I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.
Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.
The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.
Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Values of History.” Businesses and nonprofit organizations have been adopting values along with mission and vision statements for the past two decades but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history as well as include the work of the History Relevance Campaign. Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):
Values of History. Values are beliefs shared by an individual or a community about what is important or valuable. Although values and ethics are terms used interchangeably at times, ethics are the action and manifestation of values. In addition to a mission and vision, some history organizations have adopted a statement of values or a code of ethics to clarify their identity and guide decisions. For example, Society for Historical Archaeology includes in its code of ethics that members “shall not sell, buy, trade, or barter items from archaeological contexts,” an action based in part from their belief that “historical and underwater cultural resources” are a “valued resource for knowledge exchange.” The importance of values was underscored nearly a generation ago in Museums for a New Century (1984): “An effective museum leader—whether scholar or M.B.A. or both—must first understand, believe in, and speak for the values of the institution.”
A common challenge for state and local history organizations is explaining Continue reading →
I’ll be at an all-day workshop today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to discuss the work of the History Relevance Campaign with representatives of two dozen national organizations, including the Library of Congress, National Archives, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Park Service, American Historical Association, American Alliance of Museums, National Coalition for History, National History Day, National Humanities Alliance, and National Governors Association. We’ll use our work on the values of history, impact project, and research on popular attitudes towards history to discuss where the campaign should go next and how they might get more involved (most of these organizations have already endorsed the values statement). I’m not sure what the results will be but you can follow along on Twitter at #historyrelevance.
On Monday, March 21 at 3:00 pm Eastern/12 pm Pacific, Tim Grove and I will be discussing the History Relevance Campaign during AASLH’s monthly Historic House Call. For the past few years, a dozen people from various history organizations have studied the challenges and opportunities for changing the common attitude that history is nice, but not essential. We won’t have overnight solutions and there’s lots of work to do, but we’ll share what we’ve learned, discuss how it impacts historic house museums, and provide a tool that organizations have found very helpful. The webinar is free but preregistration is required.
Thanks to the support of The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, the steering committee of the History Relevance Campaign held a retreat this past week to plan its next steps. Randi Korn facilitated the retreat to clarify our impact and distinctiveness as well as begin to draft outcomes for our work. It was a long day and a half but we made tremendous progress. Although we won’t be ready to share the results for another month or so (our draft ideas are still being discussed), we are making progress in several other areas:
Discussing the History Relevance Campaign at a packed session at AASLH in St. Paul. Photo by Lee Wright.
At the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in St. Paul, the History Relevance Campaign presented an update on their work to a packed audience. During the session, we presented the Impact Project, a year-long process for identifying and studying historic sites and history museums that are making history relevant in their community. The goals of the Impact Project are to:
Increase the use of history as a way to understand and address critical community issues.
Help board members and staff make an impact in their communities by integrating best practices into their strategic and interpretive plans
Encourage AASLH and other professional associations to include standards on community relevance and impact
Encourage academic programs in history, public history, and museum studies to include community relevance and impact in their curriculum
Encourage elected officials, funders, and communities to provide more support for history organizations that are making an impact
Provide every Governor with at least one example of history organizations that are making an impact in their state
We Need Your Help
We are looking for history museums, historic sites, and similar organizations that are Continue reading →
NCPH 2014: Presidential Address by Robert Weyeneth
NCPH 2014: Tom Hanchett on the Levine Museum
NCPH 2014: Drop in sessions to discuss digital projects
NCPH 2014: Vendors in the exhibit hall
NCPH 2014: Discussing the History Relevance Campaign
NCPH 2014: Speed Networking about to begin.
Walking tour of historic Monterey, California.
The National Council on Public History held its annual conference in Monterey, California a couple weeks ago. More than 600 people attended from around the country plus ten countries, making it the largest stand-alone meeting (at times, NCPH will co-host a conference with another organization, such as AASLH). Monterey, of course, is a wonderful place to enjoy history and nature, especially if you’ve been enduring a long winter. This year’s theme was sustainability and a task force is developing a white paper, which is available for public comments.
I attended primarily to discuss the History Relevance Campaign and collect more comments and ideas on our goals and projects. I also participated in a couple sessions, a morning of speed networking (graduate students and new professionals rotate among several mid-career and seasoned pros), and ran into lots of friends and colleagues in the hall and on the street. NCPH is a mix of Continue reading →
Last Friday, January 3, about 65 people braved the winter cold of Washington, DC (okay, compared to Midwest right now, it’s balmy) to participate in a discussion on the relevance of history to Americans. Leading the discussion with me were Tim Grove of the Smithsonian Institution and Cathy Gorn and Kim Fortney of National History Day.
It was an exciting mix of participants. The room was not only filled with historians who were attending the American Historical Association conference, but also people who work at history organizations in the DC region. These various perspectives sparked a Continue reading →
In the last year I’ve become part of an group to find ways to make history more meaningful and relevant to Americans. The History Relevance Campaign, for lack of a better name, is an informal grassroots effort made up of public historians, preservationists, educators, historic site managers, and museum leaders who are creating a national, broad-based strategy to assert the relevance of history.
Just to clarify, the History Relevance Campaign is not connected to any one history organization. From its start in early 2013, the group has strived to be as inclusive as possible. Secondly, it is not a lobbying group. Its main audience is the general public, not elected officials and public policy makers. Thirdly, its intent is to show that history skills are just as important as Continue reading →