White text on a green block reading AASLH Onsite Workshop Focusing on Visitors. Behind the green color block is a group of people standing facing away from the camera.

Workshop: Focusing on Visitors

Workshop Description

Visitors are central to our work, but how strategic and thoughtful are we in how we communicate and interact with them? How can we do a better job of engaging visitors when it comes to developing programs and exhibits in our organizations?

Keeping visitors at the forefront of our thinking, participants will explore a wide range of topics including audience types, program development and planning, developing/updating exhibits, marketing, evaluation, volunteer management and training, and collaboration. Case studies and interactive activities provide fun opportunities to engage with fellow participants and our host site. Attendees will leave the workshop with information, ideas, and materials they can take back to their organizations to adapt and apply.


FORMAT: On-site group workshop

LENGTH: Two days

DATE: June 11-12, 2020

LOCATIONThe Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas, TX

MATERIALS: Workshop materials will be provided upon registration and in-person at the event.

COST: $230 AASLH Members/$345 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: December 19, 2019 - June 8, 2020; 30 participant limit

** Save $40 when you register by May 11, 2020 and use promo code EARLYBIRD20 at checkout! **


Who Should Attend This Workshop

This workshop is ideally suited for early-career museum educators, curators, volunteer managers, museum studies students, or dedicated volunteers who play a role in education, interpretation, exhibition planning, and/or public programming. Mid-career professionals can also benefit from revisiting the content covered in this workshop to help update and rethink programs and exhibits and gain insights on how to train and support newer staff.

Online Course: Developing Exhibitions: Planning

An AASLH Small Museum Pro! Online Course

Course Description

Developing Exhibitions: Planning is an online course about how to plan exhibitions. This course focuses on developing an understanding of current issues within exhibit development and creation of original planning material for a potential exhibit at participants’ institution (or other selected venue). Drawing upon their professional and educational experiences, course participants will examine their own perspectives on exhibition development and strengthen their role within its practice.

Whether participants come to the course with an imaginary exhibit in mind, or with the intention to develop an actual exhibit, this course will guide them through the process, providing encouragement and guidance along the way and a chance to exchange ideas and experiences. Educational support is provided by the course instructor, the participants’ professional colleagues in the course and in their institution, and visiting professionals who may join our online chats.

Participation requirements:

  • Complete required readings.
  • Review supplemental examples and case studies.
  • Complete weekly assignments, including an exhibit critique.
  • Participate in two online chats on Monday, March 23, 3:00pm EST / 1:00 pm PDT and Wednesday, April 8, 3:00pm EST / 1:00 pm PDT. (If unable to attend, you may receive credit by submitting a written response to the chat transcript).
  • Share your own knowledge, experience and resources with the class.

Participant Outcomes:

Upon completion of this course students will be able to:

  • Research and evaluate exhibitions around the country
  • Develop, describe, and present exhibition concepts that are impactful based upon a museums mission, vision, audiences and goals
  • Consider and incorporate the perspectives and concerns of multiple audience groups into exhibit planning
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of an exhibit concept using professional feedback, and adapt it accordingly
  • Engage with the professional community to build personal knowledge, as well as contributing to the field of museum exhibitions


COURSE DATES: March 2 - April 26, 2020

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: January 31, 2020 - February 23, 2020; 30 participant limit

Click here to Register

Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, instructor-led, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 weeks

TIME COMMITMENT: Approximately 3-5 hours of work per week

PARTICIPATION STYLE: This is a dynamic course comprised of reading and research, exhibit development practice, and evaluation of participants’ own work and the work of others. A free flow of ideas, supportive and constructive peer analysis, an equal exchange of information and use of critical thinking will make for a lively class that is both enjoyable and highly productive. Participants should ask questions, provide their own thoughts and engage with each other as we go along.

MATERIALS: One required text: Alice Parman, Ann Craig, Lyle Murphy, Liz White, and Lauren Willis. Exhibit Makeovers, A Do-It-Yourself Workbook for Small Museums, 2nd Ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. (Texts are NOT INCLUDED with registration. Participants must order the book separately from the book seller of their choice. A discount code is provided after registration.)

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course (80% or higher) will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH. This course is a prerequisite for Developing Exhibitions: Design.

