Category Archives: Story

Historic House Museums a Special Focus for the Public Historian

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

The May 2015 issue of the Public Historian was just released and provides a dozen articles related to historic house museums.  Lisa Junkin Lopez, associate director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and guest editor of this special issue, provides the criteria that helped her select the articles and her vision of historic house museums:

Though a number of sites have turned to revenue-generating activities like weddings and farmers’ markets to stay afloat, rigorous historical content has not necessarily been quashed in favor of parlor room cocktail hours and heirloom tomato beds. Many sites have recommitted to the project of excavating their own histories, digging deeper to find relevance with contemporary audiences and identifying new methods for engagement along the way.

The individual essays are case studies of various projects at historic house museums, but many question and even break the basic assumptions of museum practices and historic preservation standards.  This shift will need to be watched because Continue reading

Is Historic Preservation Ready to Preserve Culture as well as Architecture?

Sustaining San Francisco's Living History by San Francisco Heritage

Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History by San Francisco Heritage

The fundamental boundaries of historic preservation have been significantly expanded by San Francisco Heritage, one of the country’s leading historic preservation organizations. In Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets, they state that, “Despite their effectiveness in conserving architectural resources, traditional historic preservation protections are often ill-suited to address the challenges facing cultural heritage assets. . . Historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor does it protect against rent increases, evictions, challenges with leadership succession, and other factors that threaten longtime institutions.”   In an effort to conserve San Francisco’s non-architectural heritage, historic preservation must consider “both tangible and intangible [elements] that help define the beliefs, customs, and practices of a particular community.” Did you notice the expanded definition?  Here it is again:  “Tangible elements may include a community’s land, buildings, public spaces, or artwork [the traditional domain of historic preservation], while intangible elements may include organizations and institutions, businesses, cultural activities and events, and even people [the unexplored territory].”

With many historic preservation organizations, it’s all about the architecture so protecting landscapes, public spaces, and artwork is already a stretch.  They’re often not aware that Continue reading

Changing Attitudes About History one Grizzly at a Time

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Politics and Prose, the famous independent bookstore in Washington DC, hosted a booksigning for Tim Grove, chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, that attracted seventy-five listeners this past Saturday.  It’s not often that museum folks share a stage that recently included Patrick Buchanan, Timothy Geithner, Lynn Sherr, and Michelle Obama.  His talk will be aired on C-Span.

A self-professed history geek, Tim shares his love for history in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), a collection of stories from his years working at Colonial Williamsburg, Missouri Historical Society, National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History.   Tim wants to improve the public image of history by demonstrating the fun of history and “help history haters change their minds.” To do this requires provoking a deeper thinking about historical programs and activities to better link past and present  As he states in his book,

The staff at [Colonial] Williamsburg and other history sites wants visitors to “experience” history.  What does this mean?  One can visit Yosemite National Park and experience the beauty and grandeur of nature.  One can go whitewater rafting and experience the rush of the river and the cold wetness of the water as it splashes the face.  But experiencing history?  Do you experience history when you walk the hallowed ground of a battlefield or visit a historical house?  Experience in verb form implies action.  What action is actually taking place?

Tim demonstrates that “action” through a wide assortment of stories, from conquering a high wheel bicycle and questioning the significance of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to navigating the legacy of Lewis and Clark, and yes, unpacking a grizzly bear Continue reading

Can the Exploratorium Help Us Explore History?

Last week I visited the Exploratorium in its new home on Pier 15 in San Francisco. If you haven’t veen there, it’ll seem like a science center but you’ll quickly discover it’s really a place about learning, especially through direct experiences with art, tinkering, and phenomena (yep, that’s how they describe it).  It’s an incredibly active place (almost to the point of overwhelming) that seems to effectively engage its visitors, so I continually watch to see if any of their exhibits or ideas can be applied to historic sites or history museums.  During my latest visit, I found two exhibits that with a mild tweak could be really be innovative for interpreting history.

