Online Course: Museum Education and Outreach

Museum Education and Outreach

An AASLH Small Museum Pro! Online Course

Course Description

At their heart, regardless of type or size, museums are engaging, dynamic places of education. This AASLH online course, Museum Education and Outreach, is about how we can facilitate visitors’ meaningful and memorable experiences in the informal environments of museums.

This course requires regular check-ins, sharing and commenting on peer work, and participation in scheduled live chats. Participants will help shape the flow of the course in addition to providing resources and insights on each other’s work. Assignments are made weekly to allow for regular feedback and dialogue. While work can be done at your own pace, meeting deadlines is encouraged to maximize the experience. Throughout the course you will develop a toolkit of strategies, policies, and documents ready for immediate implementation.

Participant Outcomes

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • describe the characteristics and learning needs of various museum audiences;
  • summarize what we know about learning in museums;
  • assess the strengths and weaknesses of interpretive techniques and program approaches;
  • utilize a system for planning, operating, and evaluating museum educational programs;
  • access resources to assist you in future development of effective learning experiences

Sample Curriculum

  • Week 1: Defining the Museum / Museums and Memory
  • Week 2: Interpretation Strengths, Weaknesses, and Best Practices
  • Week 3: Audiences and Identifying Your Key Ones
  • Week 4: Education Program Planning, Management, and Evaluation
  • Week 5: Organizing of Museum Education and Outreach
  • Week 6: Community Partners and Funding
  • Week 7: Leading Staff and Volunteers
  • Week 8: Action Plan for Future Programming at your Museum

Texts Used


Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann and Tim Grove. The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques (2nd ed). The text is NOT INCLUDED with your registration. You must order the book separately from the book seller of your choice.

Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 weeks

PARTICIPATION STYLE: Bi-weekly (every-other-week) real-time online chats; weekly assignments; final course assignment

MATERIALS: One required text (see below)

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

COURSE DATES: September 9 - November 1, 2019

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: July 1 - September 5, 2019; 30 Participant limit



Who Should Take This Course

This course is a beginning level course designed for professional staff and volunteers of historical organizations and libraries with historical collections who have little to no experience with developing education programs and goals for museums. Successful participants should be ready to look past traditional methods and challenge themselves to work around site-specific hurdles.


Tanya Brock is one who tends to take leaps and jumps rather than the straight path. Her career has spanned museum education, visitor services, exhibit planning, historical research, educational program consultant, and community partner liaison. Whether teaching food preservation classes or designing and running the nation’s first functioning historical brewery or running a brewpub co-op, her passion has always been centered on food—its power to unite and act as a storyteller for communities.

Her education is a patchwork of cultural anthropology, food preservation, heritage interpretation, and museum administration. This background has built a foundation of various perspectives from which she draws from when designing programs. Over a 20-year period she has worked with audiences of all sizes, ages, and backgrounds yet believes at the end of the day, it is the guest who drives the conversation and the experience.

Putting Visitor Research Data to Work at the Colony of Avalon


The Colony of Avalon is widely recognized as the best preserved early English colonial site in North America. Located in the rural community of Ferryland, Newfoundland, the colony was established in 1621 by Sir George Calvert (the First Lord Baltimore) as a place where Protestants AND Catholics could live and worship in peace.

Today, the Colony is our region’sanchor heritage attraction and boasts a visitor centre, giftshop, re-created 17th century kitchen and gardens, and an on-going professional archaeology program that just completed its 25th season!

With every scrape of an archaeologist’s trowel, stirring of a pot, or planting of a seed, we’re coming a little bit closer to understanding the history of the Colony and the lives of the people who lived here. And we encourage our visitors, both on-site and on-line, to join us in this process through programming like Archaeologist for a Day and the Great Colonial Cook-Off.

We have amazing staff, a dedicated board of directors, and super supporters. Together, we’ve achieved some great things but, like every community-run organization, we also have real challenges. We know there are things we could and should be doing better, but which should we prioritize and how do we convince funders and donors to lend their support?


In 2015, the Colony took part in AASLH’s Visitors Count! program to better understand how visitors experience and perceive our site. It's been just six months since we received our Visitors Count! survey report. Here's the low down on what's happened since then.

