On Saturday, the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington DC hosted an all-day symposium on “how are historic house museums adapting to the future?” at Gunston Hall in Virginia. The sold-out symposium featured three speakers, a tour of Gunston Hall, and lots of time to chat with colleagues during breaks and over lunch. The cost? A mere $15, truly a bargain. The symposium not only attracted professionals from Virginia, Maryland, and DC, but as far away as Connecticut!
I opened the symposium by discussing Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” as a way of identifying opportunities and threats to help historic sites prepare and adapt. If you’re not familiar with the Five Forces, it’s a framework for identifying those issues that have the biggest impact on your operations. This is a much more useful alternative to SWOT, which may be a good outline for summarizing an analysis, but it’s not a helpful way to analyze a situation. If you’d like to get an introduction to the Five Forces and how it applies to historic sites, take look at my presentation (warning: it’s an 18 Mb pdf). Even better was the discussion that followed, which explored a wide range of ideas from the growing role of photography to changing demographics to the interpretation of African American history.
Working in historic house museums often can often seem like an isolated job but not in the nation’s capital, where there is the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC, an active association of forty sites that mutually support and promote each other. Every two years they also host a half-day symposium that attracts about one hundred museum guides, docents, and interpreters. This year it was held on September 17 at the impressive George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia and I joined Dr. George McDaniel of Drayton Hall and Rebecca Martin of the National Archives to talk about various aspects of tours and the visitor experience:
George laid out that the visitor experience is much more than the tour and extends to the visitors’ planning, arrival, and departure. He emphasized the importance of little things, such as the directional signage, staff hospitality, and the condition of grounds and restrooms can have on visitors’ attitudes even before the tour starts
In “Before You Get Engaged: Advice for Lovers of History and Historic Sites,” a light-hearted perspective on visitor engagement, I discussed three issues to consider before getting engaged with visitors: don’t marry a stranger (know your audience), don’t share everything you know about a site on a tour (keep it mysterious), and let them know what you care about (keep your passion alive).