Tag Archives: Mount Vernon

IMHO: Trump’s Election Reflects Trends in History Museums and Historic Preservation

change-sameDonald J. Trump’s election to the U. S. presidency is a shock to many pundits and career politicians because he never held elected office and didn’t seem to care about politics or government, except as it might benefit his businesses. His interest is business, following his father into real estate and receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School, and then pursuing real estate development, professional sports, beauty pageants, for-profit education, branding and licensing, and entertainment. While the 2016 campaign will be heavily analyzed for years to understand its unfolding, my sense is that it’s not just about “change,” but a change in the skills and qualifications required for effective leadership.  It’s no longer about mission, vision, or values, but the expertise and perspective of independent business entrepreneurs.  And it’s a trend I’ve been witnessing in house museums and historic sites as well.

In the last decade, several major history and preservation organizations have selected CEOs who have little passion for or experience with the mission of the organization but instead offer outsider perspectives, often informed exclusively by an MBA: Continue reading

What Historic Sites Have Learned After 25 Years with ADA

ADA logoThis month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensured equal access to persons with limited mobility, limited vision, limited hearing, and other disabilities. Shortly after this law was enacted in 1990, museums and historic sites were scrambling to figure out the consequences, especially the cost of installing ramps or hiring sign-language interpreters.

Much of it also revolved thinking bigger and realizing that improving access for the disabled would improve the experience for everyone.  For example, lever handles replaced doorknobs, which makes it easier to open a door when you’re carrying a package; enlarging type and increasing contrast on exhibit labels makes them easier to read (which I really appreciated as I grew older); and integrating ramps and removing thresholds is nice for visitors in wheelchairs and for staff who are always hauling tables and chairs for events.  For several years, professional associations hosted sessions and printed books to explain ADA to help museums figure out how to respond in an effective and thoughtful manner.

Little discussed, however, is that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) also investigated several museums and historic sites for Continue reading

Are There Cultural Connections Between North and South?

Newport Symposium Banner 2015On April 26-29, 2015, the Preservation Society of Newport County (aka the Newport Mansions) is hosting a symposium on the cultural connections between the North and South from the Colonial Period to the Gilded Age as seen through furnishings, silver, textiles, painting, architecture, and interiors.  Scholars include:

  • Daniel Kurt Ackerman, Associate Curator, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts
  • Brandy Culp, Curator, Historic Charleston Foundation
  • Caryne Eskridge, Project Manager & Research Coordinator, The Classical Institute of the South
  • Stephen Harrison, Curator of Decorative Art & Design, Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
  • Alexandra Kirtley, The Montgomery Garvan Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Jefferson Mansell, Historian, Natchez National Historical Park
  • George McDaniel, Executive Director, Drayton Hall
  • George H. McNeely IV, Vice President, Strategic & International Affairs, World Monuments Fund
  • Richard Nylander, Curator Emeritus, Historic New England
  • Tom Savage, Director of Museum Affairs, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
  • Susan P. Schoelwer, Robert H. Smith Senior Curator, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Arlene Palmer Schwind, Curator, Victoria Mansion
  • Carolyn Weekley, Juli Grainger Curator, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • Martha Willoughby, Senior Specialist, Christie’s

Registration is $600 and includes an opening reception at Rosecliff (1902) and dinner in the Great Hall at the Breakers (1895).  Scholarships are available to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as arts and humanities professionals.  To register or for more information, contact symposium@NewportMansions.org or call 401-847-1000 x 160.  Tell them that you heard about it from Engaging Places and you’ll receive a 10% discount!

History Relevance Campaign Convenes at Mt. Vernon

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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:

1.  “The Value of History:  Seven Ways It Is Essential” is available and we encourage history organizations of all sizes to integrate it into their activities and programs.  Add the name of your organization to Continue reading

Video: Ask a Slave, Episode 1

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing Ask a Slave, a series of short interviews with Lizzie Mae, “personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington.”  It’s based on the experiences of Azie Dungey, who was an interpreter at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon.  She wrote, produced, and created these videos as a way to, “present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.”  Although Dungey portrays an enslaved African servant, many of her experiences are shared by others who interpret historic sites, no matter the period or topic.  For those of us working at historic sites, they’re incredibly funny but they also reveal some of the challenges we have interpreting other times and places.  You’ll want to look at some the comments on YouTube to get the full national scope, plus take a look at the number of views to get a sense of the impact.