First, our survey results clearly showed that the biggest factor in determining visitor satisfaction at our site is whether visitors have a personal interaction with our archaeology field crew. Unfortunately, due to budget limitations, our field crew is only on-site until mid-August, which is the peak of our visitor season.


This summer, armed with our survey results that clearly demonstrate the benefit of having archaeologists on site, the Colony was able to secure a donation from a private donor which covered the entire cost of extending our archaeology season until our closing date (September 26).

Next, our survey results also showed that the Colony ranked lower than average on dependability of information received. This was a real surprise (and a real concern since research is a core part of our mandate and our branding is "Real history in real time").

So we did a bit of extra probing of our visitors and discovered that this result was at least partially due to the costuming of our interpreters in our recreated 17th century kitchen.

When we initially established the kitchen in 1999, we researched and commissioned historically accurate period clothing. However, as the years progressed and that clothing wore out, it was replaced by not so authentic items made by staff and local volunteers. While this clothing filled a need (and fit the budget) its obvious inaccuracies led visitors to instinctively perceive our interpreters as being less informed and having less historical authority. Simply put, they judged a book by its cover.

Armed with this information, we applied for and recently received grant funding to research and produce new, historically accurate clothing for our kitchen interpreters.


Visitors Count! has made a real difference in our organization … and we’re just getting started!

Community Members as Co-Creators at the Detroit Institute of Arts

It’s really exciting to have this opportunity to share how the Detroit Institute of Arts is re-thinking its interpretive practice, specifically in terms of community engagement. In “The Spirit of Rebirth,” we believe this new model will make us more relevant to our visitors, new and returning. And we also anticipate that it will contribute to important conversations around best practices that are happening in the field right now—and that will certainly be taking place at the Annual Meeting in Detroit this September.


Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by Andrew Jameson.
Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by Andrew Jameson.

Over the last decade or so, the DIA has honed its visitor-centered interpretive practice: permanent collection spaces and special exhibitions are developed collaboratively by cross-departmental teams. At the core of these teams, curators and interpreters work as partners. Furthermore, audience research plays an essential role in how we work. We consistently test concepts and interpretation throughout the process with target audiences, letting their reactions inform how we refine certain ideas and experiences. Bringing diverse voices into the process has helped transform the DIA into "America’s most visitor friendly art museum," according to The Wall Street Journal.

However, while this approach purposefully listens to outside voices, it limits the scope of their involvement—in other words, we ask visitors to react to our work, but we haven’t included them more comprehensively in the planning process. This is changing. As part of a major project to reinstall our Asian collection, visitors are serving as “community consultants,” helping the project team brainstorm and shape early concepts for the galleries.


Four community consultants examine an interpretive element at the DIA
Four community consultants examine an interpretive element at the DIA

As the interpretive planner on this project, I’ve felt simultaneously stimulated, humbled, and challenged by the community consultants I’ve had the opportunity to work with thus far in the process. As short-term team members, they attend 1-2 weekly meetings at the DIA for 10 to 16 weeks, depending on which area(s) of the collection they are working. These are not voluntary positions—community consultants receive a stipend for their hard work.

During the sessions, we learn about and discuss objects from the checklist, hear from outside content experts, and brainstorm potential themes for the gallery. Everyone has an equal voice at the table. Again, the big shift is that now we are working alongside members of our community to co-create concepts as well as a shared vision for the galleries instead of solely asking visitors to react to work we’ve already done.


Playing with object groupings.
Playing with object groupings.

While our community consultants are likely to visit museums in their leisure time, they are not required to have any training in art or art history to participate. Rather, for this position, we value a variety of experiences, professional and personal. Making space for this diversity of perspectives to inform the stories we tell in the galleries is an essential step in helping all DIA visitors make personal connections with the art.

For this particular project, we selected individuals who are actively involved in one or more Asian communities in the area. As ambassadors, the community consultants will go on to promote the new Asian galleries among their personal networks. Asian visitors comprise just 5% of the DIA’s annual attendance of ~650,000, but the Asian population in the Metro Detroit area is growing and we aim to attract more Asian visitors to the museum through this reinstallation project. Our community consultants will play a critical role in this effort.


