Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Back Then

(or perhaps this post should be titled, Lies my Teacher Taught Me, with apologies to James Loewen)

For a project, we surveyed elementary teachers who bring their students to a museum to find out about what they thought was important, what the students were learning, and how the visit tied to their curriculum. Although this museum's curriculum-based materials aren't the best, the website, collections and other materials clearly state that the site focuses on the 19th century. However, time and time again in the surveys, teachers said they visited because it connects with their study of Colonial history. Astounding. Can it really be that so many teachers--people with advanced degrees, and responsible for teaching children--really don't know the difference between the Colonial period and the 19th century? Should we be surprised that our general visitors can't make the distinction?

I'm not the kind of history person who thinks knowing every single date is important, but it seems to me that knowing a basic chronological progression might be a requirement for anyone teaching social studies. It presents a huge barrier for history museums and historic sites--if teachers can't even grasp the basics of what you're teaching, why would they come and how can they make sense of what happens at your site and connect it to their other classroom work?

What's the answer? Teacher workshops done by history museums? a revised system of training teachers?

Friday, May 16, 2008

New Exhibits of Note

I'm always reading about new exhibits and keep a mental list of ones I'd like to see, should I be somewhere. Some are on the list because of the subject matter, others because of an interesting installation or approach, and some just for fun. Here's some from my current list:

Discovering Rastafari! at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. I know little about this religion and culture and for me, an exhibition is always a great way to begin to learn more. Weirdly, there's just a one paragraph description on the museum's website, but you can read the New York Times review here.

The Horse, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Sounds like a large exhibit, chock-full of objects, computer interactives and hands-on elements. AMNH has produced a number of my most memorable exhibits, from tattoos to Darwin.

Take Your Time:
Olafur Eliasson at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I couldn't describe this, so here's an excerpt from the museum's website:

Take your time: Olafur Eliasson is the first comprehensive survey in the United States of works by Olafur Eliasson, whose immersive environments, sculptures, and photographs elegantly recreate the extremes of landscape and atmosphere in his native Scandinavia, while foregrounding the sensory experience of the work itself. Drawn from collections worldwide, the presentation spans over fifteen years of Eliasson's career. His constructions, at once eccentric and highly geometric, use multicolored washes, focused projections of light, mirrors, and elements such as water, stone, and moss to shift the viewer's perception of place and self. By transforming the gallery into a hybrid space of nature and culture, Eliasson prompts an intensive engagement with the world and offers a fresh consideration of everyday life.

It looks beautiful and compelling--and when you visit the website, don't miss looking at the pictures of visitors interacting with the exhibit.

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
I like historic costume, but I'm not very interested in when bustles came in or sleeves went out. The visual nature of clothing and its meaning in all of our lives is what draws me in. Any show that combines comic books, high fashion, and high performance sportswear seems worth seeing.

And one historic site for the list, the newly opened President Lincoln's Cottage.
Using "historical voices" and images, the site tells the story of the simple place that was Lincoln's retreat.

What do you want to see?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sunday, May 11, 2008


At AAM, I attended two fascinating sessions by James Chung and Susie Wilkenning of Reach Advisors. I was particularly struck by the survey they had just completed of 5000 visitors to 13 major outdoor museums. You can read much more about the survey on the Reach Advisors' blog. The survey looked at, among other things, why people visit.

Why do they?
  • 62% said to immerse themselves in the past
  • 82% to hear stories of everyday people
  • 79% because they are places for children to learn history
Visitors wanted more immersive experiences. They wanted more access to the site, more opportunity to do rather than watch demonstrations, to engage all five senses, and critically, they wanted well-informed accessible, friendly staff. All good things to consider for any museum.

But the part of the presentation I struggled with the most is about authenticity. Said one museum visitor, "In my mind, authenticity is synonymous with history museums." But is it really--and how do our audiences really know we are authentic. In one of my projects, a teacher survey revealed that a majority of teachers visiting this particular site feel it's the real deal, but some think it shows the colonial period when in fact, the artifacts and limited interpretation are the 19th century.
I'm glad that visitors think we're authentic--and in fact, the museums in the Reach Advisor survey are in the top level and clearly set high standards for authenticity. But in fact, many small museums also convey that authenticity, when in fact, they're portraying falsehoods--whether it's something about people being shorter back then or ignoring the presence of enslaved people in the site's history.

I wish museum and historic site visitors would be more critical--that they would spend more time asking why, than learning the how of spinning or printing. Maybe they won't, because many of them come, as the survey demonstrated, for a respite, a bucolic setting. And I wish we, as museum professionals, could spend more time really thinking about the meaning of authenticity for our audiences, understanding how we are perceived, and working, when necessary, to change those perceptions.