Who Should Take This Course

This course is a beginning level course designed for professional staff and volunteers of historical organizations and libraries who have little to no experience with exhibit development and design.


Christina Ferwerda is an independent museum consultant specializing in content, exhibit, and curriculum development, and has been creating exhibits and programs with international museum clients since 2001. She is known for infusing cultural experiences with joy, wonder, and fun by drawing on her work as an educator in New York City. Christina develops content into compelling story lines and interactive experiences that engage multiple modes of learning. She has worked for a wide range of clients, including the Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC), Wyckoff House Museum (Brooklyn, NY), National Archives (Washington, DC), and the D&H Canal Museum (High Falls, NY). She is enthusiastic about supporting the evolution the field as an Adjunct Professor in the Exhibit and Experience Design Master’s Degree Program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts: The ESSE Purse Museum

By Kathleen Pate, Immediate Past President, Arkansas Women's History Institute

What started out as one woman’s collection of purses is now the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. The small museum is one of only three purse museums in the world and the only one located in North America. You might be wondering why the world needs three museums dedicated to women’s purses. I can’t speak to the level of interpretation at the international sites but the exhibits at ESSE provide a unique and compelling look at twentieth-century women’s history.

To understand what makes ESSE, from the Latin infinitive for “to be,” special and worth visiting, you first need to consider how museums have traditionally presented women’s history. Women are most often mentioned in relationship to others, as in “she was the daughter of,” “she was the wife of,” or “she was the mother of,” etc. If women are interpreted as playing an active role at a historic site, these are primarily connected to feminine concerns such as fashion and foodways. As institutions strive to dig deeper into women’s lives, there are significant challenges. If you can find written records, women are frequently referred to only by their husband’s name, making it difficult to correctly identify and connect references.

Girl Scout uniform and accessories from the 1940s, courtesy of the ESSE Purse Museum.

When the ESSE Purse Museum first opened in 2013, I was intrigued. It was three years before I found time to visit. I walked in expecting to see a plethora of designer bags arranged along a timeline to demonstrate how styles have changed over the years. Instead, I found ten cases, each one representing a decade of the twentieth century. Inside were three or four purses surrounded by period images and everyday objects that women might have carried in their bags at the time. As I moved from chatelaines to credit cards, the content of each case created a complex narrative. Different items illustrated the changes in women’s lives over time, from the necessity of carrying smelling salts to the availability of birth control pills.

The permanent exhibit is entitled “What’s Inside: A Century of Women and Handbags 1900-1999.” It grew out of a traveling exhibit featuring the collection of Anita Davis. “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses,” curated by Curatrix Group and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Arts Services, traveled the country from 2006 to 2011. When Davis sought to create a home for the exhibit and her extensive collection of purses and other period pieces, she selected a spot in the SoMa (South on Main) district of Little Rock. The repurposed garage, painted in a simple black and white color scheme with bold red accents, serves as the perfect backdrop for the permanent exhibits. In addition to the stand alone cases showcasing purses and probable content by decade, there are three wall cases. Each one has items tied to a different theme: purses made from animal skin, evening bags, and travel accessories.

ESSE also has a temporary gallery. The small space is ideal for in-house exhibits that to date have explored subjects ranging from swimsuits styles to smoking accessories. The current temporary exhibit, “Purses with Purpose: Girl Scouts Through the Decades,” includes official Girl Scout uniforms, purses, and ephemera dating back to the 1930s. The items are on loan from Girl Scouts USA, Girl Scouts Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and a couple of private collections. As a lifetime member of Girl Scouts, I’m proud to have played a role in creating the exhibit. “Purses with Purpose” runs through August 18. I don’t know what the next temporary exhibit will be but I can guarantee that a visit to ESSE will be interesting and informative.

Learn more about the ESSE Purse Museum and the Women's History Affinity Community.

Including Marginalized Voices and Addressing Controversial Topics: Seven Award-Winning Ideas

Slavery and Freedom in Savannah

Interpreting the history of marginalized peoples and addressing controversial topics can be intimidating. To help you prepare for the challenge, here are seven AASLH Leadership in History Award-winning projects to inform and educate your work.

Telfair Museum: Slavery and Freedom in Savannah

The first and possibly most important step in addressing controversial histories is to talk about them. Continuing to avoid sharing the histories of marginalized peoples or difficult histories perpetuates the marginalization and the mystique that controversial topics get when people avoid talking about them. This step takes courage, but those who take it and do so boldly, find that it can have a tremendous impact on their community.

