Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pondering Museum Futures: Honest Questions


I've been lucky enough to have many great conversations about museums in three different countries over beer, vodka and prosecco, with my friend and colleague Katrin Hieke from Germany. That's why I'm so pleased to share this guest post with her observations, thoughts and questions about a Swiss museum conference. The idea of questions is an intriguing conference theme, and as you'll see below, the organizers worked hard to embed it all the way through.  We hope you end up with some questions of your own!

At the end of last month I had the pleasure to attend the annual congress of the Swiss Museum Association & ICOM Switzerland on Museum Future(s). It resonated a lot with me and stirred up quite a few questions. Maybe that was not only because the museum field seems to be very much on the move (has it ever not be, I wonder?), but so am I -- reconsidering my own professional future having nearly finished my long ongoing dissertation project. And since future(s) of all kinds are a constant thread in Linda’s and my discussions, it seemed appropriate to write here, and to pass on my thoughts and questions.

Thinking about the future(s) of museums, you might say, is nothing new. Your are right. We all do it in a way when we set the course for the next years in programming, when a new board takes up its work or we compile financing plans. And there are, among others, change-makers like Jasper Visser and The Museum of the Future blog, or the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, whose thinkings are devoted to the future(s) on a regular basis.  However, in terms of museum conferences in Europe, it was the first that took on this topic in general and it seemed utterly appropriate to do this on neutral, Swiss ground.  

It all starts with questions
I loved how the whole conference was set up around questions. Questions cards were distributed on registration by mail long before the conference, and at the conference itself, on coffee tables and in the delegates bags. Speakers were asked a crisp question about the future(s) of their museum or museums in general first, before they presented. A whole booklet about the conference topic, published some weeks before and as a result of a workshop, comprises pages and pages of questions - some easy, some tough - about the status quo of your museum, how you assess this, what you wish for and where you might see room for improvement. Some of my favourites include:
  • What is your greatest weakness in terms of content, and how did it evolve?
  • Which offers with societal impact would you like to have in 20 years?
  • Do you actively ask your audience for feedback?
  • Would you be willing to run exhibitions and events solely for reasons of revenue increase?
  • How does the effort for communication relate to the one for content?
  • What is the role of individual, what of collaborative working?
  • Which image do you have of your own institution regarding its social and cultural relevance? Are you a preserver? A content provider? A stimulator of discourse? An opinion maker? A changer?
I believe that change starts with honest questioning, aloud or to yourself, and an open conversation; it continues with getting out of your comfort zone, scrutinizing what your are doing and why you are doing it, and if it's still in line with your ideas; it's about dreaming of where you want to go and some risk taking in leaving your own tracks in thinking and doing.

The whole setup of the conference acknowledged that there is no simple answer, and not the  one right answer for all museums. But rather very individual solutions, futures in plural, which requires knowing the individuality of your museum, first. And it is work. Or, as Isabelle Chassot, director at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, put it: Museums can't be updated like an app; their future(s) need to be negotiated with society and politics in a long, but rewarding process.


Future is not (only) about technology
Future scenarios are often equated with technological progress, but that's only one side of it. The concept discussed at the conference aimed at a broad mindset, as the sample questions above indicate. Of course, questions about the future(s) of museums can not do without tackling issues like digitalisation. But globalisation, changes in demography, individualisation, urbanisation, economization, and flexibilisation -- trends identified by futurologists -- play an equally important part. And they create much tension, e.g. between programming for content and/or audiences; between niche and/or mainstream, between the amateur and/or professional and so on.

We have the choice
One of the very best parts about the conference was the emphasis on the “we”. The full title of the conference read: Museum future(s): We have the choice. It places the responsibility, but also the obligation, into the hands of us, the museum professionals. It reminds us that there are different paths and options to be considered. And that the future is not exclusively determined from outside, but that instead we should not give it out of our hands and start the shaping the future today. This empowerment is remarkable especially in German speaking countries, where it is quite common to delegate responsibility and action to political institutions and public authorities as the main financiers of museums. Yes, they do have the power to influence the course, but they are certainly not the strongest force, if we don’t let them. So the message here is let's not get pulled, but rather let's push things forward ourselves.


