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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
Wikipedia, the most frequently used source for information on the Internet, just launched a month-long campaign to improve its coverage of historic and cultural sites in the United States. Called, “Wiki Loves Monuments,” it is an international photo competition where participants capture cultural heritage monuments and upload their photographs to Wikipedia. For the first time in several years, Wiki Loves Monuments is back in the United States. The contest is inspired by the successful 2010 pilot in the Netherlands, which resulted in 12,500 freely licensed images of monuments that can now be used in Wikipedia and by anybody for any purpose. The 2012 contest in 35 countries resulted in more than 350,000 images submitted by over 15,000 participants, adding to the sum of all human knowledge gathered on Wikipedia. The contest ends on September 30, 2016.
Anyone is welcome to contribute to the project by uploading photos they’ve taken of cultural and historical sites throughout the United States. Once September is over, the best photos will win cash prizes and will be submitted to the international competition. In addition to taking photos, Wikipedia is also encouraging editors to write Wikipedia articles on historical sites and monuments as part of the event. They are also developing state-level guides to historic sites and have already created versions for California, Ohio, and Washington. Here’s a chance to fix that skimpy or inaccurate entry about your site or show a stunning photo (in my home state of Maryland, Belvoir is a particularly awful example). Better yet, engage those photographers among your members to help you promote your site and others in your community. Just remember, you’re putting this into the World Wide Web, so content will be freely and easily used by others (what will Getty Images do?).
If you’re looking for inspiration, Wikipedia is providing links to the National Register of Historic Places, Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks, and Daughters of the American Revolution Sites (hey, where are the Colonial Dames?).
One 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
Historic sites are usually skilled at explaining the history of a place, event, or person but when it comes to relevance, it can be a mixed bag. They often can’t make the leap from sharing information about the site to sharing information that’s meaningful to visitors. Historic sites have important messages to share (i.e., why does this place matter? why is it significant?). They just need to find the spots where it overlaps with issues and topics that are meaningful to visitors (what is significant to them?). That overlap is the “mutual significance” or relevance.
Relevance isn’t about topics that are “interesting.” That’s such a vague term it can be used to describe a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, a Hollywood cocktail party, or a wedding where the groom’s ex-wives are bridesmaids. Relevance isn’t about an amusing fact or story that leaves visitors smiling. “Relevance” is something that meets current needs in a practical and useful manner. It finds its origins in the Latin word for Continue reading