A yellowish, stone building is shown. It has green shutters and green door. There is a man walking in front of the house, looking up at it.

Workshop: Reinventing the Historic House Museum

Reinventing the Historic House Museum

An AASLH Workshop

Workshop Description

The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest social and economic research, with a discussion on how they may relate to the participants’ house museum. We share a series of field-tested tools and techniques drawn from such wide-ranging sources as non-profit management, business strategy, and software development. Drawing from innovative organizations, we profile historic sites that are using new models to engage with their communities to become more relevant, are adopting creative forms of interpretation and programming, and earning income to become more financially sustainable. A key component of the workshop is a facilitated brainstorming session to reinvent an event or program. Working with an actual house museum not only puts theory into practice but demonstrates the value of multiple perspectives for analysis.

Why should I attend?

Historic house museums face a wide range of challenges in today’s continually changing environment. Traditional methods no longer seem to be as successful but new approaches seem uncertain or risky.  By the end of the workshop, participants will be able to analyze their operations, programs, and events to make better informed decisions, learn how to use a variety of tools and techniques that can be applied to a wide range of activities at museums big and small, identify ways to make their house museum more distinctive and relevant, and feel more confident to try new and different approaches.

Topics include:

  • Recognizing the Myriad Challenges Facing House Museums Today
  • Conducting a Holistic Assessment of Your House Museum’s Public Programs
  • Analyzing the Five Forces that Affect Public Programs and Events
  • House Museums That Are Successfully Reinventing Themselves
  • Discovering Your House Museum’s Unique Value and Distinctiveness


FORMAT: In-person group workshop

LENGTH: One full day (8:30 am - 5:00 pm), with lunch provided

DATE: Friday, October 4, 2019

LOCATION: The Old Stone House, 336 3rd Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215

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

COST: This workshop (which typically costs $95.00 per registrant) is made available at no cost thanks to grant funding secured by the Historic House Trust of New York City from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Arthur F. & Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. Please use promotional code HHTNYC19 at checkout to receive discounted pricing.  


Who Should Attend This Workshop

Board members, staff, and volunteers who manage house museums and historic sites or who develop public programs and events. This workshop is designed for organizations large and small who are seeking to increase the impact and sustainability of their house museum, as well as for paid or volunteer staff who want to expand their professional skills.


Max A. van Balgooy is president of Engaging Places LLC, a design and strategy firm that connects people and historic places.  He has worked with a wide range of historic sites on interpretive planning and business strategy, including James Madison’s Montpelier and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. He is an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University, directs the History Leadership Institute (formerly known as the Seminar for Historical Administration), serves on the editorial board of Curator, the Museum Journal, and regularly leads workshops at regional and national museum conferences. He is a frequent contributor to professional journals and books, and with Ken Turino of Historic New England, he is preparing an anthology on reinventing the historic house museum for publication by Rowman and Littlefield in early 2019. These experiences provide a rich source of ideas for EngagingPlaces.net, where he blogs regularly about the opportunities and challenges facing historic sites and house museums.

Kenneth Turino is Manager of Community Partnerships and Resource Development at Historic New England where he has worked for 19 years. He oversees community engagement projects throughout New England and is responsible for exhibition partnerships at the Eustis Estate, Langdon House Museum, and the Sarah Orne Jewett Museum and Visitor Center. Prior to this, he was Executive Director of the Lynn Museum in Lynn, Massachusetts for 14 years. Ken frequently consults on interpretive planning and community engagement projects at historic sites including Madam John’s Legacy, New Orleans, LA, on best practices of community engagement, James Madison’s Montpellier, Orange, VA, where he was part of a charrette to rethink the visitor experience for the Interpretive Plan and most recently with the Connecticut Landmarks’ Palmer Warner House on interpreting LGBTQ history. Ken holds a MA in Teaching, Museum Education, from the George Washington University and is an adjunct professor in the Tufts University Museum Studies Program where he teaches courses on the future of historic houses. Mr. Turino is also a Trustee of the House of Seven Gables in Salem, MA. Along with Max van Balgooy he is an instructor for AASLH‘s Reinventing the Historic House workshop. His forthcoming book, with Max van Balgooy, based on the workshop will be published in fall 2019. Ken is also very pleased to announce that he is producer of  the Boston Camerata’s latest CD, Treasures of Devotion (June 2019)!