Slavery and the history of race in the United States is a major topic in many history and social justice settings. The Telfair Museum added to the conversation by telling the often overlooked history of urban slaves in their exhibit Slavery and Freedom in Savannah. This is an exhibit creating space for a new dialogue about the impact and legacy of urban slavery.


Peb Yog Hmoob

Minnesota Historical Society: Peb Yog Hmoob - We are Hmong Minnesota

Exhibits and programming about marginalized communities must involve people from those communities. Community members should be involved throughout the process, from helping determine what type of questions the exhibit will address, to assisting with design, to visiting the final product. It is important that community members be given an advisory role in planning the exhibit and/or programming, so that they can provide continued insight and direction. Otherwise, there is a tendency for them to become simply resources for the exhibit, instead of truly involved community partners.

The Peb Yog Hmoob –We are Hmong Minnesota exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society is an example of an exhibit which had strong community engagement throughout the process. The idea for the exhibit came from members of the Hmong community who approached the museum with a proposed partnership for sharing the rich history of the Hmong community. The creation of the exhibit included the staff of MNHS as well as historians, artists, and leaders from the Hmong community. The exhibit drew in a large number of people, many of whom had never been to the museum before.

To learn even more about this project, download a free recording of the webinar AASLH held with the creators.


Operation Pedro Pan

HistoryMiami: Operation Pedro Pan

Changes in views and understanding come about when there is an acknowledgment of some degree of shared ground. Exhibits about marginalized groups and controversial histories that have an impact on their communities create opportunities for people to experience empathy. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as by evoking a shared emotion or creating settings where visitors can experience a glimpse of what others have gone through.

HistoryMiami’s exhibit Operation Pedro Pan, about the unaccompanied children who emigrated from Cuba to the United States from 1960 to 1962, used archival footage and first person interviews to help visitors understand what the migration was like for the children. They also recreate settings many of the children left, like the Havana airport, to create a physical setting for visitors to imagine the experience.

Lombard Historical Society: Footsteps to Freedom 

The Lombard Historical Society’s Footsteps to Freedom exhibit explored the history of the Underground Railroad by focusing on the work of local abolitionist Sheldon Peck. Peck’s 1839 homestead, the oldest house in the Village of Lombard, was a station on the Underground Railroad, and provides a lens through which visitors can understand larger themes about slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, race, and social justice. Through thought-provoking text, reproduction objects, interactives, and the house itself as an object, Footsteps to Freedom brought a complex national story to a more immediate local level for visitors to analyze and experience. Discussions of Peck’s life as a radical abolitionist and his home’s significance as a refuge for enslaved people on the road to freedom were skillfully interwoven with current scholarship about the history and spread of slavery in nineteenth-century America. Archival and primary sources added to the discussion of the abolitionist community in the Lombard area.


Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation

Tennessee State Museum: Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation 

Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation used innovative storytelling techniques to encourage visitors to understand the complex historical context of Americans who viewed slavery as a moral and practical institution and to explore how enslaved people exercised agency through how they made choices, built lives, and sustained families before, during, and after the Civil War.


Castle on the Cove

Wethersfield Historical Society: Castle on the Cove

The Wethersfield Historical Society partnered with the Connecticut Department of Corrections to develop an exhibit on the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield from 1827 to 1963. The results of the partnership was Castle on the Cove, an exhibit which explored the impact of the prison on the town and its development from the perspectives of inmates, employees, and town residents. The exhibit encouraged people to reflect on their own experiences as well as to explore the perspectives of others.

Want to write for AASLH? Learn more and submit an article here.

When Behind the Scenes IS the Exhibit: Lessons from History Lab at the Indiana Historical Society

This article was originally posted on Museums + Social Media. It is reposted here with the author's permission.

As I write this, I’m enjoying an amazing conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I’m representing AASLH at the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting. Last night, I had the opportunity to attend and explore the museum of the Indiana Historical Society, where I fell deeply in love with their History Lab.