Dungey is currently working in Los Angeles on another series, although focused on the 19th century.  Can’t wait to see what she produces.

Responses to Government Shutdown Vary at Historic Sites and Museums

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Washington, DC is one of the nation’s museum meccas with nearly 19 million annual visitors so with the partial shutdown of the federal government, tourists are frustrated and confused.  Closed are the most popular destinations such as the Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, Lincoln Memorial, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives, and Capitol Visitor Center (tours of the White House ended in March 2013 due to sequestration).  Although it is a federal city, many of its museums and historic sites are privately operated so places such as the Phillips Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Tudor Place, Woodrow Wilson House, and International Spy Museum, are open as usual.  “National” may be in its name, it doesn’t mean it’s affected by the shutdown, so the National Building Museum, National Geographic Museum, National Museum of Women in the Arts, National Museum of Health and Medicine, and National Museum of American Jewish Military History are open (as is the National Aquarium in Baltimore).  Adding to the confusion are parts of the federal government that remain open (hence its more precise definition as a “partial shutdown”), so historic sites such as the US Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery (but not Arlington House), continue to be open to tourists.

Washington DC is definitely a confusing places for tourists at the moment, but it’s also confusing at the Continue reading

The Many Flavors of Touring Historic Places

Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.

Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.

Although guided tours of period rooms is the most common form of interpretation at historic sites, audio tours, video tours, and virtual tours are growing in popularity thanks to technologies that are lowering the cost of production and increasing access to new audiences.  From a short list of examples, the students in my “historic site interpretation” class at George Washington University developed a list of ten best practices for different types of tours of historic sites.  You’ll discover that many of their suggestions emphasize the need for a plan, themes, and a focus–and projects that failed to have these elements were weaker and less effective.

A.  Guided Tours of Period Rooms

Reviewed by Johanna Bakmas, Melissa Dagenais, Emma Dailey
 

Suggested Best Practices

Do
  1. Develop an interpretive plan and themes
  2. Consult primary sources for the property
  3. Decide whether to have reproduction or original pieces Continue reading

HBO CEO named Mt. Vernon CEO; A Step Backwards IMHO

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Today, Curtis G. Viebranz becomes the president and chief executive officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Unfortunately, this decision by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is a step backward for its mission, history, education, preservation, and ironically, women, too.  Viebranz succeeds James C. Rees III, who retired in June.  Here’s an excerpt from the official announcement:

Viebranz brings to Mount Vernon more than twenty years of experience at major multinational Internet and cable enterprises, including a successful tenure as president of HBO International, the global arm of Time Warner’s Home Box Office unit. Prior to that, as Time Warner turned its attention to digital distribution strategies, Viebranz was tapped to serve as the first president of Time Inc. Multimedia. During his seventeen-year career at Time Warner and its predecessor company, Time Inc., Viebranz built an impressive resume, also serving as president of Time Inc. Europe and HBO Video.

After departing Time Warner, Viebranz helped to launch Continue reading

Put Your Organization to the Rorschach Test

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If you’re finding that your organization is in a rut and you no longer feel as inspired about its work, it might be useful to look at it in a new way by creating a “word cloud” of key documents, such as a strategic plan, mission and vision statements, interpretive themes, or visitor evaluation.  A word cloud is a visual presentation of the most frequently used words, sized by frequency.  For example, if you use the word “history” ten times more than “preservation” in your strategic plan, “history” shows up much larger than “preservation” in the word cloud.  The word cloud allows you to look at your organization from a different perspective: words jump out at you and prompt questions about what’s being emphasized (and what’s not).

As examples, in the slide show above I’ve assembled word clouds from the first few paragraphs of the About section of the websites (which often includes the mission or vision statements) of the following historic sites:

I’ve used word clouds in strategic planning sessions to Continue reading