Webinar: Historic House Call: Religion and Historic House Interpretation

While introducing the topic of religion into regular museum tours can be tricky, there are some site histories that require some mention in order to fully understand the influence that faith had on that specific family or event. One such museum that deals with the issue of religion for that reason is Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, a historic property of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

During this webinar, Susan Proctor, education coordinator at Surratt House, will discuss the elements of religion that have been incorporated into the history of Mary Surratt and the museum. A member of the AASLH Religious History Affinity Group will serve as moderator for this session.

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National Association for Interpretation Conference Open for Registration (Nov 8-12, Corpus Christi, TX)

The National Association for Interpretation announced that registration is open for its 2016 national conference, to be held at the Omni Hotel and AmericanBank Conference Center in Corpus Christi, TX, November 8-12.

The annual training conference for natural and cultural heritage interpreters from throughout the country will provide nine pre-conference workshops, two keynote speakers, ten off-site study sessions, and 120 concurrent sessions.  Located in the Coastal Bend area of Texas, Corpus Christi is a perfect location to address this year’s theme of “Nature Protection, Culture Connection.”  The conference will feature the area’s renowned bird watching and coastal marine and wildlife sanctuaries, as well as the rich South Texas heritage with its blend of Mexican, German, Irish and Czech cultural influences.

Interpreters connect visitors to important natural, cultural, and historical resources at parks, nature centers, historical sites, aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens, and anywhere that people come to learn about places.  Interpreters provide depth of understanding and an enriched visitor experience.  The annual conference will draw over 1,000 interpreters, interpretive site planners and managers, naturalists, historians, exhibit designers, tour operators, program directors, rangers, and academicians.  For more information and to register, go to www.interpnet.com. Early Bird registration fee is $425, $250 volunteer.


Right-ing American History: Thoughts on AASLH and Reinterpreting History

Ever since I was young, I recall only visiting museums when I went on school field trips. I remember enjoying those experiences and being lucky enough to go with my mother, who always volunteered to be a chaperone. The only times I visited a museum with my family was when someone or something that was from Mexico or Mexican descent was on display. I remember the excitement of seeing someone like me inside of these big, fancy institutions. I didn't realize at the moment that only in temporary exhibitions did these opportunities exist, and people of color remained largely absent among the permanent galleries. I am grateful that my experiences as an emerging, Chican@ museum professional have exposed me to progressive institutions that work directly with their local communities to create exhibitions that finally tell their story. Out all of the museum conference opportunities I have attended last year, I was amazed by openness and heart I found in members and administrators of the American Association for State and Local History.

Stack of old photos

My first session at last year's Annual Meeting and the one that most impacted me was titled, "Is It Possible That Remembering Local History Can Heal Old Wounds?" The title alone struck me. Speaking openly and allowing yourself and others to have a space to heal is very powerful and necessary for all communities. I believe the only way we can move past our country's racist and violent history is to have spaces like these where people can have an open, honest dialogue about difficult topics. In this story, the panelists spoke about a project in Columbus, MO: a now predominately-White neighborhood was once a historically black business center known as Sharp End, which was removed during urban renewal projects in the late 1950s. I was moved to see how the present and past communities came together, shared stories and empathy, and are continuing to record oral histories of former residents and business owners. After that, I learned of other similar stories and projects and saw how active AASLH was in incorporating these histories.


Photo of Sharp End via State Historical Society of Missouri
Photo of Sharp End via State Historical Society of Missouri

The United States is a multicultural country yet American history continues to be told with one perspective representing only one kind of demographic. As much as people of color are taught to accept the experiences and struggles of Anglo-Americans, we, as history professionals, should work to embrace and teach these histories of people of color as part of the national story that makes up our shared American experience and history. If your institution wishes to do the same and may not know what can work for your historic house, museum, etc., AASLH and its members are a community and group of incredible history professionals that can provide assistance. Although there is a lot of work to do in right-ing American history, I am happy to witness so much change and active efforts for change like I see with my AASLH family.

Whiskey, Slavery, and Efforts to Make Corporate Histories More Diverse

For many corporate museums and archives, it is tough to change the historic narrative of the company. Marketing is involved, as well as long-held traditions and myths. The Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, has decided to add a new element to the story of the founding of their legendary whiskey company and their efforts made the New York Times this week:

This year is the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s, and the distillery, home to one of the world’s best-selling whiskeys, is using the occasion to tell a different, more complicated tale. Daniel, the company now says, didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call, but from a man named Nearis Green — one of Call’s slaves...

