Category Archives: Books and articles

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Recent Articles on Historic Sites You May Have Missed

Stack of JournalsKnowing that most people working at historic sites don’t have access to an academic library, I thought I’d share a few articles around some major topics that caught my eye.  This is not a thorough review of the last 18 months, just a casual glance backward to highlight some studies that relate to the preservation, management, and interpretation of historic sites and house museums.

More Professors are Combining Local History and Service Learning to Engage Students

Henthorn, Thomas C. “Experiencing the City: Experiential Learning in Urban Environments.” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 3 (2014): 450-461.

Henthorn describes various student experiences to engage them in history, including a course on American urban history that combines an historical study of Flint, Michigan with an off-campus service learning project and a collections internship in automotive heritage at the Sloan Museum.

He concludes by finding that, “experience and place combine to prepare students for active citizenship.  This is arguably the most difficult to instill among students and in the same way one class will not change students understanding of a subject, one experience will not awaken in students a sense of civic responsibility.  At the very least, by linking the classroom with the community, students learn to respond creatively to critical issues confronting them.  But active citizenship requires Continue reading

A Bibliography on Interpreting African American History and Culture

As many of you know, I’m assembling an anthology on the interpretation of African American history and culture at historic sites and in history museums, expected to be published by Rowman and Littlefield later this year as part of the AASLH book series.  To provide an overview of the field during the past twenty years, I’ve developed an eleven-page bibliography of published articles and books.  Although not comprehensive nor definitive, it provides a gateway to the breadth and width of the work underway in the United States for inspiration and best practices, and suggests needs and opportunities in the field.  Due to limited space, this bibliography will be reduced in the book so I wanted to provide it here for those who are interested in the expanded version.

This bibliography primarily focuses on theories and methods (the “how”) of interpreting African American history and culture at museums and historic sites, such as tours, exhibits, events, programs, videos, and websites.  Related, but not part of this bibliography, are Continue reading

Is Planning Giving You the Creeps?

Scope CreepThis afternoon at the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Seattle, Washington, I’ll be part of “Strategic Planning Made Simple,” a panel session discussing approaches to designing and implementing strategic plans with Liz Maurer (National Women’s Museum), Laurie Baty (National Capital Radio and Television Museum), and Steve Shwarzman (Institute of Library and Museum Services).  I’ll be highlighting four ways to overcome “planning creep,” the seemingly inevitable and invisible force that pulls you away from your goals:

1.  Adopting a Meaningful Purpose and Vision.  Strategic plans have been with us for nearly a century, first for military purposes and then adopted by businesses in the 1970s.  It’s now pretty clear that planning without a purpose is a wasted effort and now you’ll find both businesses and non-profit organizations adopting “mission statements.”  While mission statements are needed, not all mission statements are helpful.  I’ll be outlining the six elements of a Continue reading

Video: David McCullough’s 5 Lessons Every High School Student Show Know

In this 5:17 video, author David McCullough shares the five most important ideas high school students should learn before graduating (and it’s not memorizing dates and quotations).  This was recorded by CSPAN at the 2011 National Book Festival.

Interpreting African American History at Your Site or Museum?

Every day Drayton Hall offers "Connections," a 45-minute program that traces the story of Africans from Africa to the new world and into the 20th century.

Every day Drayton Hall offers “Connections,” a 45-minute program that traces the story of Africans from Africa to the new world and into the 20th century.

If you’ve been involved with the planning, development, presentation, or evaluation of an outstanding exhibit, program, or project interpretation of African American history and culture at a museum or historic site in the last five years, consider sharing it as a case study for a book I’m editing for Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.  This book will be part of a series on the interpretation of various topics published by the American Association for State and Local History that are slated for release later this year.  The first part of the book will be a wide-ranging anthology of articles written by experts and scholars from a variety of perspectives, including Bernard Powers, Matthew Pinsker, Kristin Gallas, James DeWolf Perry, George McDaniel, Amanda Seymour, Donna Graves, Julia Rose, and Lila Teresa Church with a foreword written by Lonnie Bunch.  If you know any of these people, you know it’ll be an interesting and thought-provoking book.

I need help with the second half of the book: a set of 12-16 case studies of exemplary programs that can be adapted by others.  Are you aware of any Continue reading

Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate” Free on iPad

A multi-touch version of Resonate is available free on iPad.

A multi-touch version of Resonate is available free on iPad.

Nancy Duarte is one of the leading producers of presentations, including the Academy Award-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore.  There may not be agreement on climate change, but everyone was impressed by the quality of that documentary.  Duarte has shared her expertise through Slide:ology and Resonate, and these books have not only helped me improve and enhance my Powerpoint presentations but also my interpretation skills.  Her approach is firmly grounded in the techniques of effective communication, which can be applied to many situations at museums and historic sites.  If you’re not familiar with Nancy Duarte, she explains her ideas in an 18-minute presentation at TEDxEast in 2011.

The good news for iPad owners is a “multi-touch” version of Resonate is available free through iBooks.  All of the content from the book is supplemented with videos, quizzes, backstories, and other interactive experiences to better engage you.  You’ll not only learn about building better presentations and communicating more effectively, but you’ll also experience an example of one of the most effective eBooks available.  If you’re not sure how to do this, open the iBooks application and search the Store for “Resonate by Nancy Duarte”.

AASLH Award Winners

Lee Wright at the History List created a Slideshare presentation of the 87 history projects that will be receiving awards today from the American Association for State and Local History at their annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.   You’ll see exhibits, books, websites, preservation projects, outdoor multimedia tours, and much, much more.  It’s an easy way to get ideas for your museum and historic site (perhaps your staff can watch it over lunch together?).

Lee also mentioned that he’ll be offering the “Make this Holiday Historic” at the History List again in December to promote events, gifts, and membership at historic sites and house museums but may include some tweaks to make it more engaging.  If you are interested in participating (I especially encourage sites that are in a city or region that’s a tourist destination), contact Lee@TheHistoryList.com.