Webinar: Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites

This Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites webinar will provide an introduction to strategies for using food and food history to develop interpretation with depth and significance, making relevant connections to contemporary issues and visitor interests. Join Michelle Moon and AASLH as we discuss how the field can better use our love of food to share our love of history.



Date: February 21, 2017

Time: 2 pm central/ 3 pm eastern

Cost: $40 members/$65 nonmembers


Full Description:

Food is such a friendly topic that it’s often thought of as a “hook” for engaging visitors to museums and historic sites—a familiar way into other topic, or a sensory element to round out a living history interpretation. But food is more than just a hook—it’s a topic all its own, with its own history and its own uncertain future, and deserving of a central place in historic interpretation. With audiences more interested in food than ever before, and new research in food studies bringing interdisciplinary approaches to this complicated but compelling subject, museums and historic sites have an opportunity to draw new audiences and infuse new meaning into their food presentations.

This Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites webinar will provide an introduction to strategies for using food and food history to develop interpretation with depth and significance, making relevant connections to contemporary issues and visitor interests. Join Michelle Moon and AASLH as we discuss how the field can better use our love of food to share our love of history.


About the Speaker: 

aaeaaqaaaaaaaaqaaaaajde4owuwmdg1lwu4zgutndmyzc05ndu4ltm5ntm2owrkmgzmmaMichelle Moon oversees adults learning and develops interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She’s the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites, published by AASLH in 2015.

Bridging the Divide: Connecting Stagville’s Past to Its Modern Community


Row of original slave dwellings, including one renovated by sharecroppers. Courtesy of Historic Stagville Photograph Archive.

By Jayd Buteaux, Assistant Site Manager at Historic Stagville and Vera Cecelski, Interpreter at Historic Stagville

A plantation site featuring original slave quarters debuts a new interpretation to connect 1850 to the present day community.

Historic Stagville was once part of a plantation complex that held over 900 enslaved people, the largest enslaved population in North Carolina. Today, the focal point of the site is four original two-story slave dwellings. Constructed in 1850 by enslaved craftsmen, and home to almost a hundred people, these dwellings are a central part of Stagville’s mission to actively interpret the enslaved experience.

While Stagville was a center of activity over 150 years ago, today it is isolated and mostly unknown to the residents of its closest city. Durham is a thriving city that was founded in the wake of the Civil War, and many residents disassociate their history from the history of slavery in North Carolina.  The site has struggled to connect with locals, despite using detailed records from slaveholders and stories of descendants.

Visitors who have lived in Durham for years often do not know Stagville exists until they happen upon the site. We hear shock and surprise in the course of a tour, as visitors marvel at not having known about the site and its relationship to Durham. We have even met likely descendants of enslaved families who were not aware of their deep connection to this place.


Amy Sowell Shaw, emancipated at Stagville. Her descendants lived at Stagville and in Durham. Courtesy of Historic Stagville Photograph Archive.

Faced with this challenge, staff have endlessly mulled over how to create a more vivid connection between Stagville and this local community. Without this plantation, and the history of similar places, Durham would look completely different today. Emancipated people from Stagville became sharecroppers, small farmers, and wage workers-- many of whom moved into Durham in the wake of emancipation. These former slaves and their descendents became integral in the formation of black neighborhoods, businesses, and churches, many of which still exist. Sharecroppers at Stagville also became part of the broader Durham community, as they regularly visited the city.

We realized Stagville could build a concrete connection to Durham by redesigning its interpretation to cover a broader time span. We have redefined the period of significant history at Stagville, and expanded our interpretation in turn. Rather than focusing exclusively on the oldest eras of the buildings’ history (from 1787 to the 1860s), Stagville now includes the intermediate years between slavery and the present day. Our interpretation now reliably covers a history from 1787 to 1970.

A few discoveries helped us to realize this change. A report from graduate student George McDaniel offered a vision for Stagville’s interpretation, before the site ever opened. McDaniel recommended Stagville be a public history site dedicated to sharecropping in the South, using the individual stories of descendent families. This was a radically different vision of what Stagville might have been, and an endorsement of the potential Stagville has to tell this story. We were reminded how rare it is to see interpretation of sharecropping at a public history site.

We also found a trove of oral history transcripts, conducted by historian Alice Eley Jones. These transcripts contained stories of descendants of slaves who lived as sharecroppers at Stagville. These oral histories provided enough detail to allow us to not just incorporate this history, but make it a new focal point of interpretation.

