While I’m in Indianapolis for the Seminar for Historical Administration, I had a chance to view the “The Power of Poison“, a traveling exhibition at the Indiana State Museum. Organized by the American Museum of Natural History, it includes a wide variety of exhibition techniques but one I’ve never seen before is a “Harry Potter”-style interactive book that features moving images activated by touch as well as pages that can be turned. It’s best explained in a short video, so watch as these two girls look at the book to see what happens (and whose father told me it was their fourth visit to the exhibition).
Historic House Museums in the United States and the United Kingdom: A History by Linda Young. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. v + 299 pp.; bibliography, index; clothbound, $85.00; eBook, $80.00.
Historic house museums are one of the most popular ways that the public experiences history in the United States, although we only have a fragmentary understanding of their history. Linda Young tackles this topic not only for the United States but also the United Kingdom, with occasional examples from her homeland in Australia.
Linda Young is a senior lecturer in cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, trained as a historian focused on nineteenth-century Britain. She has also worked as a curator at several house museums. After completing a survey of house museums in Australia, she expanded her scope to include the United Kingdom and United States in order to develop transnational comparisons that would reveal patterns in the motivations for transforming private houses into public museums (a process she calls ‘‘museumization’’). Furthermore, she wanted to distinguish house museums from other types of museums, giving them a distinctiveness and prominence that the museum ﬁeld rarely considers. In a sense, she is giving house museums their own history and identity.
Her research into guidebooks, directories, Wikipedia entries, articles, and books, as well as ﬁeld trips, convinced her that there are Continue reading
Seminar for Historical Administration 2017 in Indianapolis
This year’s Seminar for Historical Administration (SHA) is meeting in Indianapolis and all of our hard work in selecting participants and presenters over the past months is coming to fruition. For three weeks in Indianapolis, a dozen people in the history field will be discussing the leading issues facing leaders and debating their solutions. I’ve assembled the schedule and directing the program, so I’m particularly excited to see how it unfolds each day. A big thanks to the dozens of people who are helping to make this extraordinary experience happen.
SHA opened on Sunday with Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage, laying out the trends in the field. She noted how much has changed in the last ten years and that our work is more important than ever. I was particularly intrigued by her insistence that the mission and vision of the organization need to be manifested not only in the public programs and activities but also in the budget and operations. For example, their interpretation of slavery during Lincoln’s era motivated them to examine modern-day slavery (human trafficking) through their award-winning SOS program for teens AND make choices about the restoration materials used in the Cottage. Afterwards, we visited the library and archives at the Indiana Historical Society and had dinner together at a local restaurant.
Yesterday, David Young, Executive Director at Cliveden and Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum discussed the opportunities and challenges for making history relevant. It seems that everyone is struggling to make this happen, either through their programming or evaluation, and perhaps the most important discovery is that we need to learn more about our audience’s interests, motivations, and needs.
Today, Pamela Napier and Terri Wada at Collabo Creative will lead us through a short workshop on “design thinking” and then we’ll visit the Indiana State Museum to meet their new CEO Cathy Ferree and visit collections, and return to the Indiana Historical Society to learn about conservation.
One of the big challenges in interpreting history is conveying the uncertainty of the future. When we look back at the past, the decisions around the pitfalls seem so obvious but at the time, it’s hazy and unclear.
My recent visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas presented an effective technique using a “touch table” to explore LBJ’s response to the Vietnam War, putting visitors in the hot seat. In this interactive activity, the President is faced with a decision, such as increasing U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, and you’re asked to advise him yes or no. On the screen you can explore primary documents, watch news reports, and when the phone rings, overhear LBJ talking about the issue. In the upper right hand corner, the clock reminds you that time matters and you can’t dawdle. After you provide your advice, you’re told what actually happened. I seemed to never give the right advice (or my good advice was ignored, depending on how you look at it), but nevertheless it was fun to have a glimpse of the moment (and thankful I didn’t have to make these decisions).
Gallagher and Associates designed the exhibition and Cortina Productions developed the interactives.
1760s Council Chamber in the Old State House in Boston. If the woman at the table looks familiar, it’s Dr. Jane Kamensky, professor of history and Pforzheimer Director of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.
The Old State House in Boston reconstructed its eighteenth century Council chamber several years ago but only recently was I able to visit as part of an advisory meeting.
The Council Chamber appears to be a typical period room from the 1760s, except that it’s actually an exhibition that requires visitors to get involved. When they sit at the Council table (yup, on those beautiful chairs), they need to handle the objects to discover the interpretive elements hidden inside.
It’s designed to provoke surprise and causes visitors, even teenagers, to look more closely. Although the restoration of the room was expensive, the techniques used are not and can easily be adapted by others who want to create an interactive hands-on activity.
Here are several before-and-after images so you can see Continue reading
Educators 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
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.
On Monday, June 5, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia opens “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” a major exhibition on the history and impact of slavery in the United States. It examines slavery both from the perspective of James Madison and his peers as well as from the 300 men, women, and children enslaved by the Madisons at Montpelier. It’s a complex and difficult story, but Montpelier has been researching and interpreting this topic for nearly 20 years. Thanks to a generous $10 million gift from David Rubenstein (co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group), that effort will be move to a higher level in this path-breaking exhibition. During the past two years, the museum staff worked closely with Proun Design, Northern Light Productions, and Mystic Scenic Studios to design, fabricate, and install the exhibition.
As an advisor and consultant to Montpelier for nearly fifteen years, I’ve watched its interpretation evolve. This exhibition is a major step forward for them and for Continue reading
The frontside of the New-York Historical Society shopping bag.
The backside of the New-York Historical Society shopping bag.
The frontside of the New-York Historical Society shopping bag.
The inside of the New-York Historical Society shopping bag.
The side of the New-York Historical Society shopping bag.
The bottom of the New-York Historical Society shopping bag.
When I recently visited the NY History Store at the New-York Historical Society, they provided me with a sturdy bag to carry my newly purchased books, but also an engaging history game. On one side of the bag are a dozen questions, such as
- Who kept live whales in Manhattan?
- Who were the Death Avenue Cowboys?
- When did slavery end in New York state?
- Why is Broadway on an angle?
- Who gave New York its famous nickname: The Empire State?
- What is New York’s first museum?
To find the answers, to either have to Continue reading
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.