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In 2007, more than two dozen national leaders of organizations that manage and support historic sites gathered at the Pocantico Conference Center at Kykuit to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing historic house museums and historic sites at the beginning of the 21st century. The outcome of the conference was a call for dramatic but responsible changes in some of the most basic professional assumptions and practices that guide the way we do business:

America’s historic sites offer unique opportunities for learning, for reflection, for inspiration. At their best, they can be powerful places that provide great value to their communities. They can offer programs, services, and experiences that are relevant to many of the most pressing issues of our day. America’s historic places should be places to nurture the human spirit.

Despite this potential, however, many of America’s historic sites are experiencing declining attendance, financial instability, and poor stewardship, and they are increasingly viewed by their communities as irrelevant and unresponsive to the societal changes around them.

To address these issues and help historic sites be relevant and responsive, Engaging Places, LLC has focused its work around several of the conference’s findings and recommendations, especially the topics of community engagement, interpretation, and collections care and access.

Community Engagement

Finding: “Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement with its community and its willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community.”

That’s an admirable goal but unfortunately, there are no fast and easy answers that can be readily adopted. Each historic site and community is unique, which means the solutions need to be unique. Maintaining the status quo, even if it isn’t financially sustainable, is often much easier than changing—but if you want to motivate your organization, help prioritize tasks, and receive guidance that meets your specific needs, here are some suggestions:

Engaging Places, LLC can help you identify options, question assumptions, evaluate risks, and make informed decisions. We’ve worked with dozens of sites to change their structures, programs, and services to better respond to their communities, including the Philip Johnson Glass House, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Cliveden, Sandy Spring Museum, Meridian International Center, Molly Brown HouseDana-Thomas House, William Seward House, Villa Finale, Morris-Butler House, and Haas-Lilienthal House.

Interpretation that Makes a Difference to Visitors

Recommendation: Historic sites must no longer think of the “velvet rope tour” as their “basic bread and butter” program and must generate more varied ways to utilize their remarkable resources to enrich people’s lives. The historic site community must reaffirm the importance of these places for our nation’s future and redefine our mission in terms of that future rather than the past.

Interpretation is often where the rubber meets the road. Visitors, donors, and governments preserve and support historic sites because of their historical significance—and that significance is only made apparent through interpretation. And yet, interpretation is often the lowest priority and an organization will simply copy an approach used by another site, putting up bronze plaque, recreating a period room, developing an orientation video, assembling a guided tour, or designing a brochure or website without much consideration of the message or audience. Indeed, the most frequent failings of historic sites is that their historical research is weak and knowledge of their audiences is poor. The result is interpretation that leaves visitors bored, donors disinterested, and governments shifting their attentions elsewhere. Like a well-told story, the purposeful design of interpretation can create memorable experiences, attract support, and motivate action. An interpretive plan is ideal, but most organizations don’t have the capacity or resources to do it all at one time, so here are some suggestions:

  • Tackle interpretation a step at a time. Interpretive Planning at Historic Sites is a Three-Part Harmony  lays out the major elements and “Becoming Ordinary: Turning Points that Transform History Organizations” explains a process.  Both can be used as handouts for your board and staff.
  • Get to know your visitors better. Take detailed attendance reports, ask for their opinions about your programs, develop profiles on your community, and identify your target audiences.
  • Master your site’s history. Develop a timeline that places it in a regional context; prepare short histories of key people, events, and buildings; and craft 2-3 interpretive themes.
  • Evaluate your tours and programs. Compare your current offerings with your mission and interpretive themes—are they perfectly aligned or do they need some tweaking? How do your programs mesh with your visitors’ interests? Do you have a marketing niche or an “unfair advantage” to exploit?

If you’re not sure where to start or if you are looking for something more innovative, contact Max van Balgooy at Engaging Places, LLC. We can help you identify the most effective ways to interpret your site, whether it’s on-site or online, through a tour or in the classroom, or in a single activity or as a series. For example, at President Lincoln’s Cottage, a little-known historic site in Washington, DC, we used focused research by historians and a series of facilitated workshops with scholars and experts to develop the foundational themes that are basis for all of their public programs and exhibits, furnishing the house with Lincoln’s ideas—not his furniture. At the Philip Johnson Glass House, we carefully designed the tours of this internationally famous architectural icon so that each visitor could have an intimate experience and yet attain the maximum visitation allowed per city regulation. More importantly, we carefully choreographed the tours so that the Glass House was experienced as an artwork: visitors never saw the house with other people inside the house or in landscape (and when you’re dealing with a dozen buildings on open land and three simultaneous tours, that’s tricky). We are currently working with Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina to develop an innovative orientation exhibit for a new visitor center that not only shares the history of the site but helps visitors see places historically and become advocates for historic preservation.

Improving Care and Access to Collections

Finding: Responsible site stewardship achieves a sustainable balance between the needs of the buildings, landscapes, collections, and the visiting public. Undefined collecting coupled with a lack of professional standards and inconsistent practices regarding deaccessioning are an impediment to change and sustainability.

For historic sites and historic house museums, the collections—documents, artifacts, buildings, and landscapes—are the soul of the place. They provide us with authentic experiences, tangible witnesses, and meaningful encounters with the past. Despite their importance, collections can often get out of our control and you no longer know what you have, where it’s located, and if it’s being cared for properly.

We can work with your to develop collections policies, deaccessioning procedures, scope of collections, collections plans, emergency preparedness and recovery manuals, and facilities management. We’ve worked on a collections scope for Cliveden, managed a recovery after a fire at the Cooper Regional History Museum, reorganized collections storage areas at the Homestead Museum, and tackled years of cataloging backlogs at organizations that don’t want to be mentioned. With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and National Endowment for the Humanities, we recently completed a major improvement to the care of and access to the collections for the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, one of the nation’s premier women’s history sites. We conducted a preservation assessment of the collections storage areas, identified priorities for cataloguing artifacts, developed a metadata plan to guide cataloguing, trained staff, and suggested funding resources.