We implemented this new interpretation in several ways. In the guided tour, visitors hear a narrative that includes Reconstruction, sharecropping, and generations of aftershocks of slavery. We have a new display in our visitor center featuring portraits of descendants who lived in Durham or at Stagville long after slavery. The site’s social media has a series of posts featuring descendants and Durham history. We have planned future events that highlight these intermediate years.

Our 2016 Christmas event was the first event to be reworked with this new interpretation in mind. The Hart House, a slave dwelling that was renovated as a home for sharecroppers, was a focal point for the first time. Interpreters presented it equally alongside the houses of enslaved families and slaveholders. We partially furnished the Hart House for the first time, shared oral history excerpts from Durham residents, and had at least one member of the Hart family join the event.

This new, broader interpretation at Historic Stagville is just beginning. Our initial implementation has shown us that this interpretation can add relevancy by helping visitors draw connections between slavery and current events. For some, it also creates a more tangible, personal connection by making Stagville’s history the history of Durham. Many historic sites focus on history that is several generations past, but featuring the stories of those intermediate generations might allow other sites to make their relevance more felt.

The success of this interpretation was revealed by a visitor who remarked that Stagville was “the most responsible plantation site” she had ever visited-- responsible for not only actively interpreting slavery, but also for actively interpreting the connections between slavery and the present.

Want to share your work on the AASLH blog? Learn more and submit a post here

My 5 Favorite Props to Use in Programs


One thing that every interpreter has to do to be effective is to get and keep their audiences' attention. If no one is listening then there is little value to what is being said. Of course we could all just jump up and down shouting, "Listen to me! Listen to me!" over and over, but most of us have developed slightly more subtle techniques than that. We all know that certain topics, programs, people and artifacts are are going to lend themselves to getting attention better than some others, so here is a list of five objects I love to use in various programs.



5. Animal Skins

Whether it is talking about early hunting or clothes making, animal skins are always a big hit with kids. Anything with a gross factor is going to immediately be cool, and since very few of the kids that visit us have ever skinned an animal this is definitely a little gross. Also as I show off a skin, I like to have the group try and guess what kind of animal it used to be. Sometimes that game goes smoothly, and sometimes every single one of the skins is a "bear." Once we go through that the next big thing is getting to feel the furs and see the difference between deer, rabbit, squirrel, and chipmunk. (Pro Tip: Don't pass them out if you still have anything to say to the kids.  This prop can be too good at getting their attention.)




4. Flax Hackle

This is great just because it looks more like a torture device than an old timey tool. I like to bring the flax hackle out from behind a table or out of the closet suddenly. There is nothing like surprising a group of children (and adults charged with their safety) with an old piece of wood filled with six inch long, hand forged iron nails held over your head to get some attention. This is one of those props that can really can speak for itself. Once you go into what it would be used for and how it works, some of the mystery is lost, but it does make for a fun guessing game for the first little while. Plus it never hurts to see how wide and audiences eyes can get.

3. Ink Balls

This one I like mostly because I love the program that they go with. We do a program that takes the kids through their lives as an apprentice in an early print shop. It is a great way to show the kids the difference in their education today and how they would have learned a trade back then. This is another great item for a guessing game. Many students will guess that they are some kind of stamp, which isn't far from the truth, but you will get plenty of maracas or early boxing gloves. The most fun with these is talking about how those kids would have to clean all of that ink off of the leather when they get dirty. Turns out the easiest way is to simply soak them in a bucket of urine, reach in and grab them, and ring them out to dry.  You pretty much have all eyes on you from the word urine. (Pro Tip: For some audiences I use the term ink daubers instead of ink balls.)


2. A bag of any kind

I tend to use a Civil War era haversack for most of my programming, but I like the name longhunters gave their bags even better: Possibles Bag. That is exactly why this prop is such a great tool for programming. It could possibly hold anything. Kids will be wondering what is in there from the beginning and as your program goes on you can keep going back to reveal something new and interesting over and over. A stale piece of hardtack, flint, tools, a knife, and needles and thread can all add an extra dimension to a program. Having a bag on your shoulder where just about anything can come out will keep the kids guessing the whole time.

guns1. Guns

They're guns. There isn't much more to say. If you come out holding a gun, everyone is looking at you. Is that real?Is it loaded?  How would you load it? Does it shoot? How heavy is it? Can I hold it (my answer is always no)? And if you are somewhere where you can fire the gun without getting the cops called on you, then you can do anything you want from there.