Above: Eggs (real) at the Farmers Museum, April 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Little Knowledge and the Big Dipper

Last night, at a party, I happened to meet the director of the Dudley Observatory.  As we talked, I owned up that I only maybe knew three things about astronomy: one, that people probably got it confused with astrology (correct on this one), that Pluto wasn't a planet anymore (still some debate, evidently), and lastly, that really the only thing I recognized in the night sky was the Big Dipper. With the last, she exclaimed, "That's all you need!" and went on to say that once you knew someone up there, that was the start, the way to unlock all you might want to know about the universe. Driving home, I thought about how easy that sounded--and how hard we often make it to gain the knowledge historians, art historians, anthropologists and others present in museum settings. What would exhibits be like if we really dedicated serious effort to seek out that one connecting point--the point that made it possible for us to enter in, excited, into a new world of knowledge?

And tonight, when I got home, I looked up at the sky and thought, "hmmm...maybe I'd like to know more."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Looking at Leadership

Star D'Angelo, director of the Shaker Heritage Society in Albany, NY, sent these observations about board leadership after she read my post on a leadership session at AAM.

"Leadership is a subject that I have been contemplating for some time now. I wonder how I can be a better leader, why and if I want to continue acting as a museum director, how my work brings meaning to my life and how it serves the community...

I recently challenged my board to think more creatively abot the nominating process by cultivating individuals who are interested in things that may not seem immediately relevant to our museum mission. This included people interested in preserving open space, fair trade enterprise and micro loans to poor people who want to start a business, the growing interest in "simple living" or "green lifestyles," character education for children, encouraging public/private partnerships, etc. These are all things that are relevant to our situation our to Shaker history or values but we have yet to focus on them. Several of my board members called to say that they were inspired by these suggestions and are now thinking about more than just finding that key fundraising person (important but not necessarily inspiring!) or local history buff."

To me, Star's comments are really about the vision we have for our organizations. In her case, the vision of the creators of her site, the Shakers, is very clear and helped shape these ideas for new board members.

I think many historic sites and local museums were founded by people with a strong interest in "stuff." And so, the place becomes about that "stuff," rather than about a larger meaning. Star's suggestions can serve as a model for many interested in creating more diverse, more involved, more creative boards. Each site has a story to tell and finding those more creative board members may involve spending real time and effort to determine what those stories are, and how they resonate in today's society and in your own community.

As you find those new board members and involve them in your community, I suspect you may find new audiences, new members, and new partnerships. There's lots of current museum scholarship about individual meaning-making for visitors--but in this case a director has really put those meaning-making ideas in play within the context of leadership.

How can you identify and recruit new and different board members for your organization?

Photo: The Shaker Heritage Site, Albany NY, from

Saturday, May 3, 2008

"Our Guide Concluded and Let Us Explore"

I was fortunate to moderate a lively discussion at AAM on why historic house tours are so boring--and what we might do about that problem.   The group included staff from houses with limited visitation--up to houses with audiences of 55,000 visitors per year.  

Some of the issues mentioned included the fact that visitors come to learn what they want to learn--but what they get is perhaps the last bastion of the fully mediated experience.  In most parts of the museum world, discussion and change is well underway about how to provide visitors with the opportunity to create and control their own experience.  All too few historic houses provide visitors with that chance.  Several mentioned the need for some sort of unmediated space and time for visitors to explore and learn more.   Visitors want that as well--a random search of Flickr turned up the photo at the top of this post: it's titled, "Our Guide Concluded and Allowed Us to Explore."  

Many in the group also noted that most tours still focus around furniture and that visitors aren't given the tools to understand how these furnishings, this house, relate to me.  And that, as one participant said, "we assume that visitors get it."   Very few of the participants had used any sort of real process in developing tours, and very few had used front-end and formative evaluation to test their tours on visitors.   It seems as if many historic house tours are stalagmites, slow accretions of knowledge (true or not) that grow up organically, with few chances taken to really evaluate and/or start anew.   One participant noted that she was now using the process of interpretation used in exhibits, particularly Beverly Serrell's book, to develop tours.   And I was surprised to see that this approach, developing a big idea and developing interpretive techniques to convey to others, was a new approach to many.

Two comments particularly struck me--they were very different and convey the challenges we face in connecting with our visitors.   One participant thought that all this interpretive work was "all about distracting the visitor."   She argued for a quiet tour, a reflective tour, a chance to be fully in the historic spaces, with the opportunity to look, see and touch on her own.   As I think about compelling historic spaces I've been in,  I realize that those are the sites that are memorable to me as well--the sites where, on your own, you can feel the presence of the past.

At the same time, another participant noted that we were neglecting the place of laughter in the historic house museum--both in the past and on our tour.   I think perhaps what that really means to me is that we neglect the place of emotions in historic house tours.   Think about your own home--it probably is a place of joy, sorrow, pride, and a host of other emotions.   How many historic house tours connect you emotionally to the lives of the house's inhabitants?

