Category Archives: Collections

AASLH Annual Meeting Provokes Historical Thinking

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always offers a good mix of educational sessions, social events, and opportunities to visit museums and historic sites around the country.  This year, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), prompted an ongoing discussion with his plenary address on the first day of the annual meeting.  Through his research on students and scholars, he showed that the analysis of historical documents is a sophisticated skill that isn’t apparent to most people (and I can confidently say this also applies to objects, buildings, and landscapes).  He went on to argue that teaching people to think historically isn’t about teaching history but making them better citizens.  John Dichtl, president of AASLH, discusses this further on the AASLH blog.

These ideas were pursued the next day at a packed session facilitated by Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum.  Using excerpts from Wineburg’s book, Tim encouraged a lively dialogue that allowed me to report out 15 Tweets, including:

  • Historical thinking: multiple perspectives; analysis of sources; context; and based on evidence.
  • Are we underestimating visitors if we don’t give them oppty to debate ideas & issues at museums/historic sites?
  • Debates always happen, but history gets flattened over time. Build multiple perspectives, uncertainty, & questions into exhibits.
  • Asking good provocative questions is a skill. Learn more at the Right Question Institute.
  • Challenge for marketing & communications staff about handling provocative topics in social media era.
  • Are museums & sites imposing their ideology on visitors? Have we become arrogant? Do we need to learn about visitor interests?

which resulted in 31 favorites and 20 retweets.  Just to be clear, these ideas didn’t come from me but from the persons gathered in the room.  I could have tweeted out many more but I couldn’t listen and type them out quickly at the same time.

If you weren’t able to attend, there’s next year in Detroit.  In the meantime, enjoy these snaps from the recent meeting in Louisville (and thanks to everyone at the Kentucky Historical Society for being such gracious hosts).

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National Archives Should Allow Photography in Exhibits IMHO

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

Last weekend I went to see “Spirited Republic,” a temporary exhibit at the National Archives about the history of alcohol in the United States.  I’m interested in the history of food and knew the Archives would dig up some interesting materials. It was a worthwhile visit but ugh, right at the entrance is a sign declaring “no photography.”  This isn’t unusual for temporary exhibits because they may contain materials that are protected by copyright or have objects on loan.  In this exhibit, however, everything was drawn from the collections of the Archives or had fallen out of copyright.  If I went around the building to the Research Room, I could retrieve any of the items on display and make photographs without question.  Secondly, most of the items are historic governmental or administrative documents, which don’t encourage selfies or other distractions.  Photographs would most likely be taken by people who were really interested in the subject and wanted an image for reference.  If they’re worried about light damage, people can be warned not to take flash photos (and studies by conservators show that flash photography has to reach excessive levels to cause significant damage, so this is usually an unfounded concern).  If they’re worried about security, everyone has already been screened in the usual DC way and guards are posted throughout the exhibit.  Finally, photography is one of the only areas of creative activity that’s growing in the US (bucking the declines in sewing, painting, pottery, or music according to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the Archives has a rich trove of content for inspiration (and it helps publicize their exhibits and collections). The “no photography” makes absolutely no sense at the National Archives.  Instead, the National Archives should assume that  photography will be allowed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so.  Just follow the same rules as in your Research Rooms.

Prohibitions on photography isn’t the only stumbling block to public access and historical interpretation at the National Archives–I’m sensing a growing use of Continue reading

Historic House Museums a Special Focus for the Public Historian

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

The May 2015 issue of the Public Historian was just released and provides a dozen articles related to historic house museums.  Lisa Junkin Lopez, associate director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and guest editor of this special issue, provides the criteria that helped her select the articles and her vision of historic house museums:

Though a number of sites have turned to revenue-generating activities like weddings and farmers’ markets to stay afloat, rigorous historical content has not necessarily been quashed in favor of parlor room cocktail hours and heirloom tomato beds. Many sites have recommitted to the project of excavating their own histories, digging deeper to find relevance with contemporary audiences and identifying new methods for engagement along the way.

