Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Really Happens Out on Those Guided Tours?

Many historic sites spend a great deal of time thinking about, planning, moaning about the guided tours at their site.  Although there’s definitely mixed opinions about guided tours (see Susie Wilkening’s post here),  there’s no doubt that they’re still the primary way that many visitors experience historic homes.

I’m working with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site on a new interpretation of their historic house, thanks to the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.   As a part of the project I created an assessment form and staff and a small group of board members have headed off to visit  variety of historic homes and museums.

Because not everyone on the planning team could make all the site visits, the visitors have written visit reports for all of us, and as a group, they present a great picture of what’s right and what’s wrong with guided tours.  I won’t name the sites here, but as you read these excerpts, remember that these visitors are people who are already inclined to be historic house goers—they are college-educated, have a passion for art, history, or architecture, and already spend a substantial chunk of their professional or volunteer time involved with a historic house.  Their thoughtful reports made me want to visit some places;  put some places on my don’t bother list, and most of all, reminded me that what we think is happening is only sometimes happening in our visitor experiences.   And a caveat as well, these were visitors without families,  so there certainly is an entire other layer of experiences that are had by visitors.
A few of their thoughts:
Again and again, the guide would urge the visitors to imagine what [a president, the house resident] might have been feeling or thinking  as he walked up the very stairs we were walking up, or moving throughout the very same rooms we were moving through. The house served almost as a minimalist stage for the drama of [the president], the experience being very much  like participating in a one-man show, something along the lines of a somber  version of  “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” The guide was theatrical and captivating, excited about his subject and eager to connect to his audience.
I came away feeling that the goal, president or not, is conveying the importance of the individual’s ideas and achievements in the most powerful way possible.
One of the most interesting aspects of our visit to [historic site] was that each of us came away with very different experiences. This was one of my favorite visits for it had originality and took a very bold risk in its approach to presenting and interpreting the site. 
The risk was this: the onus of the quality of a visitor’s experience rested entirely on the virtuosity of the tour guide. Ours was a young post-grad type who I found totally resistable, perhaps due to his cornball jokes starting out. But once we were underway, his animation, knowledge and sheer passion for his subject took over and captivated his audience, at least me.
Our  guide was an affable man who couldn’t hide his pride and admiration for the project but warned us that he tended to ramble on and ramble on he did…. Though our guide did a decent job of discussing life at [historic house] and the restoration process, his lack of discipline in presentation made me wonder if I had reacted too harshly to the swiss watch precision of the other tours. The second floor was supposedly self-guided with some miscellaneous displays about the building but our eager guide followed us upstairs and kept talking.
This was the least satisfying of any of the tours I took on our junket, so it serves an important purpose of establishing an example of what to avoid. The guide seemed to be a staff person pressed into service perhaps due to a shortage of docents. She was not unpleasant but had a perfunctory, somewhat unsure and occasionally apologetic tone in her delivery. She did make it clear that they were undergoing some rethinking and re-organizing of their interpretive plan, but meanwhile “this is what we have” seemed to by the M.O.
The lesson learned here was clearly about the importance of defining your purpose to yourself before presenting it to others. What story is most important about your place? What story do you want the public to take away with them? What contribution does the existence of your place make to the greater understanding of our culture, our world, our history? None of these questions were even approached, much less answered  by this muddled and directionless tour. We couldn’t wait to leave.
Our guide was the dream docent that any museum would covet. A local woman of a certain age, she had been with the house for twelve years, since its opening to the public. She had such a wonderful comfort level with her material that I felt immediately well taken care of. She just had it in her bones. And yet there was not a trace of smugness – just a warm, chatty style ,no sense of memorizing a script, always ready to field any question at any time, and then expound upon it.
The team shared several take-away lessons about the work of interpretive planning.  They included:
  • The lesson learned for me here was clear: go big or go home
  • The entire experience draws the visitor into a very defined and vivid world with a very specific point of view. Lesson: a strong clear mission that is presented with consistency, both physically and thematically, is very powerful.
And there’s another important take-away for me—I often hear complaints about boards not understanding the work that museum professionals do.   These site visits deepened a group of board members' understandings not only about their own site, but about the work of interpretation.  Try taking your board members on a field trip—even to a nearby museum or historic site.   Anne Ackerson, in her blog, Leading by Design recently wrote a great post about fostering good ideas on a board—it’s exactly this kind of experience that can help lead to those new ideas and discoveries about the work your organization does.  How do you encourage your board to learn?

Friday, November 26, 2010

From Cotton to Culture: Changing the Face and Future of European Cities

Guest Blog Post by Irina-Leonenko-Wels
My friend and colleague Irina Leonenko-Wels has been living in Prague for just over a year.  From her perch there, she has explored a wide variety of museums throughout Europe.   I'm very pleased she's agreed to share some impressions of industrial history museums there, a particular interest of hers because of her home region in Ukraine.   Irina and her husband are moving to Moscow early next year--so I'm hoping The Uncataloged Museum will have reports--including great photos like those here-- from there!