Participant Feedback

This workshop has been incredibly helpful to the host sites, who serve as the case study for the brainstorming session:

“Reinventing the Historic House Museum sparked many great ideas on how we can use our historic homes in dynamic, innovative ways. Since attending the workshop, we have implemented many changes, including a new self-guided tour with interactive elements that have increased our attendance and engaged the public in brand new ways.”

Sarah Bader-King, Director of Public Programming & Events,
Wornall/Majors House Museums, Kansas City, Missouri

Reinventing the Historic House Museum helped us visualize how the Margaret Mitchell House could connect with the community around us. While the site was very popular with tourists, we were hidden in plain sight from our own community. Our goal was to discuss the challenges we faced and to pursue practical solutions. The workshop allowed us to collaborate with area professionals and hear from colleagues facing similar challenges. We left the workshop with good ideas and a commitment to reimagine our site. As a result of that work we have increased visibility in the community, created programming relevant to the neighborhood, and are partnering with area organizations to become a community resource and connector.”

Jessica Van Landuyt, Director of 20th Century Houses,
Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, Georgia

Flux and Fluidity: Telling Historical Stories in Re-Purposed Houses of Worship

A model of the Lloyd Street Synagogue during its occupancy by St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (1889-1905). Note the addition of a small bell tower at the peak of the roof. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

In the 1980s, when I worked at the Winterthur Museum, the great collection of American decorative arts, I was fascinated most by furniture that was "married" or "improved."  These were pieces that had been constructed from two earlier pieces, once separate, or that were "modernized" by the addition of fashionable new details. These unusual survivors were quite unlike the pure styles for which Winterthur is noted, but had the advantage that they embodied within themselves the idea of "change over time."

Many years later, I became the director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. This museum has the distinction of owning two historic synagogues, one of which, the Lloyd Street Synagogue (1845), is now the third-oldest standing synagogue building in the continental U.S. For me, much of the building's interest lay in its having been the home of three successive immigrant congregations.


The restored Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore, designed by Baltimore's leading architect, Robert Carey Long, Jr., and built in 1845, showing its original Victorian colors. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland

The first, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was founded by German-speaking Jews, mostly from central Europe. When this congregation vacated the building in 1889, it was succeeded by St. John the Baptist, a Roman Catholic congregation composed of recent immigrants from Lithuania--one of the early ethnic parishes in Baltimore. In 1905, St. John the Baptist moved out and a congregation of immigrant Jews from eastern Europe moved in. Each of the three groups altered and adapted the building to suit its distinctive traditions and needs.

Lloyd Street Synagogue, in effect, encapsulated nearly a century of European immigration to America. It also represented a distinctly American theme--the tendency of Christian and Jewish congregations to adopt each other's buildings, a practice virtually unknown in Europe, but a commonplace here in America. The adaptive re-use of religious structures by successive congregations can tell stories of immigration, pluralism, mobility, and ethnic succession. Urban Black churches, for  example, occupied many houses of worship abandoned by white congregations fleeing from neighborhoods in transition.

The story of adaptive re-use is even broader. Many former churches and synagogues have been re-purposed for other uses. In Columbia, SC, for example, the House of Peace Synagogue (1915) became a popular African American nightclub in the 1930s, the place where the Big Apple dance originated. And in many communities across the country, congregations occupy and worship in former stores, schools, and a variety of other building types.

For us as history professionals, these sites of adaptive re-use offer exceptional opportunities for engaging interpretation of social as well as spiritual change. Their complex and hybrid character, can make the stories of these congregational homes every bit as compelling as those of Spanish missions or New England meetinghouses, cathedrals or Shaker villages. After all, religious sites are a sub-category of identity museums--and, given the instability of religious identity in contemporary America--due to intermarriage, conversion, and spiritual search--stories of flux and fluidity can have a special relevance and resonance for our constantly changing audiences.

Avi Decter is the author of the recent AASLH publication Interpreting American Jewish History at Museums and Historic Sites.