One participant said, "but how do I do all this?  I'm the only staff person!"   Scroll down for resources, but also consider seeking funding.   Depending on your state,  state arts or humanities councils may fund interpretive planning.  IMLS and the National Endowment for the Humanities also support interpretive planning and implementation.  Seek out an intern from a local college or graduate program, enlist volunteers in doing research,  find a theater group to help train your current volunteers, and most of all, embrace change!

What can you do to change the interpretation at your site?

Friday, May 2, 2008

What Makes Historic House Tours So Boring: Upstate Thoughts

In preparation for an AAM discussion of the same name, I queried the Upstate History Alliance list-serv for their opinions on why historic house tours are boring.

Several list members shared their own personal experiences:

"When my oldest was 15 months old, we toured Monticello. Should be fun, right? They've got the money to do things be meet our needs? So I'm holding my precious cargo and we enter the library. He says (says, not yells) in his baby way, "book, book, book" - and points (a full two yards away from any real object) and he is IN MY ARMS. The docent suggested I might prefer to wait on the porch while my husband finished the tour. It still makes me mad!"
Lauren Cohen

"I recently visited several historic house museums in the Hartford, CT area. A couple of times, I was the only person there, so was one-on-one with interpretors. They were all 'stuck' in their format; I introduced myself (if I was the only one there) and expressed what I was especially interested in, but they still gave me their rote tour. I sometimes stalled them by asking (the wrong) questions, or by not having the right reaction to what they were telling me - meaning, they had given the same speech so many times that they had an expectation of how their visitors would and should react. Sometimes they would act disappointed when I didn't respond correctly, or like I was wasting their time by asking unimportant, obscure questions.

Tours are boring when one has to stand through a routine, with no real personal interaction. We have to laugh at the right time, or be awed, or surprised, on cue. Often, when I have a special interest, it won't be addressed because either a) the interpretor doesn't have the information; b) there isn't time, they can't stop long enough to deal with special interests and still keep on time with the other tours going on, or c) they simply don't care, so don't ask for questions."
Donna Nortman

"Most recently I toured several historic houses with some good friends who are not in the field. We selected homes of great interest to us -- either for the architectural design or the significance of its residents and the roles they played in history. In each situation -- I was embarrassed by the quality of the information shared and the manner of delivery. On a number of occasions, it was clear that among the visitors on these tours, some were more informed or as informed as the volunteer tour guides. However, the guides did not encourage discussion or exchange of ideas. Rather, they controlled information and ensured that theirs was the only voice heard. In addition, there was a lot of focus on material cultural and not ideas. I came away from each experience disappointed and our group of travelers would have lively follow-up discussions based upon our "interpretation" of what we saw and how it connected to our prior research on related topics."
Marianne Bez

No wonder that attendance at historic houses is declining when we, members of the profession, find the tours boring. Why is that? a number of list readers shared viewpoints gained from experiences as directors, educators and curators. In particular, Erin Crissman, newly appointed curator at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY and Ken Shefsiek, director of the Geneva Historical Society,  provided great food for thought.

Erin's thoughts:

Lack of any redeeming connection to the present individual HHM visitor-- almost every house tour I've ever been on is structured like this: A) this is the home of Wealthy McMillionare who was so gracious as to have left us his home as a museum, or his home was rescued from destruction by a patriotic women's organization. B) Here is his sideboard, bed, fancy china, chamber pot, fireplace, etc. C) "back then" everything was different D) Thank you for visiting.

Who wants to stand up for an hour while learning about a person who is presented to you as having essentially nothing in common with yourself?

Many house museum tours are focused on material wealth. Although it seems that an increasing number of Americans are able to purchase larger and larger vehicles, there are many who are not able to do that. There is a vast difference between the refinement with which many of America's HHMs were created and furnished (and even different than the 50s, 60s and 70s when they were made into museums) and the consumerism of today. Something needs to be done to bridge this gap. The act of purchasing a chippendale sideboard in 1770, and purchasing the biggest HDTV available, are two very different experiences in too many ways to enumerate in this email.

And Ken's:

1)It is my experience that oftentimes tours are so boring not because of the material being offered, but rather because the right type of people have not been chosen to be tour guides. There are many reasons for this (it is difficult to turn down a volunteer, guides when paid are paid so low that the pool of possibilities is low, etc.). While I don't believe in the "edutainment" concept (i.e. that people want primarily to be entertained, with only a little education on the side),
I believe that learning occurs better when the teaching is offered by someone who is entertaining. We need to think carefully about the type of person we hire. Guiding/teaching is a type of performance, and we need people that are capable of performing. I think it is a fallacy that tours necessarily need to be interactive (discussions between the guest and the guide, touching things, etc.); we have all had experiences of listening to excellent, engaging presentations by people in any number of fields without have to make a lecture a discussion. This is not to say that discussion isn't good and positive, but I don't think we should always think that that is necessary. "Engagement" can be internal and mental.