Coming from a very industrial (and quite economically depressed) region in Ukraine called Donbass, I have always been fascinated with industrial cities looked like in other European countries, especially in the West, in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and France. They looked different to me first of all because they were not sad and scary to drive through, to stop in or even to live in. In fact, on the contrary, they have now become popular places for living, for having office space in, and what’s more important they have become attractive for tourist and cultural events. In Europe there are many success stories of industrial cities’ revitalization.  For instance, some examples from my travels:
  • RUHR.2010– a whole industrial region in Germany, this year’s European Cultural Capital -
  • Zollverein - the old mining complex in Essen is now the most prominent example of revitalization in the whole region.
  • The Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei – from “Cotton to Culture”, in the 20th century the largest spinning mill on the continent, with 240,000 spindles and 208 combing machines, now a cultural cluster with contemporary art centers, galleries, design shops and publishing houses.

European cities are very active and united when it comes to sharing experience about development and promotion of their industrial heritage. Several special networks have been created for this purpose, as, for example, ERIH, the European Route of Industrial Heritage. Currently it presents more than 850 industrial sites in 32 European countries.

Last month I flew from Prague to Barcelona to take part in the ERIH network’s annual conference. The event was held in co-operation with the TICCIH Tourism Section ( and at the invitation of the Catalan Museum of Science and Technology in Terrassa. The main theme of the conference was Industrial Heritage Tourism. Speakers from 12 European countries highlighted their successes but also difficulties they faced in their work of industrial heritage preservation and promotion. You can find some of the presentations here. I particularly liked the Cromford cotton spinning mills in Derbyshire, England which showed how a plan,  focusing on  improved interpretation and special events helped to reach new markets and audiences.   Another example was from Frankfurt in Germany, where Open Days of Industrial Culture Rhein-Main are held. The idea of Open Days is to change people’s perception of industrial heritage in the region, to offer audiences unique leisure and entertainment facilities, to help them experience region with all of the senses and understand how how industry functions. Open Days attract more than 11,000 visitors around 180 events at 104 locations.  Every year Open Days have a special theme. As next year,  2011, the UN has proclaimed the International Year of Chemistry, Open Days’ team plans to concentrate its activities around chemical industries in their region and show its benefits to the public.

Industrial heritage in Spain

Going to Barcelona, city usually associated with sun and beaches, I couldn’t have imagined how rich the industrial heritage of the region was. Old mines, textile mills, industrial colonies, warehouses, old factories, cellars have now been converted into museums. And the information is easily findable--here's a downloadable tourism brochure showing all the industrial museums in the region. /en/turismeindustrial
As part of the conference we visited many industrial sites in the region.  However, one I will never forget – is a visit to CERC Mining Museum high up in the Pyrenees mountains. The mines in that area were long the source of the coal that moved the steam engines and drove the whole Catalan industry. The Museum of CERC mine was small but had all the ‘ingredients’ for a great experience exploring 150 years of industrial history: cinema hall with films about the mine, a mining train that takes visitors inside the galleries of Sant Roma, open-air exhibition of mining machinery, nice museum shop, real miner’s house, audio guides in several languages plus 2 small hotels at the premises, big event hall and a great restaurant with traditional Catalan dishes (which we really enjoyed at the end of our tour).

During our visit to CERC Mine I never stopped wondering when visitors and citizens of my region in Ukraine would get to experience something like that. With more than 200 coal mines in our region (more than anywhere in Europe) Donbass is drastically lacking places that would interpret our region’s industrial history and allow people to have some fun.

If you wish to see more photos from the conference on Industrial Heritage Tourism you are welcome to visit my Picasa page.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Would Young People March to Save Your Historic Site? A Story from Western Ukraine

Who cares about your historic site?  Would young people come to a march to save it?  Although change in Ukrainian museums sometimes seems slow, I'm continually impressed by the passionate commitment of some young Ukrainians.  When I was in Ukraine, I spent some time working with the State Historical and Cultural Preserve of Tustan, an mountaintop archaeological fortess site in the Carpathians, in western Ukraine.

Today, I read on a Ukrainian museum news website (via Google Translate) about new protests about the illegal development of the site.  In brief, the site is a protected preserve but this past summer a local businessman, with permission from the village council,  began to build on the property.  Appeals to the prosecutor general halted the construction, but just recently, it has begun again, altering the course of the river on the preserve.

Rather than wait for someone else to take action, a group of young people, led by the site's director, Vasyl Rozkho, organized a protest in the center of L'viv.  A flash mob,  photographs documenting the construction,  costumed re-enactors, artists, artisans and others joined together to march and present a letter of protest to the city administration.

There are two take-aways for me as I read this article.  First, it draws attention to the important, and sometimes threatened, growth of civil society in Ukraine.  Vasyl and others are using the full array of tools--public assembly, official protest to officials, the media, the internet--to get their message out and fight corruption as they see it.