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

Maryland Governor Restores Funding to Maryland's Historic Preservation Grant Programs

Historic Maryland State Capitol in Annapolis

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan included in his fiscal year 2018 budget over $979,000 to support grant funding for historic preservation projects statewide. These funds, available to local governments and non-profit organizations, will assist in the identification and rehabilitation of historic landmarks and archaeological sites throughout Maryland. The Capital Historic Preservation Grant Program has not been funded since fiscal year 2010. The Non-capital Historic Preservation Grant Program has not been funded since fiscal year 2012.

"The return of these grant programs is great news for communities all around the state," said Secretary Wendi Peters. "The power of historic preservation to create jobs and encourage reinvestment in local economies is well documented. These grants will help identify and preserve some of our state's most treasured historic properties."

The Historic Preservation grants will be administered by the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT), a division of the Maryland Department of Planning. The Trust was formed in 1961 to assist the people of Maryland in identifying, studying, evaluating, preserving, protecting and interpreting the state's significant prehistoric and historic districts, sites, structures, cultural landscapes, heritage areas, cultural objects and artifacts, as well as less tangible human and community traditions. Through research, conservation and education, MHT assists the people of Maryland in understanding their historical and cultural heritage.

Online applications for fiscal year 2018 Non-capital and Capital Historic Preservation Grant funding will be available in late spring 2017 on MHT's website, mht.maryland.gov/grants.shtml. Application deadlines and workshop dates will also be announced on this page.

For more information about the Capital Grant Program, please contact Anne Raines at 410-697-9584 or anne.raines@maryland.gov.

For information about the Non-capital Grant Program, please contact Heather Barrett at 410-697-9536 or heather.barrett@maryland.gov.

This text was shared by the Maryland Historical Trust in a press release on January 31, 2017.

House or Home? Rethinking the House Museum Paradigm

Wheelwright House, Strawbery Banke Museum
Wheelwright House, Strawbery Banke Museum

At their best, historic sites and house museums provide meaningful and personal touchstones to the past. They provide a forum and a place to connect historical, social, and cultural issues with contemporary counterparts. They inspire us to think about and act on those issues in our own lives and communities.

Yet for much of the public, a historic house museum connotes something at least partly negative: an old building filled with precious things carefully protected by velvet ropes and draconian guides, offering an experience that is alternately boring and fanciful, passive, and even off-putting. House museums have overlooked the essence of these places as homes, precluding current relevance in favor of immutable stories and physical barriers. House museums are at their worst when they overemphasize the physical attributes of the site—its aesthetics and its collections, the “thingness” of the place—through rigid standards for historical preservation and collections care, carried out at the expense of the site’s educational and inspirational potential.

The cultural tourism model has failed most house museums. Iconic places, like Mount Vernon, will always have a place in the museum landscape, but the majority of house museums are not destination sites. Places of local—as opposed to regional and national—relevance, may suffer lingering deaths if they do not adopt new methods and philosophies. Inevitably, the roof will collapse, figuratively and literally. It is time to reconceptualize historic sites and embrace the Darwinian principle that survival requires adaptation.


Photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, circa 1873, taken by Leet Brothers.
Photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, circa 1873, taken by Leet Brothers.

A good start would be to abandon the term historic house museum and with it the physical and metaphorical velvet ropes it has come to imply. The word house objectifies the museum setting, treating the building as something that is as much a part of a collection as the things contained within it, rather than as a place of warmth where real people lived and breathed, ate and slept, drank too much, had sex and raised children, fought with each other, and maintained strong and controversial belief systems—in short, all of the things that happen in a home today.

A historic home museum acknowledges and celebrates the events of everyday life, de-sanctifies the house and creates instead a setting for the occurrences of life. It converts vague and sacrosanct historical figures into flesh and blood, warts and all, because our flaws are an important part of what makes us human. A house is just a building, but a home is a place of life with the potential to connect the past and present through objects, stories, and emotions—our shared humanity.