Visitor outcome brainstorm.
Visitor outcome brainstorm.

To date, we’ve piloted this new approach with four community consultants, who worked for 10 weeks early this spring on developing concepts for our Japan gallery. In August, we will be joined by a new group of seven community consultants, who will help us with concept development for the rest of our collection, which includes art from China, Korea, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. As you can tell from the photos, the experience has been highly rewarding, and we are excited for this work to culminate in 2018 when the Asian galleries reopen to the public.

The DIA is also excited to be stop on the Muse Cruise during the Annual Meeting! While the Asian galleries will still be a long way from completion, you will be able to visit our famous Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera as well as explore our new Ancient Middle East gallery, which opened in 2015. Enjoy!


DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons celebrates with the community consultants for the Japan gallery
DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons celebrates with the community consultants for the Japan gallery


For more information on the Muse Cruise and other events scheduled for the AASLH/MMA 2016 Annual Meeting, see the Annual Meeting homepage and the Preliminary Program

Should We Create the Same Digital Archives for Different Audiences?

RL front screen

As a part-time history Ph.D. student embarking on my dissertation (while working full-time at Ford’s Theatre—indeed, I don’t sleep much), few things thrill me more than searching for digitized primary sources.

I tend to use loose search terms, as I know that many digitized collections have minimal metadata, and then sort through the results manually to find what I need.

Wearing either my academic or my museum professional hat, I’m the not-oft-stated but oft-implied audience for many collections databases. My many, many, many years of training (I’m in something like 23rd grade) have prepared me to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But what of users who haven’t gone through years of professional history and museum training, like K-12 teachers? Should we expect them to use an online archive in the same way?

Just as we wouldn’t run the same type of public program for academics as we would for K–12 teachers (I hope), we shouldn’t expect everyone else to use the same type of online platforms we create for use by academics and fellow museum professionals.

This was perhaps the biggest lesson that became clear to us at Ford’s Theatre as we planned our Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection, which launched in March 2015. After we identified four (in hindsight, overly broad) target audiences during the course of a planning meeting (teachers, students, enthusiasts and scholars), we began an audience evaluation process led by Conny Graft.


Both during the planning process and after launch, Ford’s Theatre conducted videoconference focus groups with teachers, enthusiasts and recent museum visitors.
Both during the planning process and after launch, Ford’s Theatre conducted videoconference focus groups with teachers, enthusiasts and recent museum visitors.

We conducted focus groups with teachers and enthusiasts, and surveys of teachers, enthusiasts and scholars.

Ultimately, we identified teachers and students as our most important long-term audiences. We realized that much of the interest from enthusiasts would coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, but teachers and students would have interest in this resource year in and year out.

Do busy teachers have the same interest that researchers like me do in sorting through reams of lightly-interpreted primary sources to find the right ones for their classes?

As they told us, and as research efforts by the Minnesota Historical Society have shown as well, not so much.

Rather, teachers understandably don’t have time to sift, and also indicated that they prefer for a subject expert to give recommendations.

So pursuant to this, we made sure that the website includes several features that add interpretation and context—something that took a lot of extra work, but that we would argue is worth the effort.

There is an interpretive section of the website, with a timeline (not always the best interpretive method, but in this case, a way to show events and related primary sources in time), a map that displays a selection of primary sources, and short biographies of featured people.

We have a set of thematic “curated collections” to give another entry point.

We worked with a group of teachers to create teaching modules—the teachers told us that they trusted lesson plans created by their fellow professionals, and not as much by museum staff.

We’ve also used a tagging system, which has sometimes broken down in spite of efforts to maintain a controlled vocabulary. We’re working with our web developer on replacing a free tagging system with check boxes.

We’ve also started working with classrooms on transcriptions, since many of the items in Remembering Lincoln are as yet un-transcribed.

We’ve also encouraged—not always successfully—our contributing institutions to add rich descriptions to their items. In a focus group after launch, teachers indicated a strong preference for items with more interpretation.


Diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam, a teenager living in Boston who drew the look on her face when her father told her of Lincoln’s assassination. As an adult, Putnam was a portrait painter. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam, a teenager living in Boston who drew the look on her face when her father told her of Lincoln’s assassination. As an adult, Putnam was a portrait painter. Massachusetts Historical Society.

In the future, we’ll likely be going back to add richer metadata.

An important point about adding richer metadata: It takes a lot of time and counters the notion of “more product, less process” that is prevalent in archival work today. Instead of what others have told me is an average of 20-30 minutes per item, Jessica Ellison at the Minnesota Historical Society, who is preparing sets of richly-described primary sources for teachers, tells me she spends one to two hours per item, depending on how much research she needs to do.

But as Mike Lesperance, a principal at exhibition development firm The Design Minds (disclosure: where I formerly worked), put it to me in a recent conversation, interpreting collections items in this way is making them intellectually accessible to broader audiences. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as educators?

In addition to curated sets of primary sources and rich metadata, our research and that of others also indicate that teachers are looking for variety.

This is one of the unresolved questions that we still have with Remembering Lincoln. In our collecting—not nearly finished (so if your institution has materials, please let me know!)—we have aimed, not always successfully, for geographic and ethnic diversity. Indeed, in the extensive audience research and interpretation process, building the collection was one of the aspects that suffered, although we have 693 items as of May 31.

Still, how do we reconcile the desire for a larger variety of items with the desire for a more curated focus? We haven’t quite cracked that nut. Any suggestions from others in the field are appreciated!

David McKenzie is Associate Director for Digital Resources in the Education Department at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater WashingtonThe Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo. Follow him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.

Five Opportunities to Take a House Tour from “Meh” to Great

Since the AASLH offices were closed for Memorial Day, I decided to take my son on an outing–just the two of us. Nick is ten years old and just finished the fourth grade where Tennessee students get their first taste of American history. He is also a history buff, like his mom. He likes all kinds of history and visiting the Stones River National Battlefield in our town is one of his favorite things to do.


Bethany and her son at Stones River National Battlefield.
Bethany and her son at Stones River National Battlefield.


For this adventure, I decided to take him to a different historic site in the Nashville region where I have received great tours in the past. This site will go unnamed, but it is a historic house museum that was the epicenter of a major Civil War battle. I thought it would be a great way to kill a few hours and spend some one-on-one time with my youngest child and fellow history geek.

After the tour, all I could think about were the opportunities the site missed to move our visitor experience from just okay to great. My background prior to AASLH is that of an historic house director, and I work closely with our Historic House Affinity Community and our historic house workshops, so I know I am not the typical visitor at this historic site; however, the whole experience ended up leaving me frustrated.

As I was driving us home from the site, missed opportunities kept going through my head that would take this historic site tour from “meh” to great. I give you these five suggestions in hopes that you will think about how they apply to the tours at your site.


1. Listen to your visitors. This historic site has a sister site in the same city. They are operated under the same umbrella organization. The tour guide started by asking how many people have been to the other site. Only two out of the twenty-four on tour raised their hand. He went on to say that they tell a lot of facts about the battle at the other historic site, so he doesn’t go into that in depth on his tour leaving his visitors with a huge knowledge gap. He asked an important question, but did not change his approach to interpretation based on the information gleaned from his guests. Site interpreters must be flexible enough in their approach to meet visitors where they are in order to make them feel comfortable and for them to understand the history we want to share with them.




2. Connect to something relevant to current events. To me, the cool thing about history is how it is always relevant to something going on today. My son and I visited the site that day because it was Memorial Day. The main story of that site includes numerous stories of men who gave their life on the battlefield surrounding that house. Memorial Day was never mentioned on the tour. I kept thinking as the tour guide talked about the great sacrifices of the battle, how he was missing a great opportunity to connect the history of the site to Memorial Day and its true meaning (not barbecues, but a time to reflect on the sacrifice of men and women in uniform).