The hard way from theory to practice
The morning of the first conference day was devoted to magnificent, comprehensive, mostly provocative and rather theoretical reflections on the general positioning of the museums of the future as well as the visions of the future in previous centuries and what we could learn from this for today. Pascal Griener from the University of Neuenburg reminded us to be aware of the ideological residues stemming from 19th century when discussing current and future museum concepts. Zeev Gourarier, director of the MUCEM, named the importance of objects and collections, interdisciplinary approaches and a return to enchantment as keys to museum futures.

The afternoon sessions were meant to be devoted to deeper dives and to move on to the practical side of things. However, these got stuck more or less in the contemporary. The session on content and audience comprised descriptions of current education projects and stood pretty much clear of the actual topic of the conference, the future, for which subjects like the prerogative of interpretation must be discussed.

What makes it so difficult to take a look beyond now and some general plans for the future? What does it need, in terms of institutional frameworks and/or personal requirements? How can the many good questions raised at the conference and in the booklet be a starting point for active considerations - and maybe change?

Basil Rogger from the Zurich University of the Arts and author of the booklet, believes that we need to develop a culture of dealing with the future: we need to take care, to be persistent, to have fun, to find ease, and to actually shape the future and have the belief to do so.

Do you agree? What does it take to be a visionary these days, especially in the face of wearing daily business and given that the institution concerned is in itself devoted to the past? 
  

Take it further
If you can read one of Switzerland’s languages (German, French or Italian) I highly recommend downloading the booklet ‘Museum Futures’ by the Swiss Museum Association, which is full of food for thought and many more questions than the ones above. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What AM I doing?

In a conversation with my great Take 5 colleagues the other day, we were talking about the shape of our days, our weeks and our months as independent professionals.  It's fairly often that I get asked questions about what I do, either by people interesting in becoming freelancers (by choice or not), people beginning their career and wondering how I got from there to here; and even people I met on airplanes, who ask things like, "so you pick the stuff on display?"  I thought I'd give a one-month (slightly longer) recap, to give a sense of what independent consulting means, at least in my case. Here goes:

In mid-July, I headed off to St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, where I'm in the final stages of an managing and curating an exhibit for the headquarters of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  An exhibit in a police headquarters is a first for me, and I'm working with an enthusiastic group of volunteers and designer Melanie Lethbridge.  I love St. John's, so I always make sure that my time there includes not only the archives, but also some walks out and about. This time, an evening spent watching whales cavort off Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America.  Plus, time planning a new book project with Jane Severs, checking out the new exhibit at the Rooms, and a lively lunch with Jane and Kate Wolforth, talking all things interpretation.


In late July, I was a keynote speaker at the Association of Midwest Museums conference in Minneapolis.  I got to meet tons of great people, share some ideas on creativity and innovation, hear other great ideas, eat some amazing food and see the American Swedish Institute's beautiful new building and their historic house (plus, a chance to walk my creativity walk with some on-the-fly, totally unserious, historic house tour-giving.)  I also got a chance to catch up with Barb Wieser, an American friend from Ukraine and attend an event at the Ukrainian Cultural Center.  A big shout-out to the fabulous Paige Dansiger who captured me (above) and other speakers with her great on-the-spot sketches.


In between, and during travel, I'm catching up on emails, attempting to write blog posts, checking in with various clients, and thinking about new work including writing proposals that may or may not come to fruition. Hopefully each trip home includes a bank deposit, but not always.  See risk, below. Plus of course, finding time to enjoy summer in the Catskills--it's beautiful up here.


