Category Archives: Historical interpretation

Video: Virtual researchers at work at Huntington Library

This 1:30 video features a video projected on a table showing scholars at work behind-the-scenes as part of a small exhibition on research and conservation at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. It was installed a few years ago in the former board room of the historic library building and is another example of the expanded ways that video is being used in exhibitions (it’s not just a tv monitor anymore).

You may notice that there’s no one in the exhibition. I do deliberately take photos of exhibitions without people so that the entire design can be seen, however, I also take them with people to show how they interact with the content. In this instance, it was a busy day but very few people wandered in and when they did, it was a quick glance and then back out–despite the cleverness of the video projection.  I can perhaps guess at the reasons—located off to the side, uninteresting topic, and passive experience—but it could also be a lost opportunity to do something more intriguing and distinctive.

Look again at the video. What’s distinctive about the exhibition? Continue reading

What Can Historic Sites Learn From Geography?

You’d think historic sites and geography would be an obvious combination because they both focus on place, and yet, I didn’t really see the connection until a few years ago when I started teaching at George Washington University. Joe Downer, an archaeologist at Mount Vernon who was participating in my historic house museum class, inspired me with his work using ArcGIS and their annual conference. By coincidence, I was conducting research for my anthology on interpreting African American history and culture and encountered useful articles in the Journal of Historical GeographySoutheastern Geographer, and Geographical Review. Finally, my wife became the Executive Director of the Society of Woman Geographers, which introduced me to lots of geographers across the United States (you mean they don’t just create maps?). As a result, I’ve increasingly used geographical along with historical approaches in my courses and in the business and interpretive plans I develop for my clients.

Next month, I’m diving in deeper by attending a conference of geography conferences: 2018 International Geographical Union (IGU) Regional Conference; Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) Annual Meeting; and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) Annual Conference (or as they say in Quebec, Congrès régional de l’UGI – Congrès annuel de l’ACG – Congrès annuel du NCGE). Yes, it’ll be in Quebec, so I’m a bit nervous that the language and content will be foreign to me. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged by the preliminary program, which lists dozens of presentations that immediately appealed to me (and they’re in English!): Continue reading

Exhibition: Unseen: Our Past in a New Light

UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light at National Portrait Gallery (2018)

Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar are exhibiting a series of their contemporary paintings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery that explore how American history could be interpreted, using the perspective of African American history and Native American history.  The works are large and dramatic, clearly conveying counter-narratives or stories that often overlooked or ignored. As a historian, much of it resonated with me but I did wonder if others found it puzzling or undecipherable. But surprisingly, many people read the labels and it may be because there was enough of an image that was familiar but the rest of it was mysterious, so they sought answers in the labels.

In case you can’t visit Unseen this year at the National Portrait Gallery, here are a few photos of the exhibition and excerpts from the labels to give you a taste (boy, they write exemplary labels at NPG!). Continue reading

Strengthen Your Interpretive Themes with these Tools

I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour.  It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.

Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.

Thankfully, Sam Ham, the interpretation guru from the West, wrote Continue reading

Try Question-Storming Rather Than Brainstorming

Question-storming women’s history at George Washington University.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of brainstorming, either by myself or with groups, to find creative solutions to various challenges. The technique has been around for decades and consists of listing as many ideas as possible without discussion or judgment. It can be fun and lead to some new ideas, but I’ve also found that its success is significantly shaped by who’s in the room. It’s also so focused on finding an answer that you often overlook if you’ve defined the problem correctly.

As an alternative I’ve been experimenting with question-storming, an idea pioneered by the Right Question Institute (yup, there is such a thing). They’ve designed it for K-12 teachers as a way for students to develop their analytical skills, but I’ve had success with graduate students as well. Rather than provide a list of solutions, the goal is to produce as many questions as possible about the topic or issue.  I’ve set twenty-five as the minimum, aiming for fifty questions. As in brainstorming, you don’t discuss, judge, or answer any questions—that’s done later.  For more details, Continue reading

Video: Berlin’s Memorial to Homosexual Victims of Nazism

Berlin has an incredible number of memorials, museums, and “documentation centers” that address the history and consequences of the Nazis but one that can be easily overlooked is the “Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism” (Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen) installed in the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) in 2008. From a distance, it looks like a grey concrete slab. It’s not until you walk around it that you notice a small window in which a short video plays in a loop. Even after watching it, you wouldn’t be sure what you’ve experienced until you found the low interpretive panel placed off to the side. It reads:

In German: Im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland fand eine Homosexuellen-Verfolgung onhe gleichen in der Geschichte statt. . . . Continue reading

Learn from Leading Scholars in Your Home or Office

TED Talks has spawned the renewal of lectures as an engaging form of education (who would have guessed?) and many universities and organizations are regularly sharing lectures from their public programs, staff workshops, and student courses online with the public.  They’re also a great resource for house museums and historic sites, who can use them for professional development and staff training, or to check out a potential speaker for a special event.  They might even inspire museums to record their own events and share them online.  Here are a couple programs that caught my eye: Continue reading

Video: Interactive “Book”

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).

Review: Historic House Museums in the US and UK by Linda Young (2017)

Young House MuseumsHistoric 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 underway in Indianapolis

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.