What are you some of the props or items that get the most attention in your programs? I could always use some more ideas.

Visitors and Originality in Historic House Museums: A Look at the Impact of Furnishing Plans

Library: Longfellow’s House – Washington Headquarters National Historic Site; By Daderot (Own work) [CC0]

“Is everything original?” “Is this what the dining room looked like back then?” “Did he really sleep in that bed?”

Anyone who has worked at a historic house has been asked this question in various forms, and knows how tricky it can be to accurately answer. Every interpreter has their own flair for responding: perhaps focusing on the provenance of family heirlooms, emphasizing the reason a period piece was selected as representative, or focusing on the restoration process of the structure and rooms. Although these types of interpretation may be grounded in sound research and effective communication, the collections alone have the ability to create an air of authenticity in the space for the visitor. The level of authenticity of these pieces is not always within the curator’s control, but the way the visitor reacts to the stories told within the house can be affected by how authentic they view the space to be.

The furnishings plan of each house serve as the starting point for the on the ground interpretation that takes place during a visitor’s time with staff members. Longfellow’s House – Washington Headquarters (NPS) in Cambridge, MA, for example, features a house that has not changed since the Longfellow family left in the early twentieth century, and has been preserved with the intention of public presentation since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s death. The rangers are sure to emphasize this point, telling personal stories about the family and allowing visitors to be present in the space and appreciate the fact that the things they are seeing belonged to and were used by Longfellow himself. The themes of the tour focus heavily on the preservation of the space over time, including Longfellow’s own preservation of the house’s legacy associated with Washington, and the importance of the literary and artistic traditions established during Longfellow’s time in the house. Visitors are able to have an emotional experience in the house, relating to the Longfellow family members and their experiences in the house.


Exterior of the Harrison Gray Otis House, Cambridge Street

In contrast, the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, MA, features a furnishings plan more in line with visitor’s expectations of a historic house museum. While there are some pieces from the Otis family – the settee in the Withdrawing Room, the desk chair in Otis’s office – many of the furnishings are based in scholarly research that is shared with visitors while on tour. Paintings by Henry Sargent are on display in the two front rooms to demonstrate evidence from contemporary homes that have informed decorative decisions. Reproduction wallpaper based on sample layers, paint analysis, and personal letters inform the remaining rooms in the house, and guides freely discuss these sources and the conclusions scholars have drawn from them. Guides also situate the Otis family in the socioeconomic climate of the late eighteenth century and address historic issues such as slavery, gender roles, and class throughout the tour. While visitors may still have an emotional experience with the house, they are more likely to focus more on these larger historical issues because the house lends itself to scholarly study rather than only the emotional stories of the family who lived there.

These two sites demonstrate a different emphasis, a different goal, and a completely different visitor experience. While visitors after the respective tours may feel like they related to the Longfellow family on an emotional and personal level, visitors of the Otis family probably feel like they fully understand the context in which they lived. Neither of these is a better or worse experience for the visitor, but the level of originality in the house determines their engagement. Thus, these changes in interpretation and the visitor experience are often determined by the presence, or, in most cases, absence, of authentic family furnishings.


Webinar: Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites

The Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites webinar will provide strategies for engaging with Native Americans beyond the legal framework of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), in order to work collaboratively, share authority, and incorporate multiple ways of knowing about the past into all interpretation about Native people, objects, histories, and cultures.

Learn More

A Golden Age for Historic Properties

Five Mile Point Lighthouse

In the Summer 2007 History News, John and Anita Durel predicted that "Historic properties are on the verge of a golden age. Over the next two decades Americans will turn to historic houses and sites as a source of learning, enjoyment, and fulfillment."

Nine years later, we're re-sharing this article to provoke reflection on what we have and have not accomplished in this time. Should we still be optimistic?

Historic properties are on the verge of a golden age. Over the next two decades Americans will turn to historic houses and sites as a source of learning, enjoyment, and fulfillment. Increasingly, people will choose to spend time in places that con­nect them to their past, to nature, and to beauty. They will provide financial support to help sustain the properties, so that succeeding generations will benefit from these places that they value so much.