Levine Family Kitchen in the Tenement Museum. Photo by Battman Studios
Levine Family Kitchen in the Tenement Museum. Photo by Battman Studios

Examples of historic home museums do exist, including the oft cited—but still worth mentioning—Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which focuses on difficult and complex issues involving immigration and assimilation. There, objects play a supporting role to illustrate stories of real people and families. Their visitors—including descendants of immigrants, recent immigrants, and international tourists—seek personal relevance, and often find emotional connections, in the experiences of the historic inhabitants of 97 Orchard Street. At its heart, the Tenement Museum is a site of activism, presenting and interpreting the variety of immigrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its challenge is to draw on connections between past and present to elevate the national conversation about immigration.

A lesser-known example is Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, Ohio, where Robert Smith and Bill W. (Wilson) battled their addictions and hammered out the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Bob and his wife Anne helped hundreds of people, invited many to stay in their home, and counseled them over endless pots of coffee. Today, a sign above the front door greets visitors with the words “Welcome Home,” as does the staff inside. The greeters serve a dual function of presenting the story of Dr. Bob and Bill W., and of engaging visitors who might be struggling with their own addictions. When I visited in 2007, a greeter offered me a fresh cup of coffee brewed in a replica of Dr. Bob’s original coffeepot and a seat at the kitchen table. Visits are self-guided, with simple labels indicating the rooms where Dr. Bob and Bill W. slept. Every June, 12,000 people make a pilgrimage to Akron for Founder’s Day, visiting the site of the first A.A. meeting, the graves of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, and Dr. Bob’s Home. These places have deep personal and spiritual meaning to visitors struggling with their own recoveries. Dr. Bob’s home is an activist place of the spirit that only happens to be made of bricks and wood.


The kitchen in Dr. Bob's Home. Via drbobshome.com
The kitchen in Dr. Bob's Home. Via drbobshome.com

Within homes, families—in their many forms and meanings—have always engaged in domestic activism—in small ways inside kitchens, bedrooms and parlors, in discussions about chores and family responsibilities, or in larger ways with arguments about politics, race, gender, and social structure and hierarchy. Historic home museums should be places to discuss and even argue the many meanings of home, from family rituals to the social organization of slave cabins. Historic home museums have the potential to be the kitchen tables of cultural discourse. Identifying links between culturally relevant topics, historical importance, and mission-driven programs will result in enhanced and sustainable visitor and community engagement.

House museums a century ago sought to express the “American Experience” in large part through Progressivism and the Colonial Revival. These social movements promoted “proper” aesthetics and “traditional” American values as a means to good moral character and behavior, especially for poorer working classes and newly arrived immigrants. During this period, an underlying goal of the creation of new house museums was to protect and enshrine American virtue and to indoctrinate “non-native” peoples with this principle, itself a form of activism, guided by politics and beliefs that are now obsolete. In the years leading to the American bicentennial, the American experience in house museums was further shaped by celebratory stories of patriotism, in part a reaction to the political and social upheaval of the Vietnam War era.

During the movement toward professionalization in the first half of the twentieth century, the role of house museums as venues of activism became secondary or lost. However, social activism within museums has become more the norm of late, in places like the Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center and with organizations such as the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which counts among its members the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, the District Six Museum in South Africa, the Gulag Museum at Perm-36 in Russia, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Other sites also offer hope, such as Jane Addams’ Hull House Museum with its community organic garden and alternative labeling project, which the museum describes as “civic engagement and reflection.” These activist museums hope to engage and inspire their visitors to engage in personal or social change.


National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel
National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel

Unfortunately, professional standards for collections care and preservation have contributed to emotionless interpretation and limited visitor engagement. The typical house museum tour focuses on the senses of sight and listening and ignores the powerful human connections achieved through the remaining senses. This is most evident in the treatment of objects. The standard rule for visitors is “Don’t Touch Anything.” This is taking the easy way out. It does not require decision-making by museum professionals and preservationists, only obedience to a single uniform approach. In fact, some objects are more durable than others. Some are more replaceable than others. Further, at the risk of bringing angry torchbearers to my heretical door, some objects are more important than others, and there is such a thing as an acceptable risk. Instead of don’t touch anything, the revised standard that historic house museums should adopt is “Don’t Touch Everything.” Museums should invite visitors to touch, hold, sit upon, and even smell certain objects. Historic sites should employ the collective wisdom of curators, conservators, educators, preservationists, peer reviewers, and funders in making decisions about responsible and flexible use of collections.

