Category Archives: Community engagement

Analyzing Visitor Engagement Through Mapping

The July/August 2017 issue of Museum, the magazine of the American Alliance of Museums, features articles on engaging families, veterans, and LGBTQ audiences and my general article, “A Visitor’s Perspective on Visitor Engagement”. It introduces three major factors that influence visitor engagement at museums: convenience, novelty, and values. I had a limited space so I’d like to share a bit more information about the influence of convenience, the idea that the more convenient it is to visit a museum, the more likely that people will visit. It’s not just about living close by but also other effects, such as traffic, roadway patterns, museum hours of operation, finding a place to park, and ease of purchasing tickets. Nevertheless, distance is a major factor and you can see it through mapping.

In my article I referenced a couple of my clients—Cliveden (Philadelphia) and Caramoor (Katonah, New York)—and described the differences in their program participants or supporters.  Below I’m showing these differences through maps created in ArcGIS. Each red dot represents a household and for Cliveden, the map shows that the majority of their supporters live within a 30-minute drive of the site. For Caramoor, the map shows that the majority also live within 30 minutes but there is a significant number who live within 45 minutes to the south (and very few to the north). As you can see, the distance of the audience varies (in other words, the meaning of “convenience” varies). Every place is different and you have to analyze your own data to fully understand it.  As I mention in my article, convenience is also affected by novelty and values, which might explain the clustering.

Drive times from Cliveden (left) and Caramoor (right) are shown in graduated drivetimes of 30, 45, and 60 minutes.

This type of mapping also pokes a big hole in one of the most common refrains I hear at museums: “we get visitors from every state in the nation.” Unless that’s your engagement goal, it’s a nonsensical recognition of success. First of all, it’s more likely that a site’s visitors are local, not national, so they’re overlooking the obvious audience for repeat visitation and support. By mapping your visitors and supporters, you can make better decisions about promotion, programming, and fundraising. Secondly, this statement creates a false sense of success. It’s been said numerous times that attendance shouldn’t be the only measure of success and yet it often is. More important is the impact that the history of your site has had on the people who visit. If the significance of your site is insignificant to the people who visit, perhaps it’s time to rethink your purpose and goals.

Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities?

Engaging_ProgramsEducators and interpreters are increasingly expected to engage the community to build support, attract audiences, and confront contemporary issues. So how do you get started? What does an effective community engagement project look like? How do you maintain it?

On Thursday, September 7, 11:00 am – 12:15 pm at the AASLH Annual Meeting in Austin, I’ll be moderating a session that will bring together three projects—Haymarket Project in Boston, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, and El Pueblo History Museum in Colorado—to discover how they successfully engaged three different audiences in the local community—immigrants, African American descendants, and Latina teenage girls.  Joining me will be Ken Turino (Historic New England), Christian Cotz (James Madison’s Montpelier), and Dawn DiPrince (History Colorado).  Based on their experiences and with contributions from the audience, we will Continue reading

Be the Early Bird to Catch a Deal on AASLH’s Annual Meeting

Friday, July 21 is the deadline to catch the early registration price of $328 ($253 for members); it jumps to $393 the next day.  AASLH offers the widest variety of sessions and workshops for house museums and historic sites at a national level and attracts some of the best minds in the field.  This year, the annual meeting will be held in Austin, Texas from September 6-9 and include:

  • Awaken the Historic House: A Fresh Look at the Traditional Model, an afternoon workshop led by Brett Lobello of Brucemore.
  • Current Issues Forum: What Role Should Historic Sites Play in Teacher Professional Development? moderated by Sarah Jencks at the Ford’s Theatre Society.
  • Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities?, a session I’ll be moderating on different ways to engage more effectively with your local community.
  • Preserving and Interpreting Contested Histories of Missions and Missionaries moderated by Barbara Franco, an independent scholar.
  • Historic Preservation Never Ends: Practical Maintenance for Your Historic Buildings moderated by Evelyn Montgomery of the Dallas Heritage Village.
  • From Millstone to Crown Jewel: Revitalization and Transition of a “Tired” Site moderated by Mike Follin of Ohio History Connection.
  • Parks and Prejudice: The Legacy of Segregation and State Parks moderated by Cynthia Brandimarte of Texas State Parks.
  • The Great Debate: Engaging Audiences vs. Protecting Dollhouses moderated by Brandie Ragghianti of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum.
  • Lessons Learned: The Legal, Ethical, and Practical Issues Involved in Finding a New Steward for Upsala moderated by Carrie Villar of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • Open the Door! Approaches to Interpreting Historic Landscapes moderated by Sean Sawyer of the Olana Partnership.
  • Historic House Museum Affinity Group Breakfast featuring Ken Turino of Historic New England.
  • Bucking the Trend: Energizing Historic Homes in Central Texas moderated by Oliver Franklin at the Elisabet Ney Museum.

Of course, these are just a small part of the 85 sessions, keynote presentations, field trips, evening events, and an exhibit hall happening over a few days in Austin.  There’s usually much much more available than you’ll ever have time to do and I’m often torn between 2-3 sessions at the same time.

To register or for more information, visit go.aaslh.org/AMreg.  Although registration fees for this national conference are very reasonable, especially at the early registration rate, AASLH offers several scholarships to reduce expenses (although their application deadlines have already passed).  If you can’t attend, there’s also an online version where you can hear six sessions that are especially presented as webinars, including my session on Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities? (they’re not simply a broadcast of the conference session).  They’ll be available for six months and can be viewed as many times as you like at rates starting at $60.

How a Briefcase Led to a Clever Way to Conduct Visitor Research Online

Bolt Brief by WaterField Designs of San Francisco.

If you want to conduct visitor research for a potential exhibition, school program, or tour, you might want to check out WaterField Designs in San Francisco, who has been designing and manufacturing bags and cases since 1998.  A few months ago I purchased a Bolt Brief from WaterField. It’s a great bag and I recommend you check it out, but more importantly, I’ve become very impressed with their customer research and prototyping for new products, especially if the customers are all over the country. It’s an idea that can be easily adopted by museums and historic sites if they have Continue reading

Can You Create a Mission-Related Petting Zoo?

A clever storage area for odd-shaped tools and equipment at Strawbery Banke.

I just returned from leading a historic house management workshop for AASLH at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s always an opportunity to pick up some good ideas from the host institution and at Strawbery Banke, there was no shortage. Most intriguing was their Heritage House Program which restores and leases fifteen underutilized properties, creating a virtual endowment fund to support their educational programs. It’s an outstanding combination of mission and financial sustainability, earning it an award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and a feature on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

In my workshop, we discuss the importance of combining mission and sustainability using one of my favorite tools: the Double-Bottom Line.  I often joke that if historic sites just wanted to increase attendance, they might as well become petting zoos of puppies and kittens. Incredibly, Strawbery Banke has figured out how to make a mission-related puppy zoo in an event called, “Baby Animals.”  For one week, visitors can learn about a dozen heritage breeds such as Jacob sheep, Nigerian goats, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs.  No, they can’t be petted but families can watch lambs, kids, and piglets play, eat, and sleep.  For those who are really interested, there are a couple lectures and a “meet the animals” program for children ages 4 to 8 where they can have a snack, feed the animals, and create a take-home gift for $25.  What a clever idea! I’ve attached the brochure on Baby Animals at Strawberry Banke with more details.

Small Museum Association Conference Was Really Big

For the first time, College Park, Maryland hosted the annual Small Museum Association conference, which was previously held for decades in Ocean City, Maryland (a seaside resort town where the rooms are cheap in winter).  The relocation was controversial but it attracted a record attendance of 315 persons, plus the facilities at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center were much better suited for a national conference.  Not only were there a nice assortment of rooms and places to meet (not just for sessions but informal chats) but it features an outstanding art collection from the University of Maryland in its hallways, not the usual hotel pablum. Paintings and sculptures mostly by Maryland artists lined the hallways and in their own galleries, curated by Jon West-Bey (formerly at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum).  Were we in a hotel? a conference center? a museum?