2)For regular HHM goers, tours that focus on objects quickly become boring, which is a point that probably does not need to be made. Objects, however, are extremely important, but the objects discussed (unless a guest has a particular question) should not be chosen willy-nilly as they often are. Rather,
the objects chosen for discussion must address an important issue or reveal a relevant context. Oftentimes guides also assume that their guests know nothing, so they start at the ground up, such as explaining the basics of cooking over a fire and the tools of the kitchen, or identifying a Chippendale chair.

Many tours are so tedious because the limitations of archival evidence sometimes impedes the development of good tours. I'm working on a new tour of Rose Hill Mansion in Geneva, NY (1839 Greek Revival), and have access to a wealth of primary documents that will enable us to construct a very "human" tour using the words of the people that lived in and visited the house. I had virtually nothing so personal to work with when I was the educator at Huguenot Street. The challenge there was to focus on those issues that resonated in today's world -- ethnicity, race, socioeconomic relationships. For tours not to be boring, I think they need to be "humanized," by which I mean they address relationships between people. They also need to be evocative, by trying to recreate the texture of life in a particular place. However, these goals require a great deal from our guides, and from us, both in terms of continuing our own education and in finding time to offer appropriate training. Lacking alot of personal materials (letters, diaries, etc.), bringing the people to life takes a great deal of time and work to find and decide what information actually does that.

4)While we are often somewhat burdened with either the house saved for patriotic reasons or the house saved for its architectural/artistic value, that may not be as much of a problem as we think (this is a particular problem for the great architectural masterpieces, as they present a lifestyle that few can relate to). As Erin Crissman wrote earlier today, many of the houses are the house of millionaire so-and-so. If we use millionaire so-and-so as a point of reference to talk about others (the millionaire's family, servants, tenants, slaves, people beyond the household itself, the house in relation to its historic community, etc.), we can bring up issues of class, race, gender, etc.
We generally talk about what the house and the owner are rather than what they are not, but every person and object substantially derives its identity by what he/she/it are and what they are not. HHM tours are often so boring because they don't explore these relationships to the level and sophistication necessary to bring about intellectual and even emotional connection.

In short,
tours are boring because they are insufficiently sophisticated. I don't mean that they have to be overly academic or intellectual, but they are often not designed "to touch us" in thoughtful, intellectual and/or emotional ways. I was inspired when I visited Historic Cherry Hill recently for a regular guided tour by a volunteer docent. She was carefully trained to connect in all those ways, and as I understand it, their training program is rigorous and extended, and guides are carefully monitored. The docent perhaps was not "entertaining," but she understood the complex issues being addressed and was able to communicate them with the visitors.

I hope that this helping of food for thought inspires lively discussion at your own historic site about how to approach the work we do. 

Photo: Unknown historic interior from

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Making House Tours Better

Yesterday, I facilitated an early morning session at the AAM conference called, "Why Are Historic House Tours So Boring?" To my surprise, almost fifty thoughtful, passionate museum staff members from all over the country turned out to share ideas, concerns, and perspectives on the topic. In a future post, I'll summarize the conversation, but here are links to some of the resources that came up during the conversation.

Shared docent training: Historic sites in Portland, ME have joined together to develop a joint twelve week docent training program called Portland's History Docents. A great idea on how to make limited resources go further and create a group of participants who feel connected to each other--and the group of sites.
Learn more here.

Several participants who had come to historic sites from the realm of interpreting the natural world highly recommended the materials developed by the
National Association for Interpretation. They offer training and certification for guides, trainers, planners and managers, as well as a wide variety of training materials.

Few participants made use of front end or formative evaluation in developing tours or other interpretive materials. Resources on these types of evaluation can be found at:

National Park Service, Harpers Ferry Center, Media Evaluation and Visitor Research:
basic explanation of front-end and formative evaluation and examples of evaluations from sites as diverse as the Grand Canyon, the African Burial Ground in New York City, and the visitor center at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation (CARE) includes great materials introducing the concepts and techniques of visitor studies from sessions presented at AAM conferences.

Resources for thinking about civic engagement--making your sites matter more to your audiences:

International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience

And, for additional information on developing interpretive plans, tours, and training docents:

Two books: Great Tours: Thematic Tours and Guide Training for Historic Sites by Barbara Abramoff Levy, Susan Porter Schreiber and Sandra MacKenzie Lloyd; Exhibit Labels by Beverly Serrell (great for thinking about those Big Ideas), and Interpreting Historic House Museums, edited by Jessica Foy Donnelly (all published by Altamira Press).

Photo: the courtyard of the hospital in Arles. No reason, other than it was very snowy coming back from Denver and this was an antidote to the late winter!