The shift in emphasis from house to home—from rigid, unimaginative sanctification to flexible, creative activism—will require a careful balance between preservation needs and audience engagement, combining the imagination, creativity, and professional integrity of the preservation and museum fields. It also necessitates a close and ongoing reexamination of professional standards and practices, supported by funding agencies and museum and preservation professional associations. This process is already underway, with the launch in 2009 of the Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs), a voluntary assessment program for small- and mid-sized history organizations, created by AASLH with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.


The StEPs Workbook
The StEPs Workbook

The modern American experience remains mutable, and its representation within house museums is unsettled. Its definition incorporates multiculturalism, characterized by the maturity of the Civil Rights movement, the advent of expanded LGBTQ rights, and the confident voices of Americans of many ethnicities and political persuasions in American government and culture. Technology, especially the rapid spread of Web-based social networking, allows us to speak and accept the cultural languages of many distinct groups. The Internet and some aspects of popular culture, including television, promote non-linear thought, through which we are able to weave seemingly unrelated ideas into rich and highly individualized patterns. However we define the contemporary American experience, most house museums, with their tradition-bound stories, rigid professional standards, and linear interpretation (in the form of guided tours) lack the nimbleness to close the cultural gap and remain relevant to their visitors and communities. In recent years, house museums have begun to do a better job of telling the stories of immigrants, slaves, working class people, and women, but there is still much work remaining.

The most difficult hurdle may be overcoming the reluctance of historic sites to rethink or abandon traditional approaches. This is understandable. Making changes to bring in an expanded or different public, tell new stories, and connect with modern culture is often a frightening prospect that risks desanctification of a site and alienation of existing audience. For some house museums, the chasm between house and home may be too vast. However, the alternative is a site that enshrines dead people, dead ideas, and dead culture—and a collapsing roof.

Ron M. Potvin is Assistant Director and Curator of the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University (an Academic Program Member of AASLH).

This article was originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of History News magazine. You can read recent History News articles by becoming a member or find issues older than three years on JSTOR.

Be Relevant: Get Involved in National History Day

National History Day (NHD) was created in 1974 by a professor at Case Western Reserve University to combat the decline of the humanities in school curricula. It evolved into annual nationwide competitions held at the regional, state, and national levels with middle and high school competitors creating papers and projects on a designated theme; the competitions are designed to give great weight to historical accuracy and the use of primary sources.


Parade of States and the ational level of NHD
Parade of States and the ational level of NHD

Today, about 700,000 students from every US state, Guam, American Samoa, China, Singapore, South Korea, and Guatemala participate each year in the categories of research paper, exhibit, website, documentary, and performance. Students may work individually or in a group of up to five people. They will compete in a junior (middle school) or senior (high school) division. Students come from public, private, and home-schools.  The goal is to reach the annual competition at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Most of the competitors at NHD are coached by history teachers at public and private schools. Home-schooled students  rely on their parents for coaching.  SO WHERE ARE THE MUSEUMS IN THIS EQUATION?

Some state historical societies serve as the State Coordinators, but it is curious to me why more museums and historic sites do not become involved in coaching NHD teams. Museums, after all, are the repositories of millions of primary sources from documents to photos to sound recordings and artifacts.  Curators KNOW how to analyze primary sources, how to look beyond, to compare and corroborate. So where are the museums? Why not open our doors and our collections to these bright young minds and help guide them in creating amazing projects?

This year the staff of Hickory Hill was asked by a home school parent to coach her 6th grader for the competition. We sent out notes to educators we see frequently on field trips and for outreach to invite their students to form a team because NHD is not part of the offerings in our local districts.

Three young ladies decided to see projects through to completion; two were home-schooled and one came from a public middle school. We spent after school hours with each of the students helping them identify locations for strong primary sources, teaching them to analyze those sources, editing bibliographies and process papers, and working with them to fine tune their projects: one Junior website, one Junior performance, and one Senior exhibit.  Happily, there was not a Wikipedia entry in sight!