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1.  Question Bridge:  Black Males.  This temporary exhibit is, “comprised of many individuals asking and answering questions about the experience of black men in modern America.”  Inside the small dark room are Continue reading

Video: Luminous Hall

The Centenary of the University of Western Australia was celebrated with “Luminous Hall” on February 8, 2013, a 20-minute performance created by Illuminart.   Luminous Hall is a “narrative architectural projection” on the exterior of the historic Winthrop Hall that combines mapped projection with music, stories, and drama interpreting the history of the university and local community. Moving beyond son et lumier, the form engages the viewer in history in an extraordinary way.  Other examples using Norwood Town Hall and a Night Mural Picnic are available.

Video: The Royal Castle

In honor of Historic Preservation month, the videos in May will feature related topics, starting with “The Royal Castle: From Destruction to Reconstruction” by Novina Studio. This 2:28 animation traces the destruction of this historical monument by the Nazis in World War II to its reconstruction in 1974. Simple and dramatic, it provides a quick history of the site.

The Many Flavors of Touring Historic Places

Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.

Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.

Although guided tours of period rooms is the most common form of interpretation at historic sites, audio tours, video tours, and virtual tours are growing in popularity thanks to technologies that are lowering the cost of production and increasing access to new audiences.  From a short list of examples, the students in my “historic site interpretation” class at George Washington University developed a list of ten best practices for different types of tours of historic sites.  You’ll discover that many of their suggestions emphasize the need for a plan, themes, and a focus–and projects that failed to have these elements were weaker and less effective.

A.  Guided Tours of Period Rooms

Reviewed by Johanna Bakmas, Melissa Dagenais, Emma Dailey

Suggested Best Practices

  1. Develop an interpretive plan and themes
  2. Consult primary sources for the property
  3. Decide whether to have reproduction or original pieces Continue reading

WebWise Attracts 400 Museums, Libraries, and Research Orgs

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This week I was fortunate to spend two days in Baltimore with 400 persons representing museums, libraries, archives, and research organizations from 40 states at WebWise, the annual conference hosted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  This is always one of my favorite conferences and despite a rapid sell-out, I was able to snag a seat.

There seems to be a growing number of history museums and historic sites attending WebWise, and perhaps that’s due to increased recognition that digital technologies are no longer a fad but an essential part of a successful organization (indeed, one of the presenters remarked that staff with technology in their titles are rising up to senior levels with more frequency).  Among the history organizations represented this year are the American Continue reading

Pine Point: Interpreting a Vanished Town

Pine Point, an interactive Web documentary by The Goggles.

Last week I had a chance to visit Bill Adair, director of the Heritage Philadelphia Program and one of the co-authors of the new book, Letting Go?:  Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World.  As usual, we had a wide ranging discussion which included his interest in the work of The Goggles, an award-winning Canadian design group headed by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons.  He was particularly taken by “Pine Point,” an interactive web documentary about a northern mining town that closed in 1988 and was demolished.  Through oral histories, documents, video, and artifacts, the story of this ghost town is told in a mesmerizing scrapbook style.  If you’re looking for a way to interpret a place in a new way on the Web, this might provide some inspiration.

Engaging Exhibits: An Experimental Approach at the Smithsonian Institution

Andrew Pekarik discussing a new theory of visitor typologies to the education staff at the National Air and Space Museum.

Yesterday I had lunch with Tim Grove, the Chief of Interpretation at the National Air and Space Museum and author of the History Bytes column in History News, to catch up on various things.  We were discussing my current puzzling out of methodologies for my book on interpretive planning for historic sites and discussing Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” when he mentioned that I might be interested in joining his staff meeting that afternoon.  Andrew Pekarik in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian was giving a presentation on a new theory for visitor engagement–would I like to come?   Absolutely!

Andy’s presentation was a short 30 minutes but was incredibly intriguing.  It’s based on dozens of evaluations on various exhibits at several different Smithsonian exhibits and is currently being independently verified, but the framework is public and was published with Barbara Mogel in the October 2010 issue of Curator as “Ideas, Objects, or People?  A Smithsonian Exhibition Team Views Visitors Anew.”  Here’s the new framework in a nutshell: Continue reading