A relatively quick turn-around and I was off to Concord, MA, where I'm working on re-interpretation of The Old Manse for the Trustees.  The Old Manse is an historic house with a fascinating complex story, and this trip was to begin the prototyping process.  I did a training session with interpreters and some actual prototyping. It's always energizing to get feedback from visitors directly. Whether prototypes are successful or not, it's a process worth embarking on to deepen our thinking and challenge our assumptions.  On that same trip, one dinner with Rainey Tisdale, planning for a trip to Columbus, as well as catching up on everythin; and another dinner with a former Fulbrighter to Ukraine.  On the way home, I visited Fruitlands, a museum I'd heard about forever but had never been to.  If you're interested in museums I visit, I actually, and nerdily, maintain a Google map of those visits.

Again, a quick turn-around at home, enjoying summer, my husband, and a homemade music festival (thanks Gohorels!); also working to line up three international museums for my Johns Hopkins course, International Experiments in Museum Engagement, starting this week. Stay tuned for more on that.  I also agreed to serve as a Fulbright reviewer and Rainey and I began work on a journal article together.  Farmers' markets, walks in the cool evenings, and appreciating other people's gardens, all a part of home.  Plus of course, bills and invoices, emails, and other writing, and a conference call or two.

Off to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center with a day-long review of our work together over the last several years, an appearance on public radio talking historic houses with Shannon Burke and Cindy Cormier, and making final plans for the exciting new visitor experience next year. Back home again after three days.  The week at home included work on the Old Manse, writing final text and reviewing designs for the Constabulary exhibit, JHU course prep, and prepping for a one-day workshop at the Ohio History Connection with Rainey. Plus a small bit of work for my ongoing client, Context Travel, commenting on a Paris walk framework and and a phone call about a possible speaking engagement.


That week also brought the start of an exciting new project.  With Lithuanian colleague Vaiva Lankeliene I am conducting an assessment of cultural heritage needs in Ukraine for the British Council/European Cultural Foundation.  There's much to dig in on and plans to make for a research visit in October. Thanks heavens for Google Translate, also getting used as I try to read French materials for another project possibility.

That Sunday we had an all-too infrequent Take 5 meeting here at my house.  Carolyn Macuga made the trek up a day early, so we jampacked Saturday with the Bovina Farm and Studio Tour and the Delaware County Fair.  Take 5 is always a wonderful time to reflect on our work, individually and collectively. Haven't checked out our website or signed up for the newsletter?  I hope you'll find them both useful and thought-provoking.  We talked ethics, book projects, SEOs, interpretation, and as always, ended with an infused vodka toast (this time, sour cherry, cucumber and basil, or blueberry).


An early morning departure once again (coupled with the desire that I could both live in a beautiful place and close to an airport), off to Columbus, Ohio,  A meet-up with Rainey and a fascinating tour of the Columbus Museum of Art, a place that has embraced creativity as a key part of their mission, followed by dinner with Megan Wood, one of my former mentees. The next day, two half-day workshops at the Ohio History Connection, trying out Creativity Karaoke (amazing job, all of you!), and some deep dives into embedding creativity into an institutional culture.

Back home again, to a day full of phone calls (not as common as it once was thanks to emails): brainstorming ideas with a potential new client; talking to a professional considering career changes; catching up on prototyping at the Old Manse with Caren Ponty, one of last year's JHU students who is helping out with the project;  and trying to puzzle out the laws of Ukraine regarding museums with Vaiva. I juggled scheduling video interviews long-distance  for the Constabulary exhibit and trying to plan a few blog posts. Ended the day in a Newfoundland way by trying out one of the recipes for the Colony of Avalon's Colonial Cookoff--reasonable success with apple fritters.

What's the point of this crazy narrative?

First, if you want to be a freelancer, think about what risks you really are comfortable with.  Everyone does it differently, but for me, it means serious multi-tasking (hence why I find typos in these blog posts!)  and more than a bit of risk. There's risk in bidding new projects, and continual uncertainty in a financial sense.  I love the challenge of all that, but it's not for everyone.

Second, reflect. I've spent more time this year reflecting on my own process and the ways in which I connect with clients and audiences.  The better I understand my own process, the better I can present my work to clients.