Georgia Students Coached by Hickory Hill
Georgia Students Coached by Hickory Hill

The young ladies wowed the judges and took Firsts in each of their divisional categories.  They went on to compete at the State competition with our young performer advancing to the National competition in Maryland.  That same young lady competed against hundreds of students to win 2nd place in the Junior Individual Performance category at the National event!

According to the NHD website, competing students have even changed history. Three 16-year-old students in Illinois produced a group documentary on the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. This led the U.S. Congress to pass a bipartisan resolution calling on federal prosecutors to reopen the high profile case. Because of these students’ exhaustive research–reviewing more than 2,000 documents and conducting dozens of interviews–more than 40 years later, in 2005, the FBI’s original prime suspect, Edgar Ray Killen was finally arrested, tried, and convicted of murdering James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.


NHD Medalists from Georgia
NHD Medalists from Georgia

We may not change history, but by getting involved in National History Day museums and historic sites can be more relevant to their communities. Will it take staff time? Yes. Will it take brain power? Yes. Will you build good will, new audiences, and potential donors? ABSOLUTELY!

Get involved at  www.nhd.org


Expendable History? Saving Women's Historic Sites from Demolition

As a women’s historian, I have always subscribed to the belief that women’s histories, stories, and contributions are everywhere; we just need to look for them. Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that I was not only living close to the historic home of a significant woman, but that said home was slated to be demolished to make way for apartments and single family houses? As a relatively recent transplant to Bentonville, Arkansas, I was unaware that the town was home to Louise Thaden, pioneering female pilot and contemporary of Amelia Earhart, who set records for speed, altitude, and solo endurance in the 1920s and 1930s, and who is featured at the Smithsonian Institution. Many other Bentonville residents were also either unaware of the house’s history or under the misconception that it was protected as a historic site. The threat to Thaden’s childhood home got me thinking about how to identify, record, and preserve sites connected with women’s history, as well as other local histories, and how to proactively work with other community members to make the case that these sites were valuable and worthy of protection.

louise thaden wikipedia
American aviation pioneer Louise Thaden (1905-1979). Wikipedia Commons.

The first thing that the Thaden case taught me was that a site’s designation as part of an historic district or even listing on the National Register was not enough to protect it from demolition.[1] While there are benefits to undergoing the process of designation, such as having historians come out to a site to research and document it, as well as buildings becoming eligible for certain grants and state and federal tax credits for preservation, private property owners can opt out of historic districts at any time, alter the site, or even “dispose” of the property if they so choose Such was the case with the Thaden house; even though the house was a member of the West Central Avenue Historic District, in a time of rapid town growth, the land that the house is on was considered to be more valuable than the house itself by its present owners. So, what avenues are left to concerned townspeople who want to preserve a specific historic site and discover other local places that may be worthy of protection?

Get to know your local historic society and its records. Learn more about your town’s history by studying historic photographs, property and genealogical records, newspapers, and other local publications, and by talking with local historical experts. Go to your library and find out if there are any local organizations like genealogy or architecture clubs, or other historic sites, museums, or schools that might be interested in spearheading a local history research and documentation project.

Next, get to know like-minded residents and your town board. In the case of the Thaden House, word-of-mouth among historic homeowners, local press coverage, and the use of social media tools like Facebook to organize site protests and online petitions helped to notify and build a grassroots coalition of local history stakeholders who went to the town board. Learn more about your local zoning laws and become a presence at town board and planning meetings to demonstrate that historic preservation is a priority. Offer to assist the board in researching historic preservation options, such as developing a local historical commission to manage historic sites. While local and state laws and organizations play an important role in preserving historic sites, remember that there is a limit to what they can do without certain laws in place and the consent of a private property owner.

Original location of Louise Thaden's childhood home at 703 W. Central Avenue, Bentonville, Arkansas. Plans are being discussed to move the house to another location. Photo by Megan Byrnes.