While some people might assume that a conference for small museums means that it’s for beginners, you’ll find that like most professional conferences it has a variety of sessions for different levels of experience, except that it’s aimed at institutions that have a small staff and budget. Flexibility and speed are among the characteristic advantages of small museums, who sometimes forget they can innovate much faster than their bigger brethern. Some quick highlights from the education sessions I attended are: Continue reading

Videos: Keep it London vs Lives Rooted in Places

Historic England, the overseas equivalent of our preservation organizations in the US, recently launched a “Keep it London” campaign to help shape the planning of its nation’s capital, urging that, “the city must evolve by building on its unique character and identity, rather than by turning into a generic city.” The campaign contains the usual list of recommendations, solicitation for contributions and letters, and offers of updates through email and social media.  More interesting, however, is the “I am London” video that accompanies the campaign.  Listen carefully and in four minutes, you never hear the words, “history,” “preservation,” “old,” “save,” or “historic.” Instead, the faces and voices of dozens of diverse people personify buildings, giving these mute places emotion and personality.  Compare that to the approach used by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation in their video, “Lives Rooted in Places.”

Who’s the target audience for each video? Which video would resonate better with your members and donors? With your community and neighbors? Which one speaks better to outsiders than insiders?  What emotions are involved? Do they tell viewers what to think or feel, or do they let them unfold in the viewer?

Lefferts Historic House features Monument to the Unelected

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 2.25.08 PM.png

“Monument to the Unelected” by Nina Katchadourian at the Lefferts Historic House. Photo by Jaap Grolleman.

The Lefferts Historic House in New York is featuring Nina Katchadourian’s Monument to the Unelected, a temporary art exhibit consisting of 58 signs bearing the names of the losing candidates from every presidential election in American history. Designed to look like modern campaign yard signs with names boldly displayed on white corrugated plastic, Katchadorian wanted to recognize that “these markers tend to crop up in the weeks leading up to an election, after which they disappear, with some of the names going on to take office and others being largely forgotten.”  The exhibit now includes Hillary Clinton and will be on view on the house’s front lawn until this Sunday, November 13, 2016.

Lefferts Historic House is owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, operated by the Prospect Park Alliance, and is a member of the Historic House Trust. This project is supported by the Historic House Trust’s Contemporary Art Partnerships program and the New York State Council on the Arts.

More at the Prospect Park Alliance and Huffington Post, plus a Periscope video on Twitter.

Video: History is Essential

The Indiana Historical Society recently produced History is Essential, a 5:08 video that explains the value of history through interviews with teachers, business CEOs, and community leaders intercut with historic photos and films.  Thanks to John Herbst, President and CEO at the Indiana Historical Society, for sharing this at the recent History Relevance Campaign workshop in Washington, DC.

Video: Performing Art at Swan House

"When I Whistle..." by Bill Orisich and Benita Carr shot at Swan House, Atlanta History Center.

“When I Whistle…” by Bill Orisich and Benita Carr shot at Swan House, Atlanta History Center.

Swan House, the 1928 mansion at the Atlanta History Center, served as a canvas for When I Whistle…,” a site-specific performance artwork for video by Bill Orisich and Benita Carr.  The History Center partnered with the two artists on a Swan Coach House Art Gallery show called Print or Projection. They used the house as inspiration and shot everything over the course of eight nights, featuring local performance artists, original music and text. The final product, When I Whistle…, premiered at the show opening, and was projected in triptych onto three panels inside the house. Most readers may find the video strange and confusing (and there is some nudity, too) but an art critic called it “intelligent, thought-provoking, and brand new.” It’s another example of historic sites being used as a way of engaging new audiences or interpreting them in new ways. It’s not appropriate for all sites, but it’s something to keep in your toolbox of ideas.

Thanks to Jessica Rast VanLanduyt, Director of 20th Century Historic Houses (what a great title!) at the Atlanta History Center, for sharing this with us.