interpretation of African American history and culture, we’ve also learned Continue reading

Why History Matters is Foundational to Historic Site Interpretation

Historic Site Interpretation Class, Fall 2014, Museum Studies Program, George Washington University.

Historic Site Interpretation Class, Fall 2014, Museum Studies Program, George Washington University.

My annual fall class on interpreting historic sites and house museums started yesterday at George Washington University, and as usual, I’ve made some revisions to the course syllabus.  Not only does my thinking continue to evolve through my experiences working with sites across the country and from the work of my colleagues in the field, but my students provide a lengthy evaluation at the conclusion of each semester.  

I’ve increasingly found that in our efforts to create programming and activities that engage the public at historic sites, we often forget why we’re doing it.  After all, if you don’t know why you’re interpreting an historic site, it’s very difficult to know how to do it well.  So this year I’m starting the course with the writings of three different people who were passionate about history and saw historic places as meaningful and valuable aspects of our lives:  Ada Louise Huxtable, Dolores Hayden, and Gerda Lerner.  My students had never heard of any of them, so I’m delighted to introduce them for our study of historic site interpretation.  In case you want to read along, here are the first week’s assignments:

  • “Where Did We Go Wrong?” (1968) and “Lively Original Versus Dead Copy” (1965) in Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger by Ada Louise Huxtable (1986)
  • “Contested Terrain,” chapter 1 in The Power of Place by Dolores Hayden (1995)
  • “Why History Matters,” chapter 12 in Why History Matters by Gerda Lerner (1997)

This class will be reading dozens of articles this semester but we also have a set of core books: 

  • Interpreting Historic House Museums edited by Jessica Foy Donnelly (Altamira, 2002)
  • Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen (New Riders, 2012)
  • Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose by Sam H. Ham (Fulcrum, 2013)

Donnelly’s book, alas, is now a dozen years old and it’s becoming more difficult to assign.  It still contains good ideas but the case studies are aging, the impact of the Internet is barely felt, and the growing emphasis on visitor research, intentionality, and social relevance are not addressed adequately.  And surprisingly, so many of the authors have left the museum field (what does that say about our profession?).  If you’ve found a good book on the theory and methodology of interpreting historic sites suitable for graduate students, please share it in the comments below.

Brown University and National Trust Provide Recommendations for Historic House Museums

The financial sustainability and social relevance of historic house museums continue to intrigue scholars, preservationists, organizations, and even pundits on National Public Radio (I was recently interviewed by them about this topic) and adding to the conversation are two recent publications by the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Bedroom at Liberty Hall Museum, Kean University, New Jersey.

Bedroom at Liberty Hall Museum, Kean University, New Jersey.

If historic house museums are historic sites that primarily educational (not commercial) in purpose, how would they be different if they were managed by educational institutions? “University-Affiliated Historic House Museums,” a report by the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University may provide some answers. Prepared for the 1772 Foundation by Hillary Brady, Steven Lubar, and Rebecca Soules, the report examines the issues facing historic house museums that are owned or operated by colleges and universities based on a survey of existing practices at ten sites.  Offering recommendations for “new ways to make these museums more useful to the university community,” it concludes with a half dozen alternatives for the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University, which might be applicable to sites that are not affiliated with universities (swap “campus” and “students” with “community” and “residents”).  By the way, the Center is hosting an intriguing colloquium in May 2015 on “lost museums“.

Future of Historic Sites Forum Journal 2014In 1949, Congress created the National Trust for Historic Preservation to Continue reading

Changing Attitudes About History one Grizzly at a Time

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Politics and Prose, the famous independent bookstore in Washington DC, hosted a booksigning for Tim Grove, chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, that attracted seventy-five listeners this past Saturday.  It’s not often that museum folks share a stage that recently included Patrick Buchanan, Timothy Geithner, Lynn Sherr, and Michelle Obama.  His talk will be aired on C-Span.

A self-professed history geek, Tim shares his love for history in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), a collection of stories from his years working at Colonial Williamsburg, Missouri Historical Society, National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History.   Tim wants to improve the public image of history by demonstrating the fun of history and “help history haters change their minds.” To do this requires provoking a deeper thinking about historical programs and activities to better link past and present  As he states in his book,

The staff at [Colonial] Williamsburg and other history sites wants visitors to “experience” history.  What does this mean?  One can visit Yosemite National Park and experience the beauty and grandeur of nature.  One can go whitewater rafting and experience the rush of the river and the cold wetness of the water as it splashes the face.  But experiencing history?  Do you experience history when you walk the hallowed ground of a battlefield or visit a historical house?  Experience in verb form implies action.  What action is actually taking place?

Tim demonstrates that “action” through a wide assortment of stories, from conquering a high wheel bicycle and questioning the significance of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to navigating the legacy of Lewis and Clark, and yes, unpacking a grizzly bear Continue reading