In deciding to talk about Green, Jack Daniel’s may be hoping to get ahead of a collision between the growing popularity of American whiskey among younger drinkers and a heightened awareness of the hidden racial politics behind America’s culinary heritage.

Click here to read the article.

In a photo in Jack Daniel’s old office, Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be a son of Nearis Green, a slave who helped teach Daniel how to make whiskey.
In a photo in Jack Daniel’s old office, Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be a son of Nearis Green, a slave who helped teach Daniel how to make whiskey.


How can your corporate archives or museum tell a new story? What are your challenges or opportunities? We would love to hear from you. Email Amber Mitchell at mitchell@aaslh.org if you would like to write a blog about how your corporation changed your interpretation to include more diverse stories.

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.

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.

25 AASLH Members Included in NPR Story on Living History

In November 2015, NPR put out the call for answers to this question: "What Do We Do Now In America the Same Way We Did It 100 Years Ago?" AASLH shared the story on our Facebook page, encouraging our members to help crowd-source the answer.

In late January, NPR published the results in "American History Lives: A Story Of The People, By The People, For The People," listing hundreds of living history sites, museums, media resources, craftsmen, farms, mills, schools, and other sites and individuals keeping history alive.


Conner Prairie (17) Smaller
Conner Prairie, AASLH member included in the NPR article.


Americans are doers. In the United States today, history is an action word. This is, after all, a participatory democracy, and people are participating in its history by volunteering, crafting, interpreting, re-enacting, re-creating and exploring the old — anew...

As the crowd of sources points out in this crowdsourced story, a fair number of our present-day neighbors in the United States dwell in the past — hunting or gathering or going through days (or parts of days) as their ancestors did. They dress up in vintage clothes, speak in distant syntax, use their hands and brains like citizens of yore. Teachers and interpreters demonstrate and explain antiquated activities. Growers adhere to time-honored methods. Makers shape things using the tools and materials of years past. Sellers hawk products today that were available 100 years ago and more. Companies continue to create centuries-old wares. 

(Read more)

Included in the article are at least 25 AASH members, from giants in history like Colonial Williamsburg to the mid-sized Historic Prairie Village in South Dakota to several historical societies throughout the country using growing or building practices to interpret the past. Early on, the article mentions ALHFAM, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, a member of AASLH since 2000.

Is your organization mentioned in NPR's anecdotal survey of living history in America? If it is, don't miss out on a great opportunity to share the relevance of living history with your visitors and community.

When History Doesn’t Matter

I was recently thrown for a loop when a member of my team suggested that I present at an upcoming conference with the theme “When History Doesn’t Matter.” When making the suggestion they said something to effect of “Because that’s your thing!”

Wait… what? I know I’ve only been with the Ohio History Connection for two years, and I know before this I was working at a Natural History Museum…which is a bit different. But really? Do they think that I think that history doesn’t matter?

Then I thought about it. And they were right. Let me explain...

1017112_10151731484539345_397010951_nOhio Village is a replicated town originally constructed in the bicentennial boom that gave us so many living history sites. At first the site interpreted daily life in the 1840s. After closing for several years, the site reopened in 2012 with a focus on the 1860s. Interpretation moved through the Civil War, year by year until the 150th anniversary in 2015.

With this end in sight, in 2014 we took a step back and asked “what’s next?” Do we stop in 1865 and just go into a loop? Do we start the Civil War all over again? Where in time are we going? We didn’t have the confines of a “real” site with provenance to guide us. The freedom felt a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff.

In my role as Site Director for Ohio Village, one of the first projects I undertook with my fantastic team was a SWAT analysis exploring the experience that we craft for the public. I wanted us to figure out what our game was first. Then we’d rewrite the rules. Over the course of several department meetings, and a few workshop-style lunches, we hashed out the framework. We looked at our organizational mission. We asked ourselves if that was the goal, then how did our work make it happen?

This led to articulating a philosophy about our work. At the core of this philosophy were shared tenets of dynamism, dialog, connection, questioning, play, and the keystone of relevancy. We are embracing our talent as storytellers to start a relationship.

History provides us with the foundation for those stories, but we realized that our work had nothing to do with learning a specific history. It wasn’t about the Civil War, or even the 1840s. It was about how history works, and how stories work. That’s our game. That’s the magic.