3. Connect your tour to the place. This is a problem I encounter at numerous historic sites. What makes historic homes and sites powerful is the ability to connect place to history. So many historic sites give what Max van Balgooy, faculty for the AASLH’s Rethinking the Historic House Museum and Historic House Issues and Operations workshops, calls a “parking lot tour.” Tour guides recite facts and figures that could just as easily been told to us in the parking lot or visitors center. They fail to make the connection between the facts of history and the power of place. The tour my son and I took was at one of the most powerful historic places I have ever been. It was the centerpiece of an intense battle that raged all around the house while the family and neighbors huddled in the basement until it was over. I had one of my favorite tours of all time at this same site with a different tour guide who brilliantly connected the history of the house and battle to the place where I stood. It was a powerful experience that stuck with me for twenty years. The tour my son and I experienced too often drifted into facts and figures that could have been delivered in a classroom or at the library. During the battle, twenty-four family members and neighbors huddled in one room in the basement of the house. We had twenty-four people on our tour (I counted). It would have been such a powerful moment to crowd us all into that room and ask us to imagine the civilian experience during the battle. Instead, we were told we could go in there on our own if we wanted to.


Tour at Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE
AASLH workshop attendees on a great tour at Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE


4. Create a dialogue with visitors. The best historic house experiences result in a dialogue between interpreter and visitor. Adults (and especially children) do not like to be lectured at. They want to have chances to contribute to the conversation. Make sure your tours include opportunities for visitors to reflect aloud on their experiences, if that is something they are comfortable doing. Most historic site visits are taken as part of a social outing with groups. I felt I had to whisper or sneak time to talk to my son about what the interpreter had told us because there was no real time for guests to talk with one another because the guide did not leave breaks in his tour. A good social experience also improves visitor’s experience at your site.

5. Leave guests with a Call to Action. Guided tours offer a unique opportunity for us to end our tour with a call to action. The site I visited had numerous signs advertising a fund-raising campaign to restore the extremely significant outbuildings on the property. The tour guide also mentioned how the historic site saved adjacent land from being developed into condos by taking out a loan to purchase the property. These are great things to include, but I wish the guide had taken it a step further to tell us how we could be a part of these efforts to save the battlefield. I encourage you to think how you can incorporate calls to action into your tours.

After our tour, I took my son to lunch. I was frustrated with the tour after seeing all of the missed opportunities to recreate that great experience I had many years ago. I asked my son what he thought of the tour. He said, “It was good, Mom. I loved hearing about all the cool history.” So, despite all my criticisms, my 10-year old history lover left with a connection to the past. I hope the casual visitor who stumbled onto that tour because it was Memorial Day or because a friend dragged them there left with the same feelings. I suspect, however, they just felt “Meh” about the experience. I hope you will learn from this site and think about ways you can avoid missed opportunities and move your visitor experience from okay to great.

Bethany L. Hawkins is the Chief of Operations at AASLH. She can be reached at [email protected].

"What I’m Looking for in a Museum Visit": The Seasoned Museum-Goer

Sometimes, people who start out as our visitors become something more: volunteers, collaborators, contractors, the list goes on and on. In 1999, Ken and Ruth Cooper visited us at the Homestead Museum for the first time. Shortly thereafter, they pitched the idea of Ken instructing an introductory watercolor workshop followed by an exhibit of paintings he’d create inspired by the museum. They brought a wonderful portfolio to show us filled with examples of Ken’s work in the U. S. and England. Ruth, a retired teacher and theatre manager, and Ken’s publicist extraordinaire, was a delight to work with. She clearly understood how non-profits worked and had great admiration for them. To this day, we proudly display Ken’s work in our office buildings.


Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum by Ken Cooper
Ken Cooper’s painting of the Walter P. Temple Memorial mausoleum at the Homestead Museum. You never know what kind of talents visitors will bring your way!


Since that first meeting, they have visited the museum close to a dozen times to see what we’ve been up to (they often seek refuge from trying Michigan winters in sunny California). A topic of conversation that always comes up is where they’ve been since we last saw them. These days, their travels take them all over the U. S., and historic sites are always on the list of places to explore. Their perspective, as seasoned museum-goers, may not be that of your “average museum visitor,” but many people who visit our sites fall into this category. They are passionate, they have expectations, they seek things out, and they are advocates for places like ours. Recently, I asked them a few questions about their observations and preferences when visiting historic sites. Their answers focused on two things: people and objects.

