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Webinar: History Relevance Coffee Break with Ford's Theatre

Been noodling on a sticky problem without a clear solution? Ford’s Theatre staff have long been batting around ideas on how to make history more relevant to the 235,000 students who visit the site every year. Working with strategist/evaluator Kate Haley Goldman, Ford’s Theatre did a series of six week-long sprints to build rough prototypes of some of these ideas and test them with actual students on-site. Join Associate Director for Interpretive Resources David McKenzie in a focused discussion with History Relevance initiative standing committee member Conny Graft to learn about the successes and lessons learned in this exhausting, but exhilarating, exercise in human-centered design.

This webinar is part of the History Relevance Coffee Break webinar series. Each webinar in this short-form series showcases projects by history organizations that are making history relevant to their communities in meaningful, measurable, and replicable ways. Webinar participants will glean practical tips for how organizations can connect issues of the past to issues of the present and meet their relevance goals.


DATE: Thursday, December 13, 2018

TIME: 3:00 – 3:30 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone!)

COST: $Free Members / $5 Non-members

Closed captioning available upon advanced notice. Please contact for more information.


Description and Outcomes:

Interview Questions:

  • Tell us about how you connected issues of the past with issues of the present?
  • What were some of the challenges you faced in implementing this project?
  • What did you learn from the evaluation of your project?
  • Based on your experience making history relevant through this project, what are the three most important suggestions you have for others working to make history relevant at their institutions?

Participant Outcomes:

  • Learn how Ford's Theatre makes history relevant in measurable and replicable ways
  • Feel inspired by the featured organization to endorse the Value of History Statement
  • Feel inspired to employ formal survey and evaluation techniques when evaluating the success of their projects
  • Feel motivated to think creatively about how they can make history relevant through projects at their own institution
  • Learn practical tips for how organizations can connect issues of the past to issues of the presents


  • Conny Graft, Steering Committee Member, History Relevance Initiative
  • David McKenzie, Associate Director for Interpretive Resources, Ford's Theatre

Should We Create the Same Digital Archives for Different Audiences?

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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.

Making Point of View Central to Interpretation

Photo courtesy of Ford’s Theatre.

Ford’s Theatre is a National Historic Site that also operates as a working theatre, producing four main stage shows each year.  For many years, the National Park Service provided all historical interpretation, while Ford’s Theatre Society, my independent non-profit employer, presented the theatre. In 2006, the board of Ford’s Theatre Society and the Board of Trustees expanded its organizational mission to “celebrate the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln and explore the American experience through theatre and education.”

In the following six years (I started as Director of Education Programming in 2007), Ford’s has become an institution that integrates theatre and history, using our expertise in theatrical programming to interpret Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, his assassination and his legacy both on and off the stage.

Using theatrical performance as a primary means of interpretation has both challenged and inspired us.  It has meant thinking beyond traditional notions of “exhibition” and working with theatrical professionals to understand one another’s definitions of high quality work.  Specifically, we have come to our own institutional understanding of the essential qualities of traditional theatre and how they differ from first person and third person interpretation.  Let me share some examples with you.

History Plays
When we began to play a larger role in interpretation at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the artistic staff discussed inviting a playwright to come see the historic theatre and the exhibits beneath the theatre, and to hear formal interpretive talks, delivered from the stage by National Park Service rangers.  Our instructions were to take all that he heard and learned from the talks and put that information into a short, dramatically interesting piece of theatre. As with any exhibit plan, we struggled to come up with a point of view for the piece.

When working in partnership with a playwright, this is complicated by the need to maintain the integrity of the his or her artistic vision, and we learned the hard way that it did not send the message we wanted if the story we told about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were told from the perspective of his assassin.  We started again with a new playwright, and this time, it worked.

A 30-minute play by Richard Hellesen titled One Destiny is performed on the stage of Ford’s Theatre twice a day in our busy season, and is told from the perspective of the men and women who were working at the theatre the night of the assassination and try to imagine in retrospect if and how they might have stopped the terrible crime committed that evening.  It has proved a powerful means of putting the visitor in the shoes of the people with whom they can most identify – not the actors in the crime, but the bystanders.

History on Foot
In 2008, Ford’s Theatre closed for a major restoration and renovation project.  For 18 months, we had no space to interpret the events of April 14, 1865.  The resolution to this dilemma came in the form of a wonderful realization that has opened our eyes to interpretation beyond the walls of the historic site.  With the commission of another work from our “playwright in residence,” Investigation: Detective McDevitt was born, and it still lives on the streets of Washington City from March to October. Detective James McDevitt was a Washington Metropolitan Police detective, assigned by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to investigate the conspiracy behind the President’s assassination on the night of April 15, 1865.

Photo courtesy of Ford’s Theatre.

Twice a week from March to October, one of our “McDevitts” (there are currently two actors playing the role) starts off from Ford’s with up to 40 “deputies” tagging behind him, to retrace his steps that night, ending nearly two hours later in front of the White House.  The actor takes on the voices of the people he interviewed, reading aloud from their statements handed to him by the same, paying deputies.  McDevitt has been so successful that we commissioned a second piece, called A Free Woman: Elizabeth Keckly, which takes visitors through the Washington known to Mrs. Keckly, a formerly enslaved dressmaker who became a confidant to Mary Lincoln during her years in Washington.  These two History on Foot tours have proved challenging but rewarding, and they have expanded our interpretive space to include the whole of downtown Washington.

Our greatest lessons learned from these experiments? The voices of historical figures are as powerful as the objects in our exhibits, and they often reach an audience left (metaphorically) cold by object-based learning.  Don’t be afraid to bring historical actors – and observers – to life, and challenge yourself to partner with your local artists and theatrical institutions.  If you want to explore this more, consider joining us at the October 2013 global conference of the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL) at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.