The History Lab “provides a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes of a real conservation lab and explore the technology used to preserve the IHS collection.” Conservation is almost always done behind the scenes, the many hours of labor and incredible skill-set going unseen and so unappreciated by the vast majority of museum visitors. But exhibits like the History Lab bring that work out into the light, using it as a tool to 1) help visitors of all ages appreciate the artifacts they will see in the rest of the museum and for the rest of their life and 2) create emotional investment in the organization and its success.

What does it mean to create emotional investment in your behind the scenes work? Well, I’ll tell you! But first, let’s check out some of the History Lab’s cool displays and interactives:


The Touch wall lets you run your hands over various materials that might need to be conserved. It’s a hands-on answer to the kids who ask “why can’t I touch that?” and after four years of touching, the wall has become instructive for adults as well by showing how small touches add up to extensive damage over time.


As a manuscripts and history-of-the-book nerd, I was fascinated by their paper cleaning display (above and below). I’m not interested in the slightest in the Laws and Acts of the Indiana Territory, but I’ll never look at another plain historical book in a museum again because I’ll wonder about whether they had to do as much cleaning as they did for this example. Below you can see that they actually saved the water from the cleaning.


A glass window and raised viewing platform let you look in on the working conservation lab itself. During the day, visitors can watch the conservators at work; a schedule of events lets visitors know what is getting worked on when, so they can stop by to see new projects underway.


A handheld digital microscope lets you see the tiny details and fibers in a number of historic papers and photos at different stations. Endless fun for kids from 2-92.


Last, but not least, they had classroom tables set up as they would when groups come through. I want to go back and play with the conservation tools!


So back to my earlier point: what does is mean to create emotional investment in your operational success?

A visitor may visit and enjoy, but never know how much time, love, energy, expertise, and actual sweat goes into even the smallest exhibit or maintaining even the smallest historic house. They may only see the static finished product. But in fact, many aspects of the museum field are fascinating. If your audience knows everything that goes into the museum or historic site, they can become invested in the outcomes of your projects, exhibits, and programs. Now that I, the visitor, have seen what goes into making even a small case of old books, I can appreciate the effort that goes into it. I’m more likely to understand why the museum needs to fundraise and why they have so many staff just to put on one exhibit.

So, I’m guessing you don’t have a special behind-the-scenes exhibit at your museum. So how can you let your audience behind the scenes and get them emotionally invested in the work that goes into the exhibits they enjoy? By sharing online in blogs and social media. My advice is to keep your smart phone or camera handy and record the parts of your tasks that are unique or interesting. Moving collections? Snap a photo and briefly explain some interesting fact about storing collections or the work that goes into keeping them organized. You might even experiment with live streaming the more interesting aspects on Twitter or Facebook, like when the North Carolina Museum of History filmed a Wright Brothers airplane arriving to the museum.

Just remember, if you are excited about it, it’s probably worth sharing. Just think about what your audience may find interesting about your work, and share nice quality photos of the process with simple, concise captions.

Want to learn more about marketing? Join one of four AASLH webinars on marketing scheduled this summer, all led by Hannah Hethmon: Planning for Marketing at Museums and Historic Sites, Facebook for Museums and Historic Sites, Twitter for Museums and Historic Sites, and Instagram for Museums and Historic Sites. You can also purchase a recording of the webinar Social Media 101 for Museums and Historic Sites.

Missouri History Museum Breaks Attendance Records Thanks to New Approach

Crowds wait in line to see Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum during the last week of 2016.
Crowds wait in line to see Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum during the last week of 2016.

The Missouri History Museum welcomed a record 517,337 visitors in 2016. This is the most visitors the Museum has received since the 1930s when Charles Lindbergh’s trophies were on display during the height of his popularity. 2016 also marks the third consecutive year that the Museum has surpassed 400,000 visitors, another first since the 1930s.

“Our staff has really been looking at the trends in museums and listening to visitors to understand what people want to see in exhibitions,” said Dr. Frances Levine, president of the Missouri History Museum.

The Missouri History Museum staff credits a fundamentally new approach to special exhibitions for this recent attendance trend. The Museum shifted from its special exhibition schedule of mostly national traveling shows to a focus on local history. They decided to create more exhibits in-house, showcasing St. Louis’ history in new and innovative ways.  This schedule of regionally focused exhibitions has also allowed the Museum to present more of its renowned collection of artifacts to the public.