Study up on and pursue your legal options. One of the strongest options available to preserve an historic property is called a preservation easement, covenant, or restriction. These are usually voluntary on the part of the property owner, and split property rights between the owner and an easement-holding entity like a state or historic preservation office or other non-profit organization. This status can be made legally binding so that if the owner wants to sell the building or make any changes, they must be approved by the organization. While it might be difficult to get an owner to agree to this type of arrangement (especially since they will be held responsible for the maintenance of the property!), it is worth a shot, particularly if the site is of irreplaceable local history and/or can generate potential revenue as a heritage tourist site.

Finally, remember that not every site can be saved, or be financially feasible as a historic site if preserved. However, proactive steps can be taken to study and document women’s and local history sites for posterity, and there are many national and state organizations that you can reach out to for help and advice. A few great places to start are the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites; the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Park Service’s page of historic preservation links, including listings by state.

Before its demolition was called off, the Thaden House was about to meet the same fate as its 100-year-old neighbor. Photo by Megan Byrnes.

For now, Louise Thaden’s home and other houses like it, have been granted a brief reprieve, but it is up to us and other concerned constituents to make an active effort to save the unique local and women’s histories in our towns for future generations.

[1] According to the National Register of Historic Places program, “National Register status does not…interfere with a private property owner’s right to alter, manage, or dispose of property.” Additional information about the National Register guidelines can be found here

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 hawkins@aaslh.org.

Earth Day and History Organizations: Making Green Connections

Every year it surprises you - Earth Day, again!?

Should you join in? Can you find the time? Can you connect history to environmental sustainability? Absolutely!


Good news: You don’t need to plan a special event to join in. Earth Day raises awareness of the differences each of us can make on behalf of the environment – history organization or not.

Better news: You are likely already doing green work, or interpreting green stories; Earth Day is a ready-made chance to share that with your public and raise awareness:

  • Tell an historic green story, or
  • Share your staff’s green practices that save money and help the planet, or
  • Share your institution’s green hopes and plans, or
  • All of the above!

BTW - If you are pretty sure you’re doing nothing green – skipping to the end of this post brings you to a green checklist of ideas, and some “how to start” advice.


Edward Hicks, "The Cornell Farm.\," 1848
Edward Hicks, "The Cornell Farm," 1848


Historic Green Stories

  • How about sharing sustainability examples for this month’s article for the local paper or your weekly blog post?
    • Did the families trade eggs for veggies, cut wood for butter?
    • Did they pump water with windpower?
    • There’s always the clothesline discussion….
  • How about describing some past practices that have evolved to be sustainable?
    • Lumbering has become managed growth and forests are recreational sites.
    • The town added sewers to create a healthier river, and now there are stormwater management regulations to help manage runoff from the added of roadways and parking lots and buildings.
    • Citizens organized against a major polluter which led to cleaning up compromised land.


(Photo used with permission from Strawbery Banke Museum – check out their great historic food programs)


Staff Practices

  • Do you have some cool facts on energy saved or lightbulbs replaced, or wind power purchased? Why not create a temporary sign that tells your visitors about this?
  • How about mentioning the sensored lights and/or recycled-content materials as you head into the new exhibit with your tour?
  • Do you list your resource-saving (money, materials, and energy) on your website? Donors appreciate knowing you are careful with their gift



  • Let your community and peers know what good green work you are planning to do:
    • Training: The museum field is preparing to make environmental sustainability a best practice. How can you plan to learn about and implement the green practices appropriate for your organization?
    • Budgeting: Can you budget for an additional meter each year until all your year-round buildings can be monitored individually?  Measuring and reviewing how much electricity or water each sites uses makes it so much easier to detect wasteful accidents and practices.
    • Events: Can you set a goal of piloting zero waste events by practicing the techniques during the spring exhibit opening?
    • Energy: Is there talk of a solar garden or a community solar program that you can considering joining in the future?


How to Start:

For those who want to get started going green, why not use Earth Day 2016 as your kick-off day? Here is the UK Museums Association Sustainability Checklist. If you don’t feel ready to have this conversation with the public then, in honor of Earth Day, have it instead with your staff and volunteers. Ask them what the organization does – already – that limits your negative impact on the environment?