Third, gratitude.  My career has been a complicated, sometimes surprising and circuitous line of choices, but along the way, Drew and Anna, mentors, mentees,  Rainey, my Gang of Five, other colleagues, and clients have all helped me think more deeply about the work I do, how we might do it together and what risks we might take.  I try and pass my own experiences and knowledge forward, when people ask, but I will say, honestly, the thank-yous really matter.  I'm always willing to find time for coffee or a drink to meet new people, but I've been surprised this year when I made time for a couple young professionals who never followed up with a thank-you email.  Gratitude does matter.

Fourth, network, but gently.  I don't want to be in your face or in your social media feed constantly, but I do want you to think that I'm around, that I'm doing interesting things and that you might have a good project for us together. There's a ton of advice out there about your social media presence--I just blunder my own way and I know fellow consultants who have none, but make your own decisions about it.

Fifth, keep learning.  My work is predicated on my ability to learn new things:  new tools to help me work efficiently (hello, Slack), new ways of thinking about our work (on a regular basis, hello Nina Simon),  new places to understand (hello, Latvia),  new perspectives (hello #museumsrespondto Ferguson tweetchat) and new challenges (hello, Ukrainian cultural policy).  I still think of myself as an Emerging Museum Professional, because I always think I have more to learn.

If you're interested in working with me or pondering through a new project together, be in touch!

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Newfoundland Tale: Social Media Made Me Do It


I know there are lots of people in the history museum field who are really interested in physically trying out elements of the past--what people wore, how they lived, what they made, but that's never been precisely my thing.  But this past weekend I tried versions of 17th and 18th century recipes in my own kitchen and I thought I'd share what made me do it, and what I learned.

The Colony of Avalon, perched on the eastern edge of Newfoundland, Canada, was established in 1621 by Sir George Calvert (the First Lord Baltimore) and is one of the best preserved early English colonial sites in North America.  It happens to have, as you can see at the head of the post, a spectacular location. I visited a few years ago, a friend is on their board of directors, and the museum was a participant in last fall's International Experiments in Community Engagement course I taught for JHU Museum Studies, working with my graduate students. All of those things made me pay more attention to it:  I followed their Facebook page and began to see them regularly in my Instagram feed.


This is the second summer of their experiment--the Colonial Cookoff.  Each week, from their reproduction period kitchen, they post a recipe and invite you to try it.  They share their results on social media and invite you to do the same, with the chance to win a weekly prize.  I entered the Twice and Thrice Challenge this week, making apple fritters and ginetoes and sharing my results on their Facebook page.  Apple fritters, pretty easy;  ginetoes, strange, bagel-like lumps with basil, mostly a failure. My ginotoes, top picture; experienced colonial cook ginetoes, bottom picture.



What made me do it?
  • Encouragement from my friend Jane.  A personal connection remains the one of the most important way to encourage involvement at your organization.
  • A website that made it seem fun.  There was historical information, but the whole site is written in a lively, accessible voice that shared failures and successes.  Not too much detail and very welcoming.
  • The fact that I'd been connecting with Avalon all summer long through their Instagram feed. It's there that I got to see, discoveries they'd been making that day (not months or years later), appreciated the enthusiasm of archaeologists for a day (even in less than ideal weather), and wondered about the connections between what was being found on site and the recipes I was reading and experimenting with.   

And what are the takeaways, particularly for small museums?  I think three primary ones.  Make it fun; make it now, not then; and keep at it!  Instagram and Facebook posts that come weeks (or months apart) and only feature boring photos of people sitting at an event, or only inviting you to an event, will never hack it.  You'll never get me to spend a Friday night making ginetoes that way!


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Reflective Power


Last week I got to do something I rarely get to do--and I find few museums do either.  Over the course of two days, amidst bits and pieces of the ongoing project, the core staff at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and I got a chance to reflect on our journey through the reinterpretation of the house, now at the three year mark and nearing completion next year.