Visitors explore Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis
Visitors explore Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis

“Most museums rely on one big exhibit, often a traveling show, to get big numbers and then go back to business as usual,” said Dr. Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research. “They see a huge fall in the numbers the next year. We have turned this practice on its head by making a commitment to tell more local stories, display more of our collection, and do it all in new and compelling ways. That philosophy is paying off with consistently high attendance numbers.”

When the emphasis on local exhibitions began in 2014, the museum saw a 63 percent increase in attendance over the previous year. From 2000 to 2013, the average annual attendance was 354,789. The most recent three-year attendance average is 484,235.

Creating special exhibitions in-house, utilizing mostly the Missouri History Museum’s own collection has resulted in some of the most popular special exhibitions the Museum has ever hosted. Four of the top five most-attended exhibitions in the organization’s 150-year history have opened during the past three years: 250 in 250 in 2014; A Walk in 1875 St. Louis in 2015; Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night and Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis, both in 2016.


The Missouri History Museum welcomed its 500,000th (and 500,001st) visitors at the end of December: St. Louis City residents Himanshu Aggarwal and his daughter Aarya.
The Missouri History Museum welcomed its 500,000th (and 500,001st) visitors at the end of December: St. Louis City residents Himanshu Aggarwal and his daughter Aarya.

“Every day I walk through the Museum and see our galleries full of visitors who are engaged and enthralled by the stories we are telling,” said Dr. Levine. “We often see crowds stretching out of our special exhibition galleries as members of the public literally line up to learn about history. That is a thrilling sight for us as educators to see.”

In addition to a locally focused exhibition schedule, the Missouri History Museum also credits its robust schedule of programming and its world-renowned collection for drawing record numbers. That can especially be seen in the increase in attendance to the Museum’s Library and Research Center on Skinker Blvd., which welcomed 6,722 visitors in 2016. That is the most visitors to the Library and Research Center since in opened in 1992, due in large part to new K-12 programming at this building.

“We are so appreciative of our tax funding that allows us to keep our doors open, but we are especially grateful to our members and our sponsors for years like this one,” said Dr. Levine. “We could not create so many new exhibits in-house, present so many programs and conserve more artifacts without that additional support.”

How Exhibitions Develop Collections

It all began with a small ski slope on Long Island. Yes, there was some skiing on Long Island, New York and in particular there was the once beloved but now forgotten Oyster Bay Ski Center. My interest in the history of the Ski Center began when I was sorting through some objects in the Oyster Bay Historical Society’s historic Earle-Wightman house. I found a sign for the Ski Center alongside a pair of children’s skis from the Paris Manufacturing Company (now known as Paricon) dated from the 1920s. Driving through Oyster Bay and her surrounding villages there are some steep hills, but it is hard to believe that there was once a wide open space suitable for skiing.

Based on published entries in the Ski New York State Guide, the Center was in operation from 1949 through 1959. Ultimately there were three lifts and with the help of the tow line, the clearing could manage up to 1500 skiers and hour with as little as three inches of snow. The Society’s winter 2013-2014 exhibit ‘Snow Day in Oyster Bay’ highlighted past winter activities and pleasures found only when the ponds froze over and inactivity yielded to ingenuity and often dare-devilish behavior. The Ski Center sign and relevant objects became one of the more popular talking points of the exhibit. The Center’s existence and eventual closing garnering the interest of reporter Bill Blyer who featured the story in an article in the daily Long Island newspaper Newsday.


With all the attention something was bound to happen. Ken Summers, the son of Oscar Summers who had managed the Ski Center in the mid-1950s, dropped by about a month after the exhibit closed to offer the Society six wooden signs that his family had kept. Despite the knowledge that it might be some time before the Society exhibits the Ski Center’s relics again, they are a welcome and unexpected addition to our collection.

Collections Development is defined by the Society of American Archivists as “the function within an archives … that establishes policies and procedures used to select materials that the repository will acquire,” or put another way, to determine what subjects of the organization’s mission are under-represented and seek out documentation and/or artifacts to add to the current collection. In this case the Ski Center’s artifacts came back to us. Without any intention of receiving items from Oyster Bay’s colorful past, our exhibit inadvertently garnered publicity, testimony, photographs and objects.