The individual essays are case studies of various projects at historic house museums, but many question and even break the basic assumptions of museum practices and historic preservation standards.  This shift will need to be watched because Continue reading

AAM Provides Update on the Direct Care Debate, but no Solution

Direct Care“Direct Care” is the most troubling word in the museum lexicon but it doesn’t look like the specially-charged task force at the American Alliance of Museums will be able to resolve it, according to their recent update:

The Direct Care Task Force met during the Alliance annual meeting in Atlanta to discuss the results of the opinion survey conducted in February and to frame the forthcoming White Paper. Their lively and thoughtful discussions covered discipline-specific issues, philosophies and viewpoints, and frequently went back to the topic of financially motivated deaccessioning.

Representatives from New Knowledge, the non-profit think tank and planning group that conducted the survey for AAM, presented their findings and analysis of the data.A very broad range of museum types and job functions were represented by the survey’s 1258 respondents.

• Nearly three quarters of the respondents identified their primary role in the museumindustry as responsible for Collections (74.1%) while a quarter (24.4%) hold executive office. Nearly all the remaining respondents hold primary roles that are either executive or managerial; a handful are in other roles.

• The types of museum participating broke down as: History 32%; Art 28%; Specialized, Multi-disciplinary or visitor center 17%; Natural History 11%; Science/Technology 5%; Arboretum/ Botanical or Public Garden 4%; Children’s / Youth 2%; Aquarium/Zoo 1%.

Before seeing the results, the Task Force hypothesized that a respondent’s position in an organization and the discipline of participating institutions would influence the outcome of the survey. However, the analysis found no statistical differences. In examining both the open-ended responses and general ratings, it appears that respondents were most likely considering their audience, the Alliance, and answering altruistically as professionals in the field rather than as representatives of a particular disciplinary viewpoint.

Survey results showed 1) a few areas of consensus from a statistical perspective and 2) a vast gray area. The most common of the open-ended final comments expressed appreciation for the timeliness of the survey and the need for resolving the parameters for direct care. As a result, the Task Force focused on identifying guiding principles and criteria for decision-making, not creating a definitive yes/no list or a singular definition of “direct care.”

The survey results provided the Task Force with a useful scan of the attitudes on the issue of direct care and acquisition costs, from a wide variety of viewpoints. They will inform the White Paper to be released in the spring of 2016. The Task Force agreed that the White Paper should not be prescriptive but should clarify the ethical issues surrounding the topic of direct care and provide guidance for museums in their decision-making.

Looks like they’re agreeing to disagree and won’t be Continue reading

Looking to Improve the Deaccessioning Process at Your Site?

collections avalancheThe Active Collections group is developing a new model to streamline the deaccessioning process, but they need information about current practices at house museums and historic sites to figure out how to best go about this.  If you’d like to share what’s happening at your institution as well as your thoughts on the process and impact of decessioning, please take their online survey.  This is part of a field-wide survey, so we really want to be sure historic sites and house museums are well represented.  To learn more, visit ActiveCollections.org.

If You Visit the Netherlands, Get a MuseumKaart

Museum KaartI’ve just returned from a week-long study trip to the Netherlands, a whirlwind visit that included nearly two dozen museums and historic sites, thanks to the MuseumKaart.  This card provides free (and sometimes discounted) admission at most museums in the Netherlands for a year.  It can be purchased at any participating museum for €55 and although it was a lot of money to pass over on my first day, I received it back quickly because admission fees range from €5 (Edam Museum) to €17.50 (Rijksmuseum).  As a museum geek, they definitely lost money with me. Even better, it’s good for a year, unlike the 1-3 day “I am Amsterdam” card, so there’s no rush.  The card not only saved me money, but encouraged me to see places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, such as the Museum of Bags and Purses or the Willet-Holthuysen Museum.

My week in the Netherlands was provocative and I’ll be sharing some of the best and most interesting experiences in the coming weeks.  In general, museums and historic sites in the Netherlands seem to:

Continue reading

Video: Smithsonian’s Museum Goes High Tech

In this 3:35 video, The Verge interviews Aaron Cope, the head of engineering, about the new high tech exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, which is in the former home of Andrew Carnegie and part of the Smithsonian Institution.  The Cooper Hewitt closed for the last three years for an extensive renovation to imagine a museum that was part of the Internet and served as a bridge to their huge 130-million-object collection.