I've written often about our work at the Center often, and I know it has resonated with many of you. We've made progress and had great wins, but we also had places where we would have done things differently.  I'll share more specifics about what we learned later, but this is just a post to encourage everyone to squeeze out that time to be reflective about your work, with your colleagues.  How to start? We tried to think about the path of the project which involved diving back into computer files saying, "when was that meeting?" and saying, "Remember when we thought that was a good idea?"

We began the process just with individual note-taking but then decided that a big flip chart map (above, just one piece of what we finally created) was the way to go, helping us think visually about the path, the lessons learned and what we might do differently.

Doing this before the full end of the project meant that it served as a bit of a reward--a chance to appreciate our work together, and to gather our energies for the final push.  If there's one lesson I learned, it's that a thoughtful, creative, interpretive planning process has the potential to transform an organization.  That transformation is not just the story we tell to visitors, but in this case, it has contributed to creating a culture of ongoing learning, of creative problem-solving and one of engaging visitors in a continuous feedback and evaluation loop.

If you want to hear a bit more about the re-interpretation you can listen to Shannon Burke, Cindy Cormier and me on WNPR's "Where We Live." 

A giant bouquet of appreciation to all my colleagues at Stowe!  Below, Shannon, Emily, and Maura embrace our continuous learning over lunch last week, and get a lesson in Pokemon Go from Charlotte, age 9.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Visitors Make Meaning: From Hilary to Elsa


As with many of you, Nina Simon's new book on relevance is on my must-read list this summer, although I haven't gotten there yet.  But I'm looking forward to digging into her thoughts on relevance, as it's something repeatedly appearing in my own work and something I want to understand more about.

Last week, in some prototyping efforts at The Old Manse, a property of the Trustees, I saw visitors' ability to make relevant connections in action and wanted to reflect on the experience. The Old Manse is a complicated property, with a long, continuous family history.  But it's not just a family site, but a house that overlooked the first battle of the American Revolution and the place where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature.  There's much to think about in the house but one of our goals in rethinking the interpretation is to better connect these complex stories to visitors of all ages and interests.

What we found was that we didn't need to be explicit about content, but if conversations on a guided tour are opened up, visitors rapidly make their own relevant connections, creating a deeper experience.  Here's a few examples:

In one room, the guide plays the role of William Emerson (1743-1776)  known as the Patriot Preacher, who was chaplain of the Continental Congress. Visitors are asked to play the roles of real Concord residents, coming to ask the minister his opinion.  One twelve year old boy received the card of someone who felt it was hypocritical to own slaves and fight for freedom.  He asked the minister for his opinion and I responded, as the minister,  that I didn't see the hypocrisy, as I own slaves myself. This boy then proceeds to offer an unscripted spontaneous, passionate, articulate defense of freedom for all--no matter their race, color, religion or beliefs.  His parents looked at him surprised, but this young man made it absolutely relevant to today.

In the same space, when an introduction to the house mentioned that Emerson built the house, a visitor asked, "But who really built the house?" --  a question surely prompted by Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic convention.

Also on the tour, visitors are introduced to Sarah Ripley (1793-1867) brilliant and entirely self-educated, who read seven languages and tutored Harvard undergraduates in the parlor here.  "Today, she could have been president,"  said one older woman on the tour.  No surprise where that comment came from.

One final meaning-making story from the experiments:  in one room, we share the story of newlyweds Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, who thought of their brief time at the Old Manse as a perfect romantic time.  When I asked a tour group what kind of place was romantic to them, one nine year old girl answered quickly, "a cave behind a waterfall."  Surprised, I asked why-- evidently I have not seen Frozen, because a romantic scene happens behind a waterfall (and dating myself, I instantly thought of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans).