This future will occur only for the organizations that abandon the thinking of the 1980s. Specifically, the leaders of historic properties that enter the golden age will:

  • Stop thinking of “visitors” and start thinking of “members.”
  • Stop thinking of “them” and start thinking of “us.”
  •  Stop thinking of “interpretation” and start thinking of “facilitation.”
  •  Stop focusing only on the intellectual and social content of the experience, and start including spiritual content.


Cultural Tourism: an Outdated Business Model

In its simplest form, a business model is a way to describe how an enterprise builds its capacity in response to a perceived need or desire on the part of some portion of the public. The model is successful if enough people pay enough money for the enterprise’s products or services to enable it to produce those products and services in a financially sustainable way.

Over the past three decades, the dominant business model for historic properties has been cultural tourism, in which the organization provided a history experience for a visit­ing public in exchange for admission fees and museum shop sales. The model became dominant at a time when nonprof­its were expected to be run like businesses with customers paying for services received. The diagram on page eight depicts this model.


This model worked reasonably well for some organiza­tions. To a degree, it continues to be effective for a handful of sites that are unique or offer an experience that cannot be easily found elsewhere such as the St. Augustine Lighthouse because many tourists want to climb to the top. However, most historic sites have always depended upon other sources of revenue to balance the books—special fundraising events, foundation grants, government support, and endowments. Most have created a patchwork of operating revenue sources resulting in staff who often spend time on revenue-generat­ing activities only marginally connected to the mission.

Colonial Williamsburg has been the granddaddy of the cultural tourism model. Remember those 1-800-HISTORY commercials with the happy families walking along Duke of Gloucester Street? These days, Williamsburg hosts fewer families than two decades ago. Recently the New York Times reported that visitation to Colonial Williamsburg “dropped to 710,000 last year from 1.1 million in 1985, despite two decades of investing millions of dollars to try to make the museum relevant to a younger, more diverse group of tourists.” This decline in tourism is widespread, with many other historic sites and national parks reporting comparable figures.

What has changed? American families are still tak­ing vacations, but the competition is stiff. Cultural sites must compete with Disney World, Las Vegas, Europe, and other vacation destinations. Additionally, the lack of transportation funding for school fieldtrips has become a widespread and chronic issue. And senior citizens now ap­pear to be taking their bus trips mainly to casinos.


Whatever the reasons, the old model is no longer viable. Efforts to make it work with new programs or better market­ing will fail. The growth experienced in the 1970s and 1980s has tapered off and begun to decline. Unless something changes dramatically, the decline will continue and we will see more properties being sold or shut down.

The question to ask is, what is the new business model to replace cultural tourism? To move to a new growth curve re­quires taking risks. We have entered a period of uncertainty as we try to figure out what will work next. It is a time to try new approaches, learn from mistakes, recover quickly, and build on successes. With smart people, strategic thinking, and discipline, an organization should be able to make the transition successfully.

To make the leap, we must challenge long-held assump­tions about historic sites and start to see them in new ways. We must also look beyond our own industry to others in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of History News magazine, the official publication of AASLH. You can read the full article in PDF format here. You can read recent History News articles by becoming a member or find issues older than three years on JSTOR.

[To read the rest of this article, download the PDF or use the PDF reader below.]

[gview file="https://cdn.aaslh.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2016/10/GoldenAge-HNSummer07.pdf"]

Putting Visitor Research Data to Work at the Colony of Avalon


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Telling a Good Story Makes for a Better Tour

The guided tour... people either love them or hate them. A good guided tour can captivate an audience. A bad one can have visitors looking for the nearest exit. What most tour guides focus on is key information (dates, places, names, etc.), and while this is definitely important, few visitors leave being impressed by the volume of facts they were told. At the Homestead Museum, we have come to realize our own shortcomings in this regard. While our tours are accurate, they are not necessarily as interesting and engaging as they can be. So, we asked ourselves how we could make our tours better. The answer was to focus on telling a good story.


A Tour at the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA
A Tour at the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA

Stories are a key part of what it means to be human. They are at the core of who we are, and allow us to experience, empathize, and connect. They can bridge the gap between knowing when something happened and understanding why it happened. A narrative weaves together the what, how, and why of an event by connecting them as a series of actions. Narrative language breathes life into stories, making people curious to know what happens next. Yes, history is about facts, it is made up of things that really happened, so why does putting the events in the format of a story matter? To answer that question, we look to neuroscience.