  • If the institution doesn’t recycle, maybe some staff take it home
  • Maybe everyone is already awesome at turning off lights and computers and printers and coffee machines (and unplugging chargers) when they’re not being used
  • Could you specify no-VOC paints for that next exhibit? (most major paint companies provide excellent options)
  • How about setting goals to use 20% less paper this year, and buying only 100% recycled paper?
  • How about looking at your utility bills for the last 12 months, setting a 10 – 20% electricity use reduction between now and Earth Day 2017, and working together to share tricks and look at the results each month?

Then next year on Earth Day you, too, will have successes to share that will inspire others, and help us all gain green momentum.

Sarah Sutton, Principal, Sustainable Museums, helps all kinds of museums improve their environmental sustainability in exciting and affordable ways. She is the author of Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites and Museums as part of the AASLH History Series. (Don't forget: members get a 20% discount off all books in the AASLH Series at Rowman & Littlefield.)


Does Your Historic House Need Reinventing?

AASLH is helping historic sites around the US look at how they engage with their communities and their sustainability and in a one-day symposium, Reinventing the Historic House Museum. After successful workshops in session in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Atlanta, and Woodstock Vermont, last year, we kicked off this year with St. Louis in April. Another is slated for May 20, 2016 in New Orleans.


Photo by Max A. van Balgooy
Photo by Max A. van Balgooy

The Historic House Museum in America is not dead nor are most of them dying. The field, however, needs to take time to reflect and renew as the world around our historic sites continues to change. This one-day symposium is designed to offer practical information, including ways to analysis your historic sites competitiveness. Presenter Max van Balgooy, President, Engaging Places LLC, says “The real point of competition is not to beat your rivals but to find a position in the community that ensures you are distinctive, sustainable, and mission driven.” The workshop also offers solutions to the challenges facing historic sites, and shows plenty of examples of successful sites who have connected to their communities, become sustainable, and attracted visitors.


Symposium in St. Louis
Symposium in St. Louis

After looking at current reports to the field such as the Historic Site visits of the Humanities Indicators , Max van Balgooy discusses The Five Forces that are Affecting Your Historic House Museum, his analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America. This presentation is based on the latest social and economic research and includes a discussion on strategies for responding to these external forces at your house museum. We follow this with a practical exercise in how you can take this tool back and use it strategically to evaluate programs and your site.

Photo by Ken Turino
Photo by Ken Turino

I provide participants with a comprehensive understanding of the rewards and challenges facing historic house museums today by giving examples of sites across the country who have implemented creative forms of interpretation and programming as well as ways to earn income all to become more sustainable.

In these symposiums we have plenty of time for discussion and visit a historic site visit. If you would like to join us at the Historic New Orleans Collections you can register here.

New Report Reveals Each Generation Less Likely to Visit Historic Sites Than the Last

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (HI) project released a new report this morning on historic site visitation from 1989 to 2012. The report finds that:

The data reveal generational differences with respect to Americans’ tendency to visit historic sites (Indicator V-13b). With each birth cohort, Americans of all ages have been less likely to visit historic sites. For example, those born from 1938 to 1947 had a 45% likelihood of having visited a historic site in the previous 12 months when they were ages 35–44, while those who were born in the 1968–1977 period had only a 23% likelihood of having visited a historic site when they were the same age.

As people aged they were less likely to visit a historic site. In each of the three cohorts for which the most complete data are available, the drop-off in historic site visitation over the life course is at least 25%.

It’s somewhat startling to read that “no organization or individual researcher has yet produced a reliable estimate of total visitation for U.S. historic sites” based on data gathered by the sites themselves. Data for this HI report comes from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.” That means the data is based on what visitors say about their own behavior. Only the National Park Service provides a national picture of visitation rates by gathering data from its own historic sites.

There are so many questions that can be asked about this data. One of the first things we asked after looking through the results was whether it would be possible to use this HI report, the NPS’s numbers, and a sampling of visitor data from sites to determine if the 1976 Bicentennial era had a lasting effect on the  visitation tendencies who experience it at a formative age?

There are many interesting angles in this Historic Site Visits report and in the other HI resources. We encourage you to look through the entire report and think about how these numbers relate to your practice of history.