Considering that no one has a crystal ball or could possibly know what wonderful archives are out there, we sometime have to wait to see what our own membership will uncover and be willing to part with. In the future, the Society and other organizations must remember to include, however briefly, all of the ­subjects contributing to that exhibition when writing press releases or other exhibition publicity. Perhaps prompting an unexpected visitor to offer up what you didn’t even know existed.

Images courtesy of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, taken by Nicole Menchise

Want to write for the AASLH blog? Learn more and submit an article here.

The Self-Directed Nature of Interpretation

Five Mile Point Lighthouse, New Haven, CT

This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of History News magazine. You can read the article, which is part of a larger article) in PDF format hereHistory News is a benefit of AASLH membership

While preparing the Connecticut Historical Society’s new strategic plan in 2014, the staff and board held community meetings across the state. We were trying to understand how Connecticans define history, why it is valuable, and their preferred ways to participate in it.

Most we spoke with—those passionate about the discipline and those who see it as a nice distraction—found relevance in history when it revolved around personal and local content. Personal and local history helped them to define themselves by explaining their sense of loyalty and identity, unusual quirks, and strongly held values. The search for these answers provided many a sense of purpose, and the tool they most often used to address it was narrative. Based on these observations, the CHS decided upon an approach to history whereby we would help visitors tell their own stories, and help connect those stories to the larger Connecticut narrative.


USA - CIRCA 1935: A Stamp printed in USA shows Charter Oak, Connecticut Tercentenary Issue, circa 1935
A Stamp printed in USA shows Charter Oak, Connecticut Tercentenary Issue, circa 1935

With this direction in mind, the organization began a few new programs to test this approach. In March 2015 we launched affinity groups aimed at people who have niche interests in decorative arts and textiles. Joining the affinity groups is free, but membership requires volunteer time to both design and staff programs. A CHS staff member assists as a facilitator and guide. The decorative arts group curated an exhibition, while the textile (or “fashion”) affinity group is organizing a history-inspired fashion show. We will follow both the exhibit and fashion with additional programs.

The people drawn to these groups aren’t just interested in admiring beautiful and rare objects. Most have personal history with the objects they study. A particular type of clock may have been crafted in the neighborhood where the person grew up, or they had a grandmother who worked in the textile mills where a fabric was woven. Deep study of these collections allows the audiences to explore their own histories. But their personal interests also lead them to research many things: differences in stitching methods or in cabinet-making, why one style was of preference, or where craftspeople learned their trade. From there, they can examine how those trends reflect immigration patterns in a community, for example, or how the blending of cultures improved construction techniques.


Connecticut Historical Society Museum and Library. Photo by Sage Ross
Connecticut Historical Society Museum and Library. Photo by Sage Ross

The next example of this approach is our spring 2015 exhibition, Connecticut: 50 Objects/50 Stories. The idea for this exhibit came directly from these strategic planning community meetings. At most meetings we found people had a very different perspective on Connecticut’s history and culture, one they understood mostly through personal experience and local identity. To help people share their own stories, and to connect them with the story of Connecticut, the CHS challenged the public and local historical organizations to submit stories as represented by photographs of real objects that they believe define Connecticut. We collect and display submissions in an online gallery. From the submissions, a committee of scholars, peers, and community members will chose fifty of these object-based stories for a physical exhibit that will run from May to October 2015 at the CHS headquarters.

Rather than attempting to define Connecticut through a single narrative, this exhibit begins a conversation with participants about who we are, how we see ourselves and our communities, and what we aspire to become. So far we have received a wide range of stories and objects from the traditional Charter Oak legend and a leaf of tobacco used to make Connecticut shade leaf cigar wrappers, to the United Textile Workers of America union charter and a same-sex marriage certificate from 2008.


The interactive online page for Connecticut: 50 Objects/50 Stories

As the CHS transforms into an organization that helps people to discover and share their story (stories often shared and repeated in communities across the state) we are able to construct a wonderfully diverse, complex, and rich history that, rather than explaining where we came from, begins a discussion about where we wish to go.

As Rick Beard noted in this [issue], “The next great revolution in interpretation has already begun, as museums, in partnership with their audiences, move to craft transformative experiences that engage visitors of all ages. Success will rely upon the history community’s ability to fuse the new technology and social media with its greatest assets—real objects, places, stories, lives, and ideas.” This is the future of historical interpretation at the Connecticut Historical Society and should be, I believe, for the field as a whole.

