Do you flip to the back of a book before you buy it? Indexes and bibliographies, more than a table of contents, provide a better glimpse into the ideas of a book. I appreciate them when they’re at my fingertips but assembling them is a tedious task that requires absolute attention to every page. But one of the benefits, as Ken Turino and I discovered while indexing Reimagining Historic House Museums, are the common ideas that cut across the chapters contributed by two dozen leaders in the field. Rising up to the top were three factors that are most essential to navigating to success at historic sites and house museums:
1. Finding a Mission and Purpose That’s Meaningful.
Mission statements have long been used in nonprofit organizations and the version of “collect, preserve, and interpret [insert your museum’s topic here]” has now become a cliché. Better mission statements are an overlap of the site’s historical significance and the visitors’ needs, interests, and motivations. In our book, President Lincoln’s Cottage, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and the Trustees demonstrate how meaningful mission statements permeate decision-making at every level of the organization. Indeed, as my thinking continues to evolve on mission statements, they should not simply describe the work of the organization but address a major problem or issue in the community—that’s what makes them meaningful to a broader segment of the public. Why do museums collect, preserve, and interpret? To what end?
This blog has been fairly sparse this past year because Ken Turino and I were editing and assembling two dozens essays for Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, an anthology to be published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the AASLH series. I’m delighted to announce that it is now off my desk and in the hands of the publisher; we expect it will be released in fall 2019.
One of the biggest consequences of the under-resourced and over-stretched community of house museums is that it is difficult for them to share their successes with others—they just don’t have time. The field doesn’t learn about them except through publications, blog posts, or conference sessions—that’s one of the major reasons we assembled this anthology. There’s lots of good work happening in house museums but we’re simply not aware of it. Our hope is that this book is a good place to grab a hold of the current thinking about reinventing house museums so that they are more relevant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible, hopefully broadening and deepening the current conversations in the field.
With the support of the American Association for State and Local History and local funders, we embarked on a series of workshops in subsequent years to lay out a “reinventing process” that has taken us to Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois with more to come (Washington, DC in June; New York City in October). The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest 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 →
Heritage Tourism in the 21st Century with James Stevens of ConsultEcon Inc., who recently studied the heritage tourism sector in Philadelphia
Restoration and Reconstruction: Fulfilling the Possibilities of a 21st Century Museum, a discussion about the reinterpretation of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in South Carolina (also reviewed in the recent issue of the Public Historian and the Journal of American History; not to be confused with the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Georgia)
There may be bourbon at the breakfast for historic house museums when Dennis Walsh from Buffalo Trace Distillery discusses the preservation of this historic sites (and it’s pretty cool website, too)
An evening at Locust Grove, a National Historic Landmark, with costumed interpreters, live music, and a three-course buffet.
With 65 sessions, there is much, much more happening and you’ll be torn about what to do. There’s certainly enough to appeal to directors, curators, historians, educators, and preservationists. I’m particularly eager to hear Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past(see “A History of Flawed Teaching“), and the follow-up discussion led by Tim Grove, chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Wineburg is currently developing new forms of assessment to measure historical understanding and undertaking a longitudinal study on the development of historical consciousness among adolescents in three communities. But I don’t want to neglect the three other outstanding plenary speakers: Wendell Berry, James Klotter, Renee Shaw, and Carol Kammen.
I rarely ever skip the AASLH annual meeting and I plan to be there this year. Registration is $250 if you jump in before July 24 and there’s the alternative online conference featuring six sessions.
Next week I’ll be at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, Georgia leading a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England on the rethinking the historic house museum. We’re not the only ones who are working on this topic, indeed, Michelle Zupan at Hickory Hill assembled a five-page bibliography of books, articles, and dissertations for the workshop, so long that I’m hesitant to distribute it because it could be discouraging (“what? I have to know all this to rethink my historic house?”).
And if we want to go beyond historic house museums, the list would be even longer. Businesses have been “rethinking” for decades in order to grow in size or increase their profits. They have the resources to study this topic rigorously and there is a lot we can borrow for our field (and much that doesn’t apply and can Continue reading →
The morning featured several presentations and the afternoon was a hands-on workshop at a nearby historic house. I opened the day with a process for developing a plan and then focused on Michael Porter’s Five Forces, a diagnostic tool that’s superior to SWOT for assessing a house museum’s strategic position. Ken Turino of Historic New England provided a smorgasbord of ideas from house museums around the county to rethink existing conceptions. Larry Yerdon, CEO of the Strawbery Banke Museum, discussed ways they are introducing new programs and activities to be both more engaging and financially sustainable.
After lunch, we gathered at the Governor John Langdon House, a property of Historic New England, where Joanne Flaherty and Linda Marshall led us on a quick inspection of the property and described its operations and recent efforts to use it for temporary exhibits. Then the audience became temporary consultants using the Five Forces, analyzing existing and potential competition for exhibits, interests from visitors, and collaborating with exhibit providers. The consensus seemed to be that an exhibit program could have a competitive advantage if it focused on the collections of Historic New England and may be better suited for rooms other than the parlor or dining room, which are architecturally significant.
Historic New England presents its annual Program in New England Studies(PINES), an intensive week-long exploration of New England from Monday, June 15 to Saturday, June 20, 2015. PINES includes lectures by noted curators and architectural historians, workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and special access to historic house museums and collections. The program offers a broad approach to teaching the history of New England culture through artifacts and architecture in a way that no other museum or historic site in the Northeast can match. It’s like the Attingham Summer School as a week in New England.
Examine New England history and material culture from the seventeenth century through the Colonial Revival with some of the country’s leading experts in regional architecture and decorative arts. Curators lecture on furniture, textiles, ceramics, and art, with information on history, craftsmanship, and changing methods of production. Architectural historians explore architecture starting with the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay style through the Federal and Georgian eras, to Gothic Revival and the Colonial Revival.
Program in New England Studies at Hamilton House, 2013.
Historic New England presents its Program in New England Studies, an intensive week-long exploration of New England from Monday, June 16 to Saturday, June 21, 2014. Now entering its second decade, the Program in New England Studies features lectures by noted curators and architectural historians, workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and special access to historic house museums and collections. Last year I had a chance to talk with some of the participants and they said they were attracted by the chance to see the houses and collections, but found that they really loved the expert lectures.
This year, Historic New England launches a diversity scholarship to support a mid-career museum professional or graduate student. Applicants must represent a racial or ethnic minority group in the U.S. The scholarship covers the full registration fee of Continue reading →
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.