In each of these situations, we didn't just share information, nor did we make the explicit connection--we provided space for meaning-making.  This means we have to give up the urge to share everything we know, and it also means that we have to be okay with uncertainty--and sometimes discomfort. It also means that current events may always be a part of the interpretive experience, because it's what visitors are bringing with them.  For more perspective on this meaning-making, check out this post from Nicole Deufel. My time at The Old Manse was also a reminder of the value of prototyping.  Visitors love to be a part of experimentation and that experimentation enables us to refine how we do this kind of work. If we can let go of our urge to control both the narrative and our visitors experience, those visitors will surprise us on a regular basis with their passion, intelligence and curiosity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better." Experiment away!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fabulous Italian Labels


I saw some amazing labels in Milan, Italy.  No, not the ones you expect, like Prada or Gucci, but real, live terrific museum texts.  In general, I've found that Italian museum labels are pretty bad--either containing the barest amount of text or deep into theoretical knowledge that the average museum-goer can't penetrate.  But evidently Milan is a place where engaging labels have taken hold--and even more of a feat, engaging labels in English.  I have a huge appreciation for museum label writers who engage all of us in a language not their own, making the labels sing with a kind of poetry.  I'll be writing another post with some further reflections on the ICOM conference, but before it's too far away in my mind, enjoy the labels!

First, at the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia.  An ICOM open night was also a public free night, so the museum was mobbed, but amidst the crowds, I found myself intrigued by labels like these.  I found many of the labels I liked more poetic than the usual.  Here's an opening label for the entire museum.  It says,
The museum is alive. It belongs and is open to all.  Today the world spins fast and we are all looking for explanations and opportunities. The museum is alive; it is the museum of the becoming of the world.
And an exhibit on clocks and watches, asked a philosophical question to begin:


I only had time for a few exhibitions, and those I saw quickly, but I found the exhibit Food People, a particular standout.  It looked at the future of food, and was very clear about the ways in which community feedback helped shape the project, as explained in this label.


The introductory labels helped us understand the theme, and why this exhibit was in a science and technology museum.


A hallway exhibit explored how we imagined the future of food, from 1900 to today and evidently there's a Trekkie at work at the museum, because one of the examples was this,  that food would be replicable and multi-cultural, with Star Trek dialogue as the text.


A very different museum is the Pinocoteca di Brera, a classic picture gallery, but with a new director, James Bradbourne, formerly of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.  I loved that the gallery now explained its purpose with a quote from a former director, Franco Russoli.
"A museum is a place for participation, not for evasion or isolation or separation, that liberates its visitors by engaging them."

Also at the entrance and throughout the museum, new labels explained why museums do what they do and the changes they see in the galleries.   New family labels and labels written by artists and writers, encourage us to think in new ways about what we're seeing.


I love that this label connects St. Peter's expression in the art with the physical properties of the painting, conservation issues, and another way to look at all the other work in the room.


Here's a description devoid of art historical terms, yet getting us to think about the work's composition and thinking about what might have happened outside the frame, before and after the scene depicted in the painting.

At the Milan Triennale, which happens in venus indoors and out all over the city, I found the exhibit, Neo-Prehistory:100 Verbs curated by Andrea Branzi and Kenya Hara. The visitor wound through an exhibit of seemingly unrelated objects, one hundred tools, each identified by a verb that took us from pre-history to the present.  Rely:  an iPhone; Despair:  a bomb; Fascinate:  a bottle of Chanel No. 5. The verbs' definitions are the only label text in addition to the simplest object ID labels.  Yet I found myself puzzling and reading each one.  Sometimes I was drawn by the object to read the label, but sometimes vice versa.  How does the story end?  Regenerate, with a visualization of the human heart.



Is there a takeaway about these labels as a group?  I think it is that there is no one way to write a label and that each exhibit, each institution, must find their own voice, but it must be a voice that speaks to visitors and connects us emotionally, to our whole selves.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Authenticity is a Lie


Like anyone who works with historic houses, sooner or later, I find myself in conversations about authenticity.  How do we know how the furniture was arranged? What exactly was that color shown in a black and white photograph?  What did it smell like?  Sound like?  At different times of year?   As insiders, we know those questions and talk about them, as we strive for something that I've now come to believe is a fiction, yet something that our visitors believe is the real deal.  So yes, the "authenicity" that visitors think they are experiencing is often a lie.

