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!