When we listen to someone providing us with the facts about an event, or a list of information, there are two places in the brain that light up: the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Both of these handle how we process and understand language. But when we listen to the same information as a story, filled with action and description, suddenly multiple areas of the brain respond. The sensory cortex and cerebellum light up when we hear about how things feel (texture and sensation). The motor cortex responds when we hear about physical movement (walk, jump, etc.). The olfactory cortex engages when we hear descriptions of how things smell. The visual cortex connects to discussions about color and shape, and the auditory cortex reacts to descriptions of sound. Our brains react to a story as if we are participating in it—as though it is happening to us.


A school tour at the Missouri History Museum
A school tour at the Missouri History Museum

While facts engage a small area of the brain, stories engage multiple points that help to create a vibrant picture in our minds. Stories draw us in and keep our attention; they stimulate our emotions, and according to Dr. Antonio Damasio, USC Professor of Neuroscience, “we don’t learn without emotional thought.” So by finding places in a guided tour to describe an image, sound, texture, color, sensation, or emotion; one creates an opportunity for visitors to take part in the stories being shared. Here are some techniques we recently asked our docents to consider to help them tell a good story:

Consider your audience - A good story is one that connects with your audience, and a good storyteller chooses what they say carefully. The amount of information you share and the way you share it should be adjusted based on the make-up of your group. Don’t feel compelled to cover everything. Watch your audience to see if information is resonating with them and make adjustments to your presentation as needed.

Take visitors on an emotional journey - A really good story resonates with people because at its core it has some basic universal aspects of being human. It doesn’t have to always be profound, but a good story should move the listener, make him/her laugh, think, or ponder it afterward. Think about how you are telling the story and try to modulate your voice. By adding excitement, sadness, or concern to your voice you are cuing your audience to experience those same emotions.

Be descriptive - Set the scene with descriptive language. When you think of a ranch, for example, what do you imagine? Open spaces? Dusty roads? Noisy cows? Solitude? Although visitors may not imagine the same thing as you, that’s OK. We want visitors to visualize their own images as they make connections to the information being shared.

Think about conflict and resolution - Some of the best stories have a well-defined main character that encounters trouble or conflict. Something interferes with the course of the main character’s life, whether it is nature, another person, or even the main character themselves. The action taken signifies growth and change — possibly an “ah ha!” moment — and then finally, a conclusion. It is the action, which moves the story from beginning to middle to end, that keeps the audience with you. The lives of historical people, much like our own, are filled with various obstacles to overcome. Explore with your audience how people have tried to adapt and change to the world around them. It humanizes them and connects your audience to the story.

What is your intention? - Stories have a lot of pieces to them, but not every piece serves the same purpose or provides structure or substance to the story as a whole. All listeners want to hear a story that has a direction and purpose. Think about why you are telling the story. What do you hope the audience will experience, or come away with knowing? By knowing where your story is going and the experience that you want your audience to have, the better your chance of delivering a successful tour.



Getting Schooled in History Relevance by Hamilton


I am really late to the party. I just listened to the Hamilton: An American Musical for the first time last week. As a history geek AND a theatre geek, I snootily assumed (wrongly) that this musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t possibly live up to the incredible hype it has received over the last year. I was very wrong as most of my Facebook friends would have told me if I had admitted on social media that I had not yet listened to this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

Hamilton: An American Musical is a case study in making history relevant to all people. Some historians have questioned the “race conscious casting” of the production, but most agree that the history presented in Hamilton is pretty good (although some called it fanfic). The National Council on Public History recently published articles and reviews of the play by noted historians like Annette Gordon Reed which doesn’t happen with every musical with a historical bent.

Photo by Debbie Shaw Plattsmier. Used by permission.
Photo by Debbie Shaw Plattsmier. Used by permission.

I argue that the real contribution of Hamilton to the field of history is that it takes a story about a historical figure that no one really cared about any more and made him a rock star by making history relevant to today’s world. The History Relevance Campaign states that one of the Values of History is identity. The Value of History statement reads, “History nurtures personal identity in an intercultural world.  History enables people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation.” Hamilton is a textbook example of this value.

As I listened to the soundtrack in its entirety for the eighteenth time (at least), I was struck with some lessons in making history relevant that this Broadway smash could offer to those of us who engage the public on a regular basis in our museums, historic sites, and other history organizations.