Over and over again, I read in visitor surveys or hear visitors comment, "oh, it's just like it was back then,"  when it so clearly to me, seems like it isn't.  This blog post isn't meant in any way to dismiss the work of serious historians and curators who work to know more, all the time, about these inhabited spaces, but rather to suggest that we need to be clearer in owning up to what we know, and what we don't (nor any disrespect to the Seven Gables, pictured above in an early postcard).

There's a few issues that these visitor comments really raise for me.

First, the fact that somehow we, as museum/historic site people are often unwilling to acknowledge the complicated nature of historical practice. As a result, visitors get a shocking lack of complexity in thinking about history.  For instance, do I think 19th century historic houses in the Midwest had needle-pointed bell pulls to cover all of the electric light switches in each room?  Not for a minute. Did visitors think so?  Perhaps, because they were presented as part of the historical furnishings.

Second, our adherence to earlier furnishings efforts leaves out so many people in the story of domestic places. For instance, why are servants and enslaved people only, if at all, present in the kitchen and back spaces? Long ago, participants in the Museum Institute at Great Camp Sagamore were tasked with developing an interpretive interactive that could illustrate how this beautiful great camp in the Adirondack wilderness only ran because of the presence of servants.  One group came up with different colored footprints on the floor to represent servants and Vanderbilts and their guests. The servants' footprints came and went in a dizzying array, all through the course of the day, into a space generally interpreted as a space for the wealthy to relax.

Third, we're not all the same.  Spinning wheels, dresses thrown artfully on beds, children's toys arranged carefully and the fake apple in the kitchen bowl.  How can we get visitors to engage in learning when it feels all the same?  Wasn't anybody a slob in the 18th or 19th century? Weren't some people lovers of technology and others not?  (see Denis Sever House, London, below, for an alternative approaches to the slob question).


Third, can we really know?  And can imagination substitute for knowledge? In houses without specific documentation, we make guesses at what kinds of furnishings would be right, but can we ever really know?  Can we know, as we do in our own homes, the emotional temperature of a space? How it feels happy on a summer evening or Christmas, but a darker emotion on a gloomy November afternoon?  Would it change the way the house was furnished?  When I worked on interpretive planning with the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, the site where TR was sworn in as president, we experimented (and now made permanent) a changed breakfast table. From a formal setting, we changed it to a chair pushed out, rumpled newspapers, and a coffee cup--all, we hoped, a way of engaging visitors' imagination to wonder about the thoughts of a man completing breakfast as he just learns he's become president.  We learned that those changes helped visitors see TR as a person, rather than an abstraction.


As I'd been thinking about historic houses, I had the chance to see the exhibit Rooms:  Novel Living Concepts at the Milan XXI Triennale.  The exhibit began with an overview of Italian design in domestic spaces (above)  reinforcing the sense that the ideal is often what get's presented in history, Then I encountered an imaginative 11 rooms, designed by artists and architects, asking us conceptually to consider past, present and future. Would we think like a bear if we lived in a bear-shaped space? What do we think the future is?  What would life be like in one of these calm white rooms?  Where would the slobs keep their stuff in some of these places?

Wandering through these rooms, I wondered if we shouldn't be more willing to admit that our period rooms are artistic creations rather than exact recreations of history.  They are certainly expressions of self (and sometimes that self-identity that comes from ancestor veneration), of aesthetic taste and choices, and are designed to convey a message, oft-unspoken.  Relatedly, some recent conversations about historic houses and the nature of interpretation also sent me back to Patricia West's Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums; well worth a read if you haven't already.

Rooms ended with a text label that said in part:
Talking about rooms inevitably brings feelings and emotions into play.  Our memories are linked with rooms, not easily described precisely by dint of being too personal.  The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space believed that rooms remain with us, but not just in our memories: they are an assemblage of organic habits and can also lose their shape.
 What's the answer?  Greater transparency about our work, for sure.  And a commitment to experimentation as we find ways to uncover and convey deeper, more inclusive meaning in our interpretive work.


Your period rooms:  sometimes misshapen organic habits, filled with memories.