Sunday, May 17, 2009

Inside TR's Brain

Two full years ago, I began working with the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY on a project to rethink the house's interpretation. Last week, I got to see the results.

For those of you who don't remember this aspect of American history: In 1901, President William McKinley is shot by an assassin while at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Wounded, he lingers--Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt comes to Buffalo, is told that McKinley will survive, and heads to the Adirondacks with his family. McKinley's condition worsens and he dies--Roosevelt receives a telegraph, takes a harrowing midnight ride down the mountain and arrives by train to Buffalo. He goes immediately to Ansley Wilcox's house--where, later that day, he takes the oath of office.

The Wilcox House was saved by a group of local activists and became a National Park Service site, operated in partnership with a local organization. Over time, the site's interpretation became, as many do, a confused (and confusing) accretion of knowledge and supposition. This particular house sat uncomfortably between a site where something momentous happened and your typical Victorian home.

The staff (led by director Molly Quackenbush, the staff intepretive team members were Lenora Henson, Mark Lozo, and Janice Kuzan) and board saw an interpretive opportunity as they embarked on a major capital project to recreate the former carriage house as a visitor center, gift shop and multi-use space. They knew that a beautiful new space should be accompanied by, as they said in their capital campaign efforts, "a museum for the 21st century." I went back to some of our original planning documents. Our goals in the new interpretation were:
  • Create a family-friendly experience for both local residents and tourists
  • Provide a transformative experience for visitors that encourages citizen engagement, both locally and nationally and encourages additional exploration into Roosevelt’s life and impact
  • Have visitors leave saying, “Wow!”
Only time will tell what visitors think, but it was a pleasure for me to see how our original ideas played out in media and exhibits developed by Boston Productions and exhibit designer Linda Ziemba. It reinforced, for me, the sense that historic site interpretation is dependent on us finding the real stories that engage visitors. Here at this site, it wasn't the story of a Victorian house, or even the story of the Wilcox family. It was the big, compelling, only happened here story of an accidental president and of the activist presidency he pursued.

We began our work the way I think all good interpretive processes begin--with lots of conversation--at a day long planning meeting that included staff, board members, teachers, a high school student, scholars and docents. We wrestled with the big ideas of the site and how best to convey them. From that, and with subsequent refinement, we came up with our interpretive themes and a sense of how those might work in the building. Those themes focused on the events of that day, the ways in which America evaluates what is a just society, and the fact that TR's activist presidency produced policies which continue to affect the country.

Our ideas--and a prototype tour--were put to the test in January, 2008 with two focus groups--one group who knew the site well and the second a group of local residents who had never visited. Evaluator Catherine Harris drew out a great deal of useful information from both groups that helped our continuing discussions. Our original orientation area idea, focusing on five questions we thought visitors might have--switched to a clearer focus--to that of the Pan-Am exposition and Buffalo in 1901--to transport the visitor back to the time and place.

But other ideas remained the same from start to finish. We wanted the visitor to feel like they were experiencing that day. Simple changes in the dining room made it seem like TR had perhaps just left after finishing a cup of coffee (Bet you didn't know he's the originator of the phrase, "good to the last drop"). In the morning room, where he wrote a proclamation to the nation, curator Lenora Henson used copies of original telegrams sent to him that week (uncovered by her in the Library of Congress) to convey a sense of citizens, famous and not, connecting to him. In the library, an audio installation re-creates the swearing in--including imagined back dialogue from the more than forty people who were crammed in the small space.

But what about TR's brain? We wanted in some way to connect visitors with the multitude of issues that face any new president. As the docent helps the visitor imagine TR's mind that day, they leave the dining room, just as TR left the house to pay a call on Mrs. McKinley. The visitors then enter into a media installation that conveys, through Roosevelt's words and those of his contemporaries like John Muir and Andrew Carnegie, combined with photographs and objects, the critical issues of the day--TR's brain, as it were.

We also wanted visitors to think about today--to think about what they might do as President. In the morning room, the docent has the opportunity to ask visitors to take a few minutes to jot down what they might say if they suddenly became president. In our prototyping, it was thrilling to see how willing visitors were to do this, how much they enjoyed the opportunity to talk about this country's opportunities and problems, and how thrilled they were to see the facsimile of Roosevelt's address--with its many cross-outs and corrections. We tested this in January, 2008, when the presidential campaign was just ramping up. None of us could have quite imagined the past year and a half, and I suspect visitors will continue their interest in this activity. Museums can be a place of connecting about real issues and, with this new interpretation, this site has created many new opportunities for conversation.

One caveat and one kudo:

There's a lot of technology in this site now--it certainly made many things possible but in a few cases, I'm not convinced that the same results could have been achieved with a simpler solution. Any site has to be prepared to effectively manage technology--both when it works and when it doesn't. The site will be planning for the long run care and feeding of their technology.

And, talk about making a bridge between visitors and the subject matter--as I sat on a bench in the orientation room, watching film footage of the Pan-Am Exposition, a docent leaned over and said, "It's just like you're at the Pan-Am--that's just what people did--sit on the benches and watch the world go by." Very nice.

Just a note to potential visitors: the second floor exhibitions were not yet installed--the site re-opens to the public on June 20.

Top to bottom:
Library, Wilcox House
Orientation area
Dining table
Issues Room
Bench in the Pan Am exhibit area


Anonymous said...

This was a great post. As a curator at a small historic house, I'm interested to know how large the site is. What, if any opposition, did you (and the staff) face about making such a big interpretive shift?

Linda said...

The site is not large either physically or staff-wise--but is larger than the one person does everything historic house. I'll let the staff respond for themselves, but from my end, it was definitely a process and pretty much every step of the way we tried to keep all the various stakeholders informed: the board, the education committee, and docents and other volunteers--and the staff did a great job at that. I think two other components were important--one, that very first meeting where we talked about ideas, and second, the formative evaluation. Those tours, given by me, were only a rough draft, but I think they were the time that everyone started to see the real possibilities--and got very useful feedback from visitors and potential visitors. In addition, the staff worked with a consultant to develop training for the new tour.

And do I think every single docent has fully embraced the new tour?--perhaps not yet, but many have and seemed very excited about it.

Redoing interpretation is really a project that involves looking at every part of what you do as a historic site--so it's time consuming and scary--but I think keeping people in the loop all along the way is critical to its success. It's also important to understand that you can't please everyone all of the time.

If you want to know more details about the process, please don't hesitate to contact me off-blog through email.