Do Your Research – Miranda makes masterful use of primary sources in his lyrics. He intertwines historical words with music and modern lyrics offering a new way of looking at late 18th-century documents. It also makes the history of the play ring true by adding authenticity to the story. Have you read the primary sources related to your interpretation lately? If not, give it a try as you might find something new that can add a new perspective to your story. Also, make time to do new research. Historians at history organizations don’t often have the luxury of doing historical research (which is why we went into the field in the first place). Carve out some time to return to your “first love” and get back into the library/archives/Internet to find some new stories or gain a new perspective for your interpretation.

Connect Your Audience to Their History – Is there a story in your historic site or history museum that people can connect to the present? Most people would probably say no. The Uncatalogued Museum published a blog post several years ago called “What Makes Historic House Tours So Boring.” One historic site director interviewed for that blog described a major barrier to the typical house tour as "Lack of any redeeming connection to the present individual HHM visitor–almost every house tour I've ever been on is structured like this: A) this is the home of Wealthy McMillionare who was so gracious as to have left us his home as a museum, or his home was rescued from destruction by a patriotic women's organization. B) Here is his sideboard, bed, fancy china, chamber pot, fireplace, etc. C) "back then" everything was different D) Thank you for visiting."

How can we connect individuals to their history using our stories? Miranda connected to the story of Alexander Hamilton while reading Ron Chernow’s biography (while on a beach vacation) because he connected to the story of an immigrant who came to New York and rose up out of his circumstances. Miranda is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in the Washington Heights in New York City, whereas, Hamilton was an immigrant from the Caribbean who moved to New York and made a name for himself. This connection led him to want to share Hamilton’s story.


What stories can we tell at our sites that will connect our stories with new audiences? Like Hamilton, is there an immigration story? One story at the historic site I worked at before AASLH that connected to many people was that of stepfamilies. I enjoyed seeing children connecting to the story of a blended family from the 19th century. It was not the main narrative of the site, but maybe it should have been if we wanted to truly connect the young kids on a field trip to the past.

Don’t Ignore the Dirty Laundry – This is one of my favorite aspects of Hamilton. Who doesn’t like a good scandal? Airing the dirty laundry helps combat the great white man narrative by taking the great man off his pedestal. It humanizes historical figures that may be larger than life. Let’s face it . . . the dirt may be the only thing that people can connect with in this era of The Real Housewives and The Bachelor. Historical figures are not perfect. Hamilton is cocky, a womanizer, and an impulsive hot head. All of the sides of Hamilton come across in the musical creating a more complete picture of a man rather than a series of dry facts which often become the basis for our historic interpretation, i.e. born in 1755, first Secretary of Treasury, on the $10 bill.

Talk to People in their Own Language – How many of you give tours or write exhibit labels in “historian speak?” While we do have standards for writing as historians, maybe we should think about our audience when developing specific tours or programs. Miranda uses hip hop style interspersed with late 18th-century language to tell Hamilton’s story connecting people who would never read history to the story of a founding father. The history is not dumbed down at all, but is made more accessible through the use of familiar language. Let’s face it. We can’t all suddenly start rapping our tours (although if you try, please send me a video). We can ask ourselves, however, if our tours need to be less of a historical lecture and more of a conversation based on where our visitor is coming from, not what we want to tell them?



History is Emotional. – If you listened to Hamilton and say you did not experience powerful emotions you are lying or have a cold, dead heart. Miranda takes the narrative of this one man and builds to an emotional climax creating a lasting impression to his listeners (or viewers if you got to see the play). What is the emotional key to your story? Is it a grieving mother or a family torn apart by slavery? Is it an economic disaster, the destruction of a historic community by progress, or some other major change experienced by the people who lived their lives in your historic house or town? How can we turn a series of cold facts into an emotional tune that will resonate with our visitors? If this is not your forte, consider some training in storytelling. AASLH recommends some resources that can help you develop this skill.

Building a narrative that has an emotional core can help tie all of these lessons in making history relevant together. By using original research we can connect audiences to their history through powerful stories told in an accessible way. Hamilton has become a national phenomenon because to works on many levels to help people connect their lives to the past. How can you use these ideas at your site to make history more relevant in our society?

Bethany L. Hawkins is the Chief of Operations for AASLH. She can be reached at hawkins@aaslh.org.