What makes or breaks your visit to a historic site?

The guides and staff, absolutely!

What are the most exciting changes you've seen in history museums over the years? 

More attention to detail and better visitor facilities. Ken adds that he prefers the eclectic approach where all that was there over the years remains there. He also doesn't like that objects are removed and replaced with written commentary.  He says he can learn more from the objects than something more to read and that he does his reading about the place before or after he goes there.

What's your biggest pet peeve when it comes to visiting a museum?

Guides who stick to their "canned" program/information, are inflexible, and aren't excited about the place and being a guide there.

Do you prefer self-guided or guided experiences when visiting historic sites? Please explain.

We greatly prefer self-guided tours (because of the aforementioned inflexible guides).  And our favorite tours are at the British National Trust's historic sites where we guide ourselves through the house, but there are docents in the rooms ready to answer any question we might have—or look it up in the book they have if they don't know the answer. (Their books, loose-leaf binders which have been laboriously, we’re sure, put together by staff are really detailed with all the information available on the house and its contents and owners.)

Their comments about how interpreters can make or break an experience echo many others I’ve heard and read about. Last year I wrote a blog post inspired by a friend’s comment on Facebook when he said: “Hanging out at Grant Wood’s studio where he painted most of his major works. For the record, volunteer docents really rock when they show passion and demonstrate real knowledge.” This summer, another friend shared how staff at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force facilitated an experience that her family would never forget. She thanked staff by name: Mr. Allen, Mr. Jim, and Mr. Roland. People made these experiences great: people who didn’t stick to the norm; people who were flexible; people who were excited to share! There was no canned presentation in either of these cases, but even if a presentation does need to be somewhat “canned,” I think good interpreters can make it look and sound like it was made just for the group they are engaging with at that moment.

Ken and Ruth Cooper at home in Manistee, Michigan, helping out with the annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade.
Ken and Ruth Cooper at home in Manistee, Michigan, helping out with the annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade.

As for objects—wow—what a conversation there is to be had here! Some people, like Ken, want to see it all. Others are overwhelmed by seeing the whole kit and caboodle and prefer to have some guidance about how to interact with and experience an exhibit. Personally, I think that’s up to an institution to decide. At the Homestead, for example, we’ve recently revamped public tours of our historic houses to feature specific objects that we use to direct the narrative of our story. An 1854 Colt pistol is on permanent display for the first time, not because it’s eye-catching and belonged to a family member connected to our site, but because it is also representative of turmoil in Los Angeles as it struggled to become a major America city on the Western frontier. It’s symbolic of technology’s impact on society, and the object is relevant to issues and concerns that residents of Los Angeles face today. Objects are powerful players in our stories. We, as institutions, need to be clear about the roles we want them to play in the stories we share with visitors, and we need to be able to answer questions about them as best we can. Sometimes that will mean having something like the Trust’s book to consult, or saying “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

Thanks for sharing your observations, Ken and Ruth. You’re not alone in your thinking, and you’ve given us more to ponder as a field. See you in December!

Visitor Feedback Stations

Revisiting some great readings from earlier this year, I came across a nice post from colleague Linda Norris on her experience with the feedback stations at the Oakland Museum of California.


In short, Linda loved them and her post gives us a lot to consider as to what it was that she liked. Here's why:

  1. The at the center of the invitation: "Share your story"; "Tell us your thoughts"; "We want to hear from you."
  2. The questions are interesting--and sometimes surprising. 
  3. There's space in the exhibitions for changing questions: "How is the drought affecting you?"
  4. But equally importantly, throughout the entire museum, a visitor can see that they are important, that these voices matter.

Read Linda's full post for a more in-depth examination of how the museum utilizes this technique in its interpretation.


The Implications of Being TOO PC at Historic Sites

This summer I had a very unique opportunity to serve as a chaperone for the National Park Service’s Preserve America Youth Summit in Savannah, GA.  I was able to be a fly on the wall watching teenagers tour and interact with museums and historic sites.  For once, I could sit back, watch, listen, and digest without stressing about it being my historic house!  Wow -- was it enlightening.