Ohio History Village
Ohio Village

The passion that these conversations unlocked among our team was palpable. The energy is pushing us forward as we prepare to travel in time. A trip that will cost a lot of money, take a lot of work, and needs to be complete in a few short months.

Are we worried, sure, maybe about finding enough functioning cook stoves of the right vintage. But not about the story.  Why should we worry? History doesn’t matter.  After all, it's not just "The History" that matters, it's what we do with it, and how we engage our audiences with it.

On May 28, 2016, Ohio Village will open its doors for the summer season. The year will be 1898.

Thoughts on this blog?  Share your comments below!

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

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


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


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

What makes or breaks your visit to a historic site?

The guides and staff, absolutely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpretation at Catered Events

Catered events have become an increasingly important part of the business operations of many museums in recent years. In 2013, The Henry Ford began staffing all evening events in Henry Ford Museum with interpreters in addition to the catering and security staff that had traditionally had responsibility for the guest experience during banquets. For a typical event, dinner is generally held in the museum plaza, a large open space at the center, with other locations around the museum frequently used for an hors d’oeuvre reception and dessert. Guests are free to visit the entire museum as part of their evening. Since beginning with the interpretive team that staffs these events a year and a half ago, I’ve worked company parties, a birthday party, a graduation, corporate orientations, awards dinners, exhibit openings, and a multitude of weddings. The following are four benefits I've observed to staffing evening events with interpreters:

1. Playing a role in guests’ social lives. Some people love history so much that they want to include it in the most important event of their lives. Who can argue with that? Getting people into our museums as part of their social lives is part and parcel of relevancy. These event clients could have chosen a hotel, a banquet hall, or a golf course for their wedding, but instead they chose our museum, likely because of positive experiences as a visitor. They want their guests to experience something they love. If we’ve been effective in our roles thus far, interpreters have helped build that affinity the event clients feel for the place in general. At a former museum, I had the privilege of making arrangements for docent-led tours during a wedding rehearsal dinner. The bride selected her five favorite works of art and the groom his for their guests to enjoy. Even though the primary reason behind guests visiting during an event may not be to experience the collections, but to partake in a celebration, we still have the opportunity to engage them.

Cooking demonstration during Fall Flavor Weekends

2. Protecting historical resources. It probably will not come as a surprise that social events sometimes require course correction of guests away from an action that would be damaging to an artifact. Interpreters are trained to do this while at the same time interacting with and educating guests. For example, we always station an interpreter at the Rosa Parks Bus because we want evening guests to be able to board the bus and benefit from the immersive experience of sitting where Rosa Parks sat. By facilitating this experience, evening guests are able to come away with an equivalent experience to daily guests that would not be possible without a knowledgeable staff presence at the site.
3. Interacting with guests who are not inclined to merely socialize. Many of us have been there- you’re a guest at a wedding and the only other people you know are the bride and groom, or in the case of a corporate gathering, networking all day has tested the limits of your introversion. When we have a “good presenting night,” in the museum it usually means that guests were given time to walk around and visit the place- similar to daily visitors. But regardless of the number of visitors walking around, we are often astounded at the depth we are able to present to guests who choose to spend 15 or 20 minutes with one of us discussing our exhibits and their personal connections to our stories. For many guests, the evening event is their first visit (or first in many years) to The Henry Ford, and they want to make sure they take in a bit of what the museum has to offer in addition to celebrating or networking.
4. The opportunity to hire non-traditional interpreters. There are many knowledgeable and interesting people out there with a passion for history who, for various reasons, may not have chosen museums as a primary career path. When my museum investigated evening staffing, it became clear that hiring a small interpretive team to exclusively work these events was the best option. The “evening team” is comprised of seven presenters- six of whom have day jobs outside the museum field (the seventh is a full time student in an education program). These presenters consistently perform to high standards despite this being a side-job of theirs. In a few cases, we’ve been able to retain particularly skilled interpreters who would have otherwise left for positions outside our organization by offering them a place on the evening team.

If your museum hosts catered events, I encourage you to consider staffing these events with paid or volunteer interpreters. It may take a while to develop the right levels and timing. For example, we recently began to bring our interpreters in after dinner during weddings rather than before, since speeches, special dances, and the meal itself do not allow much time for walking around. Expect to see a variety of interest levels in your collections, but also anticipate some really rewarding guest interactions.

Kate Morland is Supervisor of Museum Programs at The Henry Ford.