Category Archives: Historical interpretation

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.

Upcoming Workshops Just for Historic House Museums (plus Big Discount Today)

Wheelwright House was built in 1780 at Strawbery Banke Museum inIf you’re looking to sharpen your house museum or historic site, AASLH is offering two workshops in the next couple months that are just for you.  I’m co-teaching in both of them, but discussing very different topics:

Reinventing the Historic House Museum” on March 22, 2017 at Cliveden in Philadelphia, PA.  Ken Turino and I will explore techniques, processes, and examples for reimaging historic house museums, using Cliveden as a case study and exercises that are based on your historic site.  Unfortunately, this workshop has already sold out with fifty participants, however, additional workshops are under consideration in other regions.

Historic House Museum Issues and Operations” on April 6-7, 2017 at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. George McDaniel and I provide a broad overview of the management of house museums, which I consider one of the most complex responsibilities in the museum field (who else puts their most important object outside 24/7?).  We cover a lot of territory in two days, from boards to fundraising, from collections to interpretation, from sustainability to disaster preparedness.  It’s ideal for those who are opening a house museum or a new director of a house museum, but I’ve found that even those who are working in established house museums benefit because it allows you to step back and get the big picture. With more than three dozen historic houses from the 17th to the 20th century, the Strawbery Banke Museum is a great place to study house museums of every variety, plus Portsmouth is a charming New England town.  Registration is $270 members/$385 nonmembers, but you get $40 off registration if you book by March 2.  If you can act fast, you can save an additional $50 off of the early-bird rate (that’s $90) if you book today (midnight, Thursday, February 23) by using the code “HHMFlash.”

These two workshops are offered annually and travel around the country, often at the request from a historic site or house museum.  If you’d like to bring one of these workshops to your region, contact Amber Mitchell at AASLH at 615-320-3203 x 814.

 

Delaware Historical Society Cleverly Interprets One Object Two Way

Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.

Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.

The Delaware Historical Society reopened their museum last fall with two new complementary exhibitions designed by the Gecko Group, one a comprehensive history of the state and the other on the history of African Americans in Delaware.  I recently visited the museum with Scott Loehr, the CEO, who pointed out a clever interpretive technique.  The two exhibitions share a common wall, which has a doorway that allows visitors to walk from one to the other and exhibit cases on either side. It’s not immediately obvious, but the objects on display are interpreted differently depending on which side of the wall you’re standing.

For example, a Crown Stone from the Pennsylvania-Maryland Border has a two-sided label. The side facing Continue reading

Video: How to Visit a Museum

Nick Gray at Museum Hack recently published this 2:27 video on how to visit a museum, which is surprisingly similar to how I visit them.  I LOVE museums but my friends are often disappointed that I’ll read the introductory label and then just walk through the galleries non-stop. You might assume I’m just a “streaker” but just like Gray, it’s to get an overall sense of the exhibits so I can choose where to spend my time. I’ve learned you can’t spend an equal amount of time on everything in a museum so I have to choose what will give me the most enjoyment and the best experience.  I’ll visit the galleries a second time, stopping at those objects or topics that most interested me in my initial run-through (but always allow for serendipitous exploration).   Still, it’s hard to fight museum fatigue and mental overload after a couple hours, but that’s what museum restaurants are for.

I do something similar for historic sites, but in this case I’m analyzing the architecture and landscape to figure out how circulation, organization, views, and alignments are expressed through design (a particular interest of mine).  That’s why I often become frustrated by guided tours of period rooms, whose slow circuitous crawl through a dozen rooms leaves me disoriented (and bored, sorry).

How do you visit museums and historic sites?  What experiences helped you understand them better or enjoy them more? Share them in the comments below.

NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch Named a Washingtonian of the Year

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

The January 2017 issue of Washingtonian, the magazine for the Washington DC region, named Lonnie Bunch as one of its “eleven locals whose commitment to helping others makes Washington a better place to live.” Usually the list is made up of wealthy philanthropists, sports figures, political leaders, and education reformers, so it was a nice surprise to see an historian who works at a museum named among its most benevolent in a city full of history and museums .

Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall and whose continuing popularity makes admission one of the hottest tickets in town.  Bunch was previously the president of the Chicago Historical Society and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the California African American Museum, where I first met him twenty years ago when I was conducting research on jazz bands in 1920s Los Angeles.  I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with him, which often happen as happy accidents through a last-minute invitation to dinner in Chicago, running into him during the Folklife Festival, or sharing a car ride with him to the airport in Charleston.  So I was delighted when he agreed to write the foreword for my first book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

Washingtonian recognizes Bunch for his effort to find a spot on the Mall for the museum, raising much of the $270 million to match Congress’ contribution, and attracting donations from people across America.  I also know him as a Continue reading

Lefferts Historic House features Monument to the Unelected

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“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.

AASLH/MMA Meeting Recovery and Recap

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It took me several days to recover from my conference hop in Detroit last week.  I’m not sure why I ended each day exhausted. Was a joint meeting of the Michigan Museums Association and the American Association for State and Local History too rich for my brain cells? Was it the non-stop activities from 7 am to 9 pm? Was it the Cobo Conference Center, so large that I had walk two city blocks to a session after entering the building? No matter the cause, I was a mindless zombie for a couple days afterward but I did have a great time.  I’ll definitely be at AASLH next year in Austin, Texas.

The use of Twitter grew tremendously at the conference.  I heard that more than 1,500 tweets went out from sessions, so many that AASLH created a summary via Storify (and further proof that Twitter isn’t just for the young digerati).  I experimented with Periscope, which provides a live video feed on Twitter. I’m still getting the hang of it (first rule: be sure you’re pointing the phone camera at the scene, not looking down at your feet, when you’re fussing with the phone to start recording).  I was skeptical about its ability to attract an audience but surprisingly lots of people watched it immediately (Periscope provides statistics both during and after recordings; 96 people watched my video of the exhibit hall). You definitely will want to see how you might want to use this smartphone application for promoting events, lectures, and programs at your museum or site. Everywhere on the web a Tweet can go, a Periscope can go, too.

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Tom Segrue’s plenary presentation about Detroit’s history also included observations about the impact of racial segregation, manufacturing, and economic redevelopment has had on its successes and failures, which is a cautionary example to other cities around the country.  My hometown of Rockville, Maryland is much smaller than Detroit, but I immediately saw the parallels around segregation and redevelopment for the last 50 years. His book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, has mostly attracted the attention of academic historians (and a couple prestigious awards), but preservationists and public historians should learn about him as well because of his analysis of downtown revitalization efforts and gentrification. His presentation is now available free from AASLH via SoundCloud and iTunes.  AASLH has provided another dozen audio recordings of sessions from this meeting, many that relate to house museums and historic sites, and in a month the webinars of selected sessions will be available. Thanks, AASLH!

I was involved with a couple sessions during the conference and in case you missed them, I’m sharing the handouts of resources and contact information that we distributed:

I also learned a lot, both in the sessions and in the hallways chatting with friends, so I’ll be sharing those in future posts so this annual meeting will continue to live on for a few more weeks.

Cruisin’ and Musin’ in Motown with AASLH

detroitI’ll be in Detroit for the next few days enjoying the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  I’ve been a member for about 40 years and I don’t think I’ve missed a conference during the last decade—does this make me a history nerd?

I hear this conference will be among the largest in AASLH’s recent memory and in partnership with the Michigan Museums Association, they’ve assembled some intriguing sessions and events.  As usual, I’ll have to split myself to attend several sessions at the same time but spending Saturday afternoon at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village will be the highlight.

Of course, seeing friends and colleagues from around the country is always great fun (sometimes it seems the entire conference is just one long reunion) and if you’ll be attending, I’d love to chat.  I’ll be at the evening events on Wednesday and Thursday, plus I’ll be participating in two sessions this year: Continue reading