Tag Archives: District of Columbia

Reimagining Historic House Museums: Observations From the Field

Cover of the book, Reimagining Historic House Museums, published 2019.
Reimagining Historic House Museums (2019)

This afternoon Ken Turino and I will share the common factors that create a sustainable path forward for our country’s historic places. We’ll be drawing from the dozens of innovative sites described in our newly-published anthology, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Topics will include assessing whether an organization’s purpose is meaningful to the public, challenging institutions to think holistically, and ensuring that leadership supports risk and experimentation. We’ll be joined in conversation by Kathy Dwyer Southern, Immediate Past Co-Chair of the International Council of Museums United States. If you’re in the area, we welcome you to join us at 5:30 pm at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st Street NW (at G Street) in Washington, DC. Several of the contributors to the book will be attending and I suspect we’ll have a rousing discussion over drinks at the nearby Tonic.

Ken and I continue to offer our one-day workshop on reimagining historic house museums around the country through the American Association for State and Local History and we’ve now added this shorter “Observations from the Field” presentation to highlight the big ideas from the book. We first presented it with Lisa Ackerman, Interim CEO of the World Monuments Fund, in New York City in October at the request of the Historic House Trust (video below). It was so well received that we’re bringing it to DC today and to Los Angeles in March (as part of the California Association of Museums meeting). We’ve also presented portions of this talk for the National Society of The Colonial Dames in America and Historic New England. If the workshop or presentation could benefit your organization, contact Ken or me for more details (we can only accommodate a couple of these each year, so we may have to plan far ahead).

“Observations from the Field”, Historic House Trust, October 2019

Report from the Field: AAM Annual Meeting 2016

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The American Alliance of Museums held its 2016 meeting in Washington, DC last week, which was incredibly convenient for me because I could easily take Metro from my home in Maryland and incredibly inconvenient because it was far too easy for me to stay in my office and say, “I’ll go later” and skip sessions.  I managed to attend two days along with 6000 other people and came back with an assortment of observations:

  1.  AAM allowed a track of sessions that were focused on one museum or site, which can vary from an indepth examination of a single project to a general show-and-tell of everything they do.  Both have benefits and disadvantages (I tend to find the show-and-tells incredibly dull) but it also reminds me how difficult it is to learn what’s happening in the field, especially if you work at historic sites.  Subscriptions, conferences, and travel to other sites have all been victims to tightening budgets, hence my ongoing commitment to a blog that shares a variety of news and information.
  2. The exhibit hall was packed, primarily with exhibit designers and exhibit lenders, and a couple booths introduced virtual reality.  Lots to see from books to dinosaurs but most handy was the Museums Change Lives brochure from the Museums Association in Great Britain. It provides some useful language on the value of museums that can be easily adapted to public speeches, newsletters, fundraising, and membership renewal letters.
  3. Museums of all types are doing pretty cool programming using games or tranforming mundane topics like agriculture.  And yet, very few provided any evidence that their activities were making any impact on visitors.  Yes, attendance and revenue may have increased, but what did visitor learn? how did it change their attitudes? did they apply what they learned to their lives?
  4. Although there were sessions for historic sites and house museums, I regret to say that there aren’t enough to justify the expense. As a result, I only attend every 3-5 years to check up on things.  Next year, the AAM annual meeting will be in St. Louis, Missouri.

If you attended AAM last week and found some particularly useful information or a new resource, please share them in the comments below.

A Simple Tool to Keep Users Engaged with Your Website (or Exhibit or Program)

User-Story-rubricIf you haven’t been to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC in the last ten years, you’ve missed a major makeover.  Not only are the chairs in the theater more comfortable, but it has dramatically updated its interpretation.  An extensive interactive exhibit on Lincoln and the Civil War (including Booth’s gun!) now fills the basement.  Across the street, the Petersen House (“the house where Lincoln died” and the federal government’s first historic house museum) has been joined with the adjacent office building to provide several floors of exhibits and programs.  Now it’s in the midst of creating Remembering Lincoln, a new website that will commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination by collecting, digitizing, and sharing local responses from the 13 months following his death.  It won’t launch until 2015, but in the meantime they are sharing their progress and most importantly, their process on a blog.

It’s essential that you know the purpose and goals with any project, but even more so when there are more than a dozen institutional partners.  You’ve got to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve to keep you focused—you don’t want people pulling in different directions.  To keep their eyes on the road, Ford’s Theatre developed a “product definition document” for the Remembering Lincoln website which: Continue reading

Video: Food Critic Reviews Museum Cafe

Tom Sietsema, the food critic for the Washington Post, provides a rare video review of Mitsitam, the cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian.  It is one of the few good places on the Mall to eat (which is a culinary wasteland for the most part) and does an outstanding job of interpreting cultures through food.

Vinyl Banners that Look Sharp, not Saggy

The other week I passed by Anderson House and was so struck by their full-color monument signs that I had to take a closer look.  They’re the common vinyl banners that can be made by nearly every sign and banner store, but they were incredibly neat and clean–none of the usual sagging, wrinkling, and rippling.  Mounted across the top and bottom with Velcro onto a metal frame, the bottom corners of banners are also secured with bolts to keep them from flying away in the wind or easily taken by admiring thief.  The frame is made of square tubing, whose legs slide onto a corresponding set of tubes set in the ground.   Emily Schulz, the deputy director and curator, generously provided more details:

“We installed the banners on the front lawn in mid April 2012, so they’ve been up pretty much exactly one year.  They replaced a small sandwich board sign that was put out every morning and Continue reading

Subtle Ways to Recognize Donors

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During a recent visit to the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC, I encountered the most subtle donor recognition methods I’ve ever witnessed.  I usually discourage donor plaques within an historic house museum because it doesn’t advance the educational mission of the organization, distracts from the visitor’s experience of “imagining the past,” and can be installed in a manner that permanently damages the historic materials but if a director or board insists, the Meridian Center offers a potential solution.  The Meridian Center holds its offices and meeting rooms in two early twentieth century houses–Meridian House and White-Meyer House–that are listed on the National Register and although they aren’t museums, the donor recognition plaques are so subtle that they border on being acceptable in historic house museums.

Plaques can be found in nearly every room but are typically integrated into the existing decor with matching materials in small type or placed strategically and discretely to avoid attracting much attention, except if you take a close look.  They are considering a donor wall for their upcoming capital campaign, but it will be installed outdoors under the supervision of preservation architect Belinda Reeder.