For those unfamiliar with the Preserve America program, it is designed to get teenagers interested in historic preservation and motivated to become involved in preserving the built environment in their own communities.  It’s an intensive 3 to 4 days where the students are immersed in preservation concepts, jargon, and places.

relics of slavery days locBack to my story, the leaders had arranged a special after-hours tour of a well-known historic house in Savannah.  It is beautifully restored, holds an important place in Savannah, and was, in all likelihood, an excellent place to begin the conversation.  However, it didn’t come off as planned.  The guides in this particular 18th century historic house are forbidden from using the terms “slave” or “enslaved.” They must use the term “servant” to avoid offending visitors.   About 40% of the teens (ages 16-18) on the tour were black – from various cities and various socio-economic backgrounds.  They were very quiet on the tour.

Two days later the students could no longer contain their ire.  They knew full well that each and every black person that had a connection to the building and maintenance of that house and family had been a slave – why was it being covered up?!   And that is precisely how they termed it “covered up,” cleaned up,” “white-washed.” The students each expressed a wide array of sentiments during the subsequent discussion: amazement, horror, anger, resentment, confusion, and dismay.  When I asked them what term they wanted used on tours, in label text, etc...every student said, unequivocally “slave.” slavery youth summit

Given that 8 years ago I was attacked by the museum community for using the word slave on tours (sets the field back 50 years…), I asked the students if this “covered up” history impacted their visit, “yes, it lessened the experience.”   Then I asked, did it make them more or less likely to 1) recommend this historic house to family/friends visiting Savannah or 2) make them more or less likely to want to visit historic houses in the future.  Every answer was the same – I don’t want to go to anymore of them because it’s all going to be the same sanitized history and I won’t recommend anyone visit there.  Egads!  This is directly opposite what museum directors want to hear.

Margaret Biser recently wrote about slavery questions she received as a historic site guide.  When I did a Google search to look at “political correctness and museums” I was astounded at the backlash across the blogosphere and on “trip advisor” type websites on the sanitized and generally inaccurate pictures of history people believe they are being force fed. Apparently, people don't like being being what they perceive as lied to about history.  It, evidently, undermines our credibility as the "holders of history."

Seems to me if we really want to have future audiences (read: millenials) we need to study them less and ask them more.

-- Michelle Zupan, Curator & Director, Hickory Hill, Thomson, GA

Something Old, Something New: Sharing History During Weddings & Rentals

How do you share the history of your historic house or site during rental events?

At Indiana Landmarks’ 1865 Morris-Butler House we've been asking ourselves the same question. We recently transitioned from a historic house museum to an historic venue that serves as flexible event space for our public events and for private rental events.

Gascoine 2
Morris-Butler House Parlor; photo credit Stewart Imagery

We maintain the historical ambiance of the house through period furnishings and finishes. Rental clients and their guests love this intimate Victorian setting for small weddings and events, but often have questions about the history of the house – Who lived here? Was this their stuff? When was the house built?

Our staff (well, ok, my boss and I – we are a small historic site after all) are in the process of figuring out how to anticipate and answer these questions.

As a historic site that offered guided house tours for 43 years, we’re not used to hosting events where there isn't some direct way for staff or volunteers to talk to guests about our history. Now, as we are no longer a museum, and are in the midst of a deaccessioning project, we no longer give tours, and only the first of three floors is open to the public for events.

We've found a few ways to weave our story into rentals. One rental client invited me to speak to their guests on the history of the house for 15 minutes during their event. Other rental clients have heard the history of the house during their rental tour when they’re booking the space. We're also considering signage or interpretive panels that could answer common questions and identify rooms and key historical facts.