But equally important is what this says for historic sites everywhere.  It feels like almost every day I have a conversation about a historical society or historic site where "no one cares" and "we can't get any young people involved."  I'm not quite sure of the reasons that young people care about this particular site--but I'll speculate a bit.

First, the site represents a period in Ukrainian history that many are proud of and that was suppressed during the Soviet era.   Second,  this is a site that had a tradition of involving young people.  Vasyl's father conducted the archaeological expeditions, bringing students into the mountains to work so the involvement of young people has been an important part of the site for decades--and that involvement of young people continues today.   Third, a September festival (as shown in photos in this post) attracts thousands of visitors and offers a highly participatory experience at odds with many Ukrainian museums.  This means a large number of people know and care about the site.  For whatever reason, perhaps the very small staff, the organization is not a hide-bound bureaucracy.  Vasyl also came to the job with training as an architect, rather than as a historian or scientist, so perhaps his perspective is different.

But as I read this article, I thought back to several days spent with Vasyl and others this past spring--and the thing that makes a difference here--passion.  This is not just a job,  but a passionate commitment to sharing a part of a Ukrainian past.   So think about your museum or historic site?  Would young people in your community come out to save it?  And if the answer is less than a resounding yes, perhaps its time to consider what you could do to make that difference.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How Do You Put People in the Picture of Local History? 2 Smart Ideas

As I've written about historical societies in danger of becoming dinosaurs--and in the many thoughtful comments I've received--it has become clear that one major problem is that, in a nation where we move often and rarely live where we grew up,  that local history museums haven't quite figured out how to put all of their audience--not just the long term locals--into the picture of local history.  They risk becoming irrelevant to their audiences and their communities.  But I've heard about two inspiring, fun and engaging efforts, neither by a local history museum,  that do just that--create relevance and meaning for audiences and communities.

First,  Love, Loss and What I Wore.  Years ago I had picked up this little book at a used book sale and loved it.  By Ilene Beckerman,  it's an autobiography, a memoir, told through her simple line drawings and descriptions of what she wore.  It's now been turned into a Broadway play by Nora and Delia Ephron that, as the play's website says, "uses clothing and accessories and the memories they trigger to tell funny and often poignant stories that all women can relate to."   At the performance though,  playgoers are invited to draw a picture of themselves in a favorite item of clothing and share the details about it.  Those simple drawings are then featured on the play's Facebook page.   What a great idea to adapt to a local historical society exhibit--and it could mean that everyone with a favorite clothes memory could be included, not just those families who donated those wedding dresses.

Carol Kammen, the Tompkins County, NY historian, and a regular columnist for AASLH's History News, introduced me to a new initiative of the Tompkins County local historians (in New York, an appointed and largely unpaid position in municipal governments of all sizes) called House History.  In this project, homeowners are encouraged to record the history of the house they live in on a brightly colored House Tag that can be stored in a front closet, near the electrical box, or in other easy-to-find location.  A longer two page form collects additional information about the house and neighborhood and can be filed with the local historian's office.

Importantly, however, this project is not just for historic homes.  The Tompkins County historians are encouraging all to participate and have already had submissions from owners of new homes, who welcome the idea of leaving a lasting record of their particular place.  This project,  like Love, Loss and What I Wore opens up the possibility of participation to everyone; and in both cases, thinks not only about the past, but about the future.

What else could a local history organization do to connect all of their community?  If you've undertaken a project, please let me know!

Images, top to bottom: Norris family photo, drawing from Love, Loss and What I Wore audience member, and houses, both from  FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What's Your Museum's Secret Code?

In a wide-ranging session moderated by Ken Yellis and I yesterday at the New England Museum Association conference,  one of the audience members touched on the idea of museum codes of behavior and it reinforced for me the importance of discussing those values--embedded in codes of behavior--that exist at almost every museum.

Sometimes the code is not-so-secret.  Consider  the museums, parks or historic sites you've been to that have a long sign listing all the things you can't do.  But consider the other coded messages museums convey:
  • This is a museum for you only if you already know the story--for experts only!
  • This is not a place for families
  • This is a place for families and not quiet contemplation
  • This museum tells a story about people who you'll never be like
  • This museum finds room for all kinds of people in its stories
  • We love technology
  • We hate technology
  • We think visitors are an inconvenience
  • We really hate change
  • We keep our good stuff hidden away
  • We think you'll learn best if you see all our stuff on display
  • We hope you'll ask questions
  • We're scared you'll ask a question we don't know the answer to
  • We're scared of our neighborhood (I think of big fences  here)
  • We value the past as distinct from the presence
  • We value the past as it connects to the present
  • We value your opinion
  • We welcome everyone

And how can you discover what messages are encoded at your museum?  Take a staff walk-though or use a version of a secret shopper.  Invite community members of all types to visit, on their own, unannounced and share their perspectives with you.