How to Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Historic New England

Program in New England StudiesHistoric New England presents its annual Program in New England Studies (PINES), an intensive week-long exploration of New England from Monday, June 15 to Saturday, June 20, 2015.  PINES includes lectures by noted curators and architectural historians, workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and special access to historic house museums and collections. The program offers a broad approach to teaching the history of New England culture through artifacts and architecture in a way that no other museum or historic site in the Northeast can match.  It’s like the Attingham Summer School as a week in New England.

Examine New England history and material culture from the seventeenth century through the Colonial Revival with some of the country’s leading experts in regional architecture and decorative arts. Curators lecture on furniture, textiles, ceramics, and art, with information on history, craftsmanship, and changing methods of production. Architectural historians explore architecture starting with the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay style through the Federal and Georgian eras, to Gothic Revival and the Colonial Revival.

Expert presenters include: Continue reading

Are There Cultural Connections Between North and South?

Newport Symposium Banner 2015On April 26-29, 2015, the Preservation Society of Newport County (aka the Newport Mansions) is hosting a symposium on the cultural connections between the North and South from the Colonial Period to the Gilded Age as seen through furnishings, silver, textiles, painting, architecture, and interiors.  Scholars include:

  • Daniel Kurt Ackerman, Associate Curator, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts
  • Brandy Culp, Curator, Historic Charleston Foundation
  • Caryne Eskridge, Project Manager & Research Coordinator, The Classical Institute of the South
  • Stephen Harrison, Curator of Decorative Art & Design, Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
  • Alexandra Kirtley, The Montgomery Garvan Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Jefferson Mansell, Historian, Natchez National Historical Park
  • George McDaniel, Executive Director, Drayton Hall
  • George H. McNeely IV, Vice President, Strategic & International Affairs, World Monuments Fund
  • Richard Nylander, Curator Emeritus, Historic New England
  • Tom Savage, Director of Museum Affairs, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
  • Susan P. Schoelwer, Robert H. Smith Senior Curator, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Arlene Palmer Schwind, Curator, Victoria Mansion
  • Carolyn Weekley, Juli Grainger Curator, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • Martha Willoughby, Senior Specialist, Christie’s

Registration is $600 and includes an opening reception at Rosecliff (1902) and dinner in the Great Hall at the Breakers (1895).  Scholarships are available to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as arts and humanities professionals.  To register or for more information, contact symposium@NewportMansions.org or call 401-847-1000 x 160.  Tell them that you heard about it from Engaging Places and you’ll receive a 10% discount!

IMHO: The National Trust’s Collections Management Policy is Not Ready to Eat

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation adopted a new Collections Management Policy (CMP) and widely promoted it at professional conferences and in national publications as a model to house museums and historic sites to resolve some of their stewardship challenges. At its heart is,

“a new approach—one that treats the historic structures and landscapes, and the object collections, as being the same type of resource. This approach places the historic buildings and landscapes on a par with objects and documents, strengthening the interconnected stewardship and interpretation of these historic resources.”

It’s a good idea but it’s not a new approach.

American Wing at the Met featuring the 1822 Branch Bank of the US.

American Wing at the Met featuring the facade of the 1822 Branch Bank of the United States.

Early in the twentieth century, museums of various types began collecting buildings. Henry Ford moved Edison’s laboratory and the Wright Brothers bicycle shop to his Greenfield Village, John D. Rockefeller quietly bought dozens of buildings to create Colonial Williamsburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art installed the facade of the Branch Bank of the United States as the featured object of its 1924 American Wing. Much later, landscapes were considered worthy of preservation and now most historic estates, such as Casa del Herrero, Miller House and Garden, and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, treat their gardens and landscapes with the same respect as the furniture and art works at their sites.

The National Trust’s rationale for their new approach is that, “conflicts between Continue reading