The simplest things impress me when I visit historic sites, like a good visitor map. They’re hard to find so when I spot one, I’m thrilled.
I recently visited Fort Vancouver National Site in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. In the Visitor Center, they provide a visitor map printed on 11 x 17″ paper that’s gathered in pads of 50 sheets. I’ve always loved these tear-off maps because they’re always neat and generously sized, and in this particular case, also well designed. Even though it’s simply printed with black ink on white paper, the designer carefully used tinting, serif and sans serif faces in different sizes, varied line weights, and symbols to help visitors easily find their way around this very large site. Most important, information that is not important to visitors is omitted. On the back side are Continue reading
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
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
This year has been incredibly busy for me, so much so that I’ve been unable to share many of the ideas that I’ve discovered in my travels to historic sites across America through this blog. Along with my active consulting practice, I’ve recently agreed to become the director of Developing History Leaders @SHA and an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GWU). Both positions were announced at the same time at the beginning of the year and because they were both attractive opportunities, I applied for both, thinking it was like submitting an application to IMLS and NEH and assuming only one or none would be funded. I hit the jackpot when both came my way and I’m thrilled about the opportunities. I’m already at work with SHA in November and teaching at GWU starting in January 2018.
As my friends and colleagues learn about this big change in my career, 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
Bolt Brief by WaterField Designs of San Francisco.
If you want to conduct visitor research for a potential exhibition, school program, or tour, you might want to check out WaterField Designs in San Francisco, who has been designing and manufacturing bags and cases since 1998. A few months ago I purchased a Bolt Brief from WaterField. It’s a great bag and I recommend you check it out, but more importantly, I’ve become very impressed with their customer research and prototyping for new products, especially if the customers are all over the country. It’s an idea that can be easily adopted by museums and historic sites if they have Continue reading
“I cannot live without books,” said Thomas Jefferson in this letter on display at the New-York Historical Society.
Did you know that one of the largest collection of manuscripts related to Thomas Jefferson are in Massachusetts, not Virginia? And for a few months, 36 of these documents and artifacts are on display in Thomas Jefferson: The Private Man at the New-York Historical Society. It’s not much but it’s amazing. I’ve read about them over the years and sometimes seen images, but there’s nothing like seeing Jefferson’s actual garden book, his last letter to John Adams, his sketch of a slave cabin, manuscript leafs from his Notes on the State of Virginia, early drawings of Monticello, a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s hand, and the oft-quoted letter that states, “I cannot live without books.” Cool!
“Thomas Jefferson: The Private Man” at the New-York Historical Society.
So how did they get to Massachusetts? President Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph, married Joseph Coolidge of Boston in 1825. Their son purchased Jefferson’s documents from the Randolph family in 1898 and donated them to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he was a member. The collection continued to grow with gifts from subsequent generations and are now digitized and available online thanks to a grant from Save America’s Treasures (a superb funding program that was eliminated by President Obama in 2010, alas).
But the ties between Massachusetts and Virginia continue. Their granddaughter, Dr. Catherine Coolidge Lastavica, loved the family history so much that in 1968 she built the Brick House on the family estate in Manchester, Massachusetts, modeling it on the George Wythe House in Williamsburg, Virginia—that’s where Jefferson studied law under Wythe’s tutelage. Historic New England recently accepted the Brick House as a study property and conference facility in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Center. Wow, what a small world.
As we know, smartphones and other mobile devices are becoming a routine part of our visitors’ lives. But did you know that more people search for travel information on their mobile devices than on their desktops? It allows them to make immediate decisions while they’re on the go, including when they’re on vacation and at your site (if visitors are looking at their smartphones while walking in the door, they may be checking your admission fees and hours, not their email). Mobile users want information fast and they’re not discriminating: they’ll look for the information about your historic site from whomever gets it to them the fastest, even if it’s not your website. That’s the latest research from Think with Google on “Travel Planning and Purchasing has Evolved on Mobile.” For historic sites and house museums, this means that you should: Continue reading