Category Archives: Resources

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

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: Finding a Museum’s IRS Form 990

This blog shares lots of the intriguing ideas that I encounter at house museums and historic sites in my travels, and often they’re best explained through video. How else can you really understand how a hands-on activity works or how visitors behave during a tour? I’ve shared plenty of videos created by others but this past year I’ve been learning how to create my own videos for the museum field, using my ever-present iPhone to shoot video snippets, mastering ScreenFlow, and studying how others create videos on YouTube (e.g., Peter McKinnon, Curtis Judd, DottoTech, and Video Creators).  Now my efforts have been nudged along by the classes I’ve started to teach this year at George Washington University where I’m incorporating “flipped learning” approaches to move some of my lectures online to devote as much time in the classroom to group discussions and activities.

I shared one of my initial forays into video creation several months ago on a cool interactive technique from a traveling exhibition at the Indiana State Museum and this week I’m posting two more videos which are a bit more complex.  I’m hoping my videos will improve over time but I do want to maintain their “hand-crafted” nature so they stays personal (in other words, the quality should get better but don’t expect “high production values”).

I created today’s video for my museum studies classes to help students find the Form 990, Continue reading

Update: Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties

The National Park Service has issued an updated version of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring, and Reconstructing Historic Buildings (whew!).  Last revised in 1992, it was recently updated as part of NPS’s “A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement”.

The revised standards more fully develop topics in the previous editions, address the treatment of buildings of the last half of the twentieth century (which introduced new materials and systems, such as composites and curtain walls), include building code-required work, and eliminated energy efficiency (which is now addressed in 2011 in the Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings).  The Standards provide guidance for the maintenance, care, or remodeling that might occur through an illustrated set of recommended or discouraged practices easily understood by architects, contractors, staff, and board members. A big thanks to NPS and Anne Grimmer for providing these new guidelines.  They’re free online and every house museum in America should adopt these Standards to help preserve and maintain their buildings and structures.

The Standards are designed to guide work on buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but I’ve used them Continue reading

Flex Your Pride, History Nerds!

The History List recently debuted an online store that will warm the hearts of history nerds, both conservative and radical.  You’ll find autographed history books; bright red t-shirts declaring “History Major” or “History Nerd,” as well as a “Declaration of Independence” temporary tattoo that covers your entire back (and you can even add your own signature).  The tattoos sold out immediately but you can sign up to be notified when they’re back in stock.

Your purchases support the operation and expansion of The History List, which helps attract new visitors and members to historic sites and history organizations across the country. This is all provided free by Lee Wright, who started The History List back in 2011 to get more people engaged with history and historic preservation by connecting them to the thousands of local history organizations and historic sites across the country.

Third Edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History Arrives with a Thud

Encyclopedia of Local HistoryThe latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History just arrived with a thud on my doorstep. Weighing nearly three pounds and two inches think, it’s a small beast. I served on the advisory board, suggested writers, and contributed entries and photographs, but didn’t realize what a hefty book it would become until a copy arrived at my door.  At 800 pages, the third edition added another 150 pages to the second edition of 2013, so if this keeps up, the fourth edition will need a handle.

Edited by Amy Wilson, the Encyclopedia is a wide-ranging assortment of definitions, topics, organizations, primary sources, historical approaches, and individual state histories, along with appendices on studying various ethnic groups and religion, and contact information for state historical societies and National Archives facilities.  Certainly it’s a reference tool for “local history” jargon that you might be able to find online (what is “historical thinking” or “repatriation” or “Soundex”?)  but it also contains mini-articles on provocative subjects (such as “Building Bridges through Local History” by George McDaniel, “Local Historical Societies and Core Purpose” by Anne Ackerson, or “Museums and Families” by Linda Norris).  The contributors are among the best people in our field, so the information is solid.  You’ll not only want to use it to look up a term occasionally but to let it open to a random page to explore the many aspects of local history (Cyndi’s list? fakelore? social purity? Tweedsmuir History Prize?).

At $145, it’s not a book everyone can afford, but it would be great addition to a reference library of a historical society or local public library.

What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for IMLS?

IMLS LogoPresident-elect Trump continues to demonstrate that he doesn’t plan to govern like his predecessors, having recently nominated department heads who are at odds with the mission of their departments.  What does that mean for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), whose Director and its National Museum and Library Services Board are appointed by the President and whose authorization and funding are approved by the President?  Most house museums and historic sites know IMLS for its grant programs (e.g., Museums for America) but they also conduct research on the state of the museum field (e.g., museum database); tackle national issues that are important to museums (e.g, preservation of collection, digital platforms); and fund the Museum Assessment Program (managed by the American Alliance of Museums) and Collections Assessment for Preservation Program (managed by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works).


September 11 Memorial Museum visits by President Obama in 2014 and Presidential candidate Trump in 2016. Note the differences in how the groups are moving through the museum.

At this point, it seems President Trump will have little interest in museums or libraries, which could be good or bad, depending on Continue reading

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.


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

Wikipedia Welcoming Historic Sites and Landmarks This Month

wike-loves-monuments-2016Wikipedia, 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?).