Jody Blankenship is Chief Executive Officer of the Connecticut Historical Society.

New Online Exhibit/Oral History Project at King County Archives: Public Health’s Response to AIDS in Seattle-King County,1982-1996


The King County Archives in Seattle, Washington (new members of AASLH) announces publication of its new online exhibit, Responding to AIDS: The Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, 1982-1996, at http://respondingtoaidsexhibit.org.

The exhibit tells how Seattle-King County became a national leader in AIDS prevention, education, research, and support for quality care, through forward-thinking leadership, innovative programs, and engagement with the communities most affected by AIDS.

Ten video-recorded oral history interviews with current and former Public Health employees---leadership and staff from the AIDS Prevention Project---were produced for the project with funding from a 2015 4Culture Heritage Project grant. Archival documents, photographs, graphics, and audio, along with the oral histories, document Public Health’s response to the AIDS epidemic, from its emergence in 1982, to 1996, when the epidemic reached a turning point.

By 1996, over 3,000 people in King County had died of AIDS.  Today, in 2016, it may be hard to recall or imagine the level of fear and controversy around AIDS as it emerged as a major public health crisis.  Responding to AIDS touches on many issues that arose at the time, such as privacy and civil rights, AIDS education in schools, the challenge of reaching disadvantaged and minority populations, the stigma of being HIV-positive, and rights for LGBT individuals.


The King County Archives

Located in Seattle, Washington, the King County Archives collects, preserves, and provides access to historical records of King County government.  The Archives supports civic engagement and governmental transparency by providing public access to historical County records, which document the county’s people, culture, land, infrastructure, and governance.

Through online exhibits, the Archives seeks to foster appreciation and understanding of King County’s ongoing history and of King County government’s role in the community, as well as to promote public use of its collection for research.

Website: www.kingcounty.gov/archives/

Collecting Star Routes: Interpreting the Unusual Delivery Methods of the USPS Independent Contractors

There are a few old terms about postal operations that have particularly captivating turns of phrase. "Star Routes" often raises lots of curious looks and questions. The transportation contractors that this term refers to cover some of the most challenging terrains and climates in the US and help make the US Postal Service's extensive logistics network possible. It's why the work they do is often included in the lists of facts and superlatives about USPS. It's why my museum has included their story in an exhibition and why we continue to work to add to our collection about their individual histories.


Postcard promotes the Rogue River mail boat.
Postcard promotes the Rogue River mail boat.


The Post Office created this relatively independent type of contract work in 1845, and allowed these transportation contractors to choose their own methods and routes to reach the prescribed delivery locations and schedule. The Star Route name derives from the three asterisks that were written as shorthand for the "certainty, celerity, and security" qualities by which designated contractors moved and protected the mail in their charge. Despite the introduction of a new name (Highway Contract Routes) and more extensive specifications in 1970, the Star Route title endures as do many of its oldest companies and routes.


Museum staff processes new accessions from Jerry's Rogue Jets.
Museum staff processes new accessions from Jerry's Rogue Jets.

In 2015, we accessioned objects from two such unique contractors. We have been aiming to collect stories like theirs for years but the changeable nature of contracts has meant that a couple of opportunities have come and gone. This year two of our curators developed a relationship with the operators of the famed mule-train route in Arizona and acquired a saddle used to carry mail to the base of the canyon on the Havasupai Reservation, south of the Grand Canyon National Park.A serendipitous phone call from Jerry's Rogue Jets of Gold Beach, OR started a conversation about the Star Route that began in 1895 on the river that the company serves by trucks in the wintertime and by jet boats in the summer when tourists travel along with the mail. Our museum didn't have space for one of their older-style boats, but we did acquire the boat pilot's uniforms. Though not employees of the US Postal Service, the work they do for the USPS makes them integral to its corporate history and identity. But these are just a sampling of the broad array of contractors and suppliers to USPS. How far we should go with collecting and interpreting the history of these related businesses is up for debate. We'll set a course while remaining open to the opportunities that may help us better understand and interpret the history of the Postal Service.


Saddle used by mule-train contractor.
Saddle used by mule-train contractor.

Lynn Heidelbaugh is a curator with the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.