Collaborations have long been touted as an excellent avenue for small historic sites and museums to better leverage limited staff and resources to reach a wider audience. But how can we create those partnerships and develop effective programming?

At Indiana Landmarks, we’ve thought more and more about collaboration as we’ve worked to develop new and vibrant programming to increase sustainability of Morris-Butler House, an 1865 historic site. An unexpected partnership with our local steampunk enthusiast group, Circle City Aerodrome (CCA), led to collaboration on a steampunk-themed holiday tea.

Scene from Circle City Aerodrome's "Penny Dreadful" photo blog

Scene from Circle City Aerodrome’s “Penny Dreadful” photo blog; foyer of Morris-Butler House


Here are words of wisdom learned from developing this new collaboration:

  • Don’t dive right in. This might seem counterintuitive, but what I mean is that we didn’t just discover steampunk and decide to throw together a quick program to capitalize on its popularity. We took the time to determine if collaboration with a steampunk organization would support our mission. Any new collaboration needs to support the mission of the organization, or it’s not worth it.
  • Take time to find the right partner. In our case, the newly formed CCA approached us and asked to shoot a photo blog at Morris-Butler House. We seized the opportunity to start a relationship, but the timing wasn’t right to jump into joint programming. We waited for several months until we knew what we wanted and the CCA was more established.
  • It’s ok to step outside the box. Embracing steampunk initially seemed like “mission creep” for a well-established historic preservation organization. Our willingness to try something new led us to a new, previously untapped audience.
  • Have clear expectations. Both organizations came to the table with differing expectations, but came to a compromise. Because we were adding a steampunk theme to a long-established program (Victorian holiday teas), we wanted a simple, non-threatening introduction to steampunk for our current audience. Several members of CCA gave a fabulous presentation about steampunk, making it an accessible, enjoyable experience for our guests.
  • Steampunk and history aren’t antithetical.  Steampunk reimagines and reinterprets Victorian history.  Some might think that’s not a natural match for a historic site, but we’ve found that steampunk enthusiasts are some of the most respectful visitors.  They have great appreciation for history and choose to experience it in a different way.

    Wait! Steampunk isn’t “mission creep!”

  • Educate your staff. Some staff wondered what on earth we were doing associating with the not-historically-accurate steampunk genre.  Taking time and effort to educate staff about steampunk and how this new collaboration would benefit the organization boosted support from staff and volunteers.
  • New programming needs new marketing. When embarking on a new collaboration, traditional marketing avenues might not be as effective. We now understand that steampunk enthusiasts embrace social media, so our marketing strategy must evolve to use it to get the word out to target this niche audience.
  • New audiences are out there.  Of all the folks who attended our steampunk tea, 90% were first time visitors to Morris-Butler House.

The experimental collaboration with the CCA presented a fantastic opportunity to reinvigorate a tried-and-true program and reach a new audience. We took a risk with this collaboration, and it will take time to determine its long-term success.

Kelly Gascoine is Program Coordinator for Morris-Butler House, Indiana Landmarks, Indianapolis, IN.