At my first stop at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I was faced with a historical marker at the entrance to the parking lot. A unexpected location but far more accessible than on the side of a busy highway. All of the recent conversations about decolonization has me always take a closer look at these markers but more interestingly, I’ve encountered several different types of markers so far on my road trip that have me thinking more about their value, veracity, authenticity, and permanence by being “cast in bronze”.
As you’ll see, location matters as much as the text. Some are intentional efforts to deceive, some are not. Some are historical, some artistic, some a bit of both. They are all designed to be inspirational, some more deeply than others. Do any of them matter? Do they have any impact? What do you think?
When I recently visited the Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, I was really impressed by their use historic images and documents throughout the tours. It wasn’t just that they were integrating lots of different historic materials into the tours (that’s always a good practice), but they looked great. In the entry hall, a couple 16″x20″ historic maps on the wall put the house in a historical context. In the parlor, a stand held an assortment of historic photos on lightweight boards, which the docent passed around so that visitors could examine them more closely.
They were clearly modern so there was no confusion you were handling something historic and the docents could easily use them because they were so simple and light. They were easy to examine because the matte surface reduced glare from the sun and lights. But what really surprised me is that they were more than ten years old—they looked brand new! No edges were peeling and the images hadn’t been worn out or bent by the constant handling. Even better, they were cheap to produce—about $8-10 per square foot by a local sign maker. These are so much better than laminated or framed interpretive tools I’ve seen and used elsewhere.
In April, I had a chance to visit the newly opened National Blues Museum in St. Louis, Missouri while I was in town to lead a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England. As the “only museum dedicated exclusively to preserving and honoring the national and international story of the Blues and its impact on American culture in the United States,” its mission is “to be the premier entertainment and educational resource focusing on the Blues as the foundation of American music.” Those are pretty bold claims and we’ll have to give them some time to see if they can achieve them. In the meantime, I wanted to share my initial reactions to the primary permanent exhibit designed by Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Maryland (near my hometown!), who also designed exhibits for Mount Vernon, Gettysburg Visitor Center, and Jamestown Settlement Museum.
Housed in a former historic department store near the city’s downtown convention center, the bold use of panels filled with text, images, video, textures, and colors as well as a strong horizontal lines that pull you through each space, make it a compelling and attractive design. Indeed, it’s so effective that it didn’t strike me until about halfway through that the exhibit feels two-dimensional and there are hardly Continue reading →
Last week, Ken Turino of Historic New England and I gave a one-day workshop on reinventing historic house museum in St. Louis, Missouri for the American Association for State and Local History. It was a sold-out workshop with more than 50 people participating, mostly from the St. Louis region, so it was a great opportunity to meet so many of our colleagues, including a couple places who were starting new house museums (glad to have people learning about this specialized field before they open the doors!). A big thanks to Andy Hahn at the Campbell House for hosting the workshop and to the St. Louis Public Library for allowing us to meet at the historic Central Library.
Ken and I continue to refine the workshop based on the evaluations we receive from the participants, and one of the elements we added to the beginning of the workshop is asking, “What is the biggest challenge facing your house museum?” and “What needs to be reinvented at your historic site?” Here are some of the responses we received: Continue reading →