Here’s what we've learned so far and currently do:

  • Our rental clients and guests are interested in our history and preservation! That’s why they book rentals at our site.
  • We take every opportunity we can to share our story. Sometimes that means we greet guests as they arrive for their Victorian Tea birthday party. Sometimes that means that as we staff an event, usually behind the scenes, our eagle eyes will spot that quizzical look in a guest’s eyes and we’re happy to answer their questions.
  • The initial rental walk-through is a great opportunity to share our history with rental clients. I can show these small groups (usually just 1-2 people) more of the house than is available for a rental event. They love the behind-the-scenes nature of the rental walk-thru, and they share their enthusiasm with their guests.
  • Any signage/interpretive panels need to be both large enough to be visible, yet strategically located so they don’t interfere with events – especially wedding photos.
Gascoine 1
Morris-Butler House Exterior; photo credit Paige Wassel

Because each rental event is an opportunity to share our history, we must develop interpretive methods to best tell that story. What ways have you found to communicate with rental guests at your historic site or house?

-- Kelly Gascoine serves as Indiana Landmarks’ Heritage Experiences Manager where she plans events and manages rentals at its 1865 Morris-Butler House. She is also involved in the ongoing revisioning and deaccessioning project at Morris-Butler House. She holds a Master’s degree in Public History from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).  Indiana Landmarks is a statewide historic preservation nonprofit with eight offices and many historic structures in its portfolio, including Morris-Butler House.

What I Look For In A Museum Visit

What I Look for in a Museum Visit is an on-going series in which museum visitors of all ages, backgrounds and interest levels are invited to share their thoughts on what they enjoy most (and least!) about museums.

Today's post was written by Andy Wilson, a retired physician and avid lifelong learner from the metro Detroit area. He and his wife Mary are avid travelers and they seek out museums wherever they go to learn more about the places they visit.

What Do We Look For?
We look for docent guided tours. A docent can mitigate many issues of organization, complexity, or scale by distilling down the information and guiding interpretation. The anecdotes usually provided, and the fact that the docents themselves usually have specialized knowledge, contribute enormously to our experience. In some museums, like the Motown Museum [in Detroit, Michigan], the docents are the experience.

If a museum is self-guided, help with a plan of attack is helpful. Wayfinding can be an issue in large or complex museums, so user-friendly maps are a plus.  We prefer it when the physical layout takes us in sequence through the subject, or when “bite sized” pieces of the subject are offered in thematic groupings. An account of how the subject evolved is helpful. For example, the National Museum of the US Air Force [near Dayton, OH] leads their visitors past sequential examples of aircraft to illustrate the evolution of powered flight.

Interpretation which is available on multiple levels from overview to much more detail is attractive. For some of us, there cannot be too much detail on subjects of interest! I recognize the limitations of space and so forth, but detail, when sought, is nice. The Hall of Flame Fire Museum in Phoenix offers binders that visitors can carry around their object/machine intensive facility. These offer in depth information on all of the equipment and can be read in detail or just skimmed.

Audio and video aids can be effective, but there is no substitute yet for the written word. It is difficult to idiot-proof audio and video aids, but the motion-sensitive television screens that began playing when we approached them in the Musical Instrument Museum [in Phoenix, AZ] were spectacularly effective.

I love a good gift shop. I will define "good" as offering imaginative stuff (coffee mugs, t shirts, hats, etc) along with publications on the subject of the museum for further education.

What do we avoid?
The bottom line is that a below average museum is better than no museum. All museums have something to offer, although sometimes that something is an urge to speculate on how the place could be improved. Cluttered display cases full of stuff that do not tell a story and are there just because someone donated objects are a turn off. Please, no more two headed kittens in formaldehyde! At times, a single entity can be totally fascinating in and of itself.  For example, the Pantheon in Rome or a meteor crater, but usually an uncoordinated display of stuff or an artifact in splendid isolation is not inspiring.

What could be done better?
Museums could do a better job of updating exhibits and information as knowledge on a subject evolves. Coherent sequencing/wayfinding is an area for improvement in most museums I visit. I also would like to see more docents in more settings in museums.

What ensures a return visit?
A good museum of almost any sort will often have us return to have friends and family share that great experience. We have been to the Motown Museum five times and counting. We also return to a museum if we have not seen it all on one pass, such as the Vatican Museum. If the subject is of ongoing interest to me and I continue to educate myself on the subject, I will return to get more in depth exposure, like I do with the Detroit Historical Museum.