Welcome to the Preservation Technology podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation.
Catherine Cooper: My name is Catherine Cooper, I am here with—
Max van Balgooy: Max van Balgooy, I am an Assistant Professor at George Washington University in the Museum Studies program and I’m the president of Engaging Places, a design and strategy firm that connects people with historic places.
Ken Turino: Hello! And I’m Ken Turino, my day job is with Historic New England. I also teach museum studies at Tufts University and currently president of the board of the House of Seven Gables Settlement Association.
Catherine Cooper: You both recently published a book: Reimagining Historic House Museums. Could you talk a bit about the impetus for writing it?
Max van Balgooy: Ken and I were invited to be on a panel at Gunston Hall, which was hosted by the Historic House Consortium of Washington D.C. Afterwards Ken and I got to talking about our sessions and noted how nicely they meshed together and approached AASLH about doing a series of one-day workshops based upon what we did, which we did for a while. I'm not quite sure though, Ken, where did the book come from?
Ken Turino: These workshops that Max mentions, done for the American Association for State and Local History, brought us around the country. And they actually still will bring us around the country. With Covid there's been a hiatus but starting next year we should be back on the road. We're very pleased about that, so stay tuned.
During those workshops that we do—day-long workshops—we met with people from a variety of different kinds of historic sites, houses, history museums, and one of the things that we always ask them is: What are the biggest challenges facing your historic house or your historic site? And Max and I would make a big list of those, and in the workshop, we try to cover as much of that as possible. And as we did more workshops, we tried to incorporate more because we saw that there was a real need to talk about these things that revolved around sustainability, that revolved around being relevant, engaging with your community and so on. And from that, Max, that's the sort of the birth of this publication.
And we also were doing some sessions, for example, on best practices on community engagement at AASLH conferences. Max did one with another group of people; we did one together. This got us thinking: What do we need to include in the book, what do people know, or need to know. That's how I think it started.
Max, anything you want to add?
Max van Balgooy: We both were part of the Kykuit conference that the National Trust and AAM and AASLH were involved in—gosh, was that 15 years ago? —where we identified some of the challenges, the sustainability issues of historic sites and house museums. At that point, I could identify the problems and challenges, but we didn't have many solutions. I think one of the reasons we put together the book was to provide some solutions for people so they could move forward.
And so this book that we put together has 36 chapters dealing with fundamentals of management operations to thinking about different approaches to familiar topics, as well as how to rethink common methods that we use for interpreting historic sites: the school tour, the regular public tour, or exhibitions. So it's an attempt at a very high level to sort of rethink how house museums operate, how they should operate to be more successful.
Ken Turino: And one of the things we kept in mind is we wanted to get people thinking very very big, but we also wanted to be very practical and give people some of the solutions.
In fact, that is the subtitle of our book, Max.
Max van Balgooy: Yeah, “New Approaches and Proven Solutions.”
Ken Turino: You know there are many of the authors in the book who I think did outstanding jobs. I think one of the best chapters on working with boards is by Donna Harris. I think she did an amazing, very very practical job of the steps, what you need to know really succinctly. I mean there are things available on websites, but I just loved how she pulled that all together. And you know we had a great chapter on community engagement by Dawn DiPrince, and it was really at a very local level, but the lessons that she learned you could apply to institutions across the country, and I just loved that about it. And there were some people who were going in different directions: what Katherine Kane was doing with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center at that time to really reinvent the tour, and at Lincoln’s Cottage where they actually allow you to sit on furniture and engage more in conversational tours rather than being just talked at. When the book came out many people still had not heard about these case studies. I think that was really good to get that out in the field along with again the workshops.
Max van Balgooy: Well, you know, one thing we discovered when we put together the index, which if any of you have ever done a book before, is one of the awfulest parts of the job. You have to read every page and look for keywords and put the page numbers in… And anyway, as Ken and I were sitting at his dining room table assembling the index on three by five cards, we noticed there were patterns across all these chapters, which are written all by different people, with different case studies, different museums. There were certain things that kept rising to the top as making a big difference and one of them was having a mission or a vision that was meaningful and relevant, and how much that is a fundamental element for making an historic site successful and to really rethink what you do.
And we have several examples in the book about that and different ways, but one of the most interesting one is from the Trustees of Reservations which looks at the spirit of place, an idea that comes from the National Trust in the U.K. but I think increasingly can be something that helps historic sites and house museums think more holistically about what they interpret and how they go about it to make it not just about the names and dates and facts, but that these places have emotional resonance to people that can be very meaningful.
Catherine Cooper: So when drawing on the workshop material and putting the book together, how did you expand on or change the material, solicit chapters, or invite submissions?
Ken Turino: A lot of the same things came up over and over again that were needed. Part of our charge was finding who's the best person to tackle these topics. And I think Max and I drew on the large network from the American Association for State and Local History, from people we heard presenting at conferences, people who we knew were doing outstanding work. Our workshop continued to evolve, too, as we heard from people at these workshops, what their needs were. We also learned of other good case studies or examples or models, so it constantly was and constantly is evolving, as new studies come out we try to incorporate that.
When Max and I published the book, the studies from AASLH and the National Park Service’s humanities indicators had not or were just coming out to talk about how the fact at historic site visitation was actually increasing. After years and years of decreasing, they were on the move up, and I like to think Kykuit, these workshops, and what other people were doing in the field were really helping people reach out to new audiences, to tell new stories, all things that we, again, were incorporating in the workshops as they progressed.
But we did try in the book, and I think that all led to the fact that we were increasing visitation and then Covid hit of course, and that changed everything for a while. And I like to think we're on the rebound from that.
Max van Balgooy: Ken and I both have very large networks in our realm of the world and it's great to bring those people together. It's like having a big dinner party in our book we bring all the smart people together and talk about these challenges facing historic sites. That's one of the reasons Ken and I love doing these books and we're working on another book again, this one on Christmas, and we're taking a very similar approach: just bringing in lots of diverse ideas, diverse people, sites that are large and small, to see if we can find commonalities and distinctiveness in the kind of work that we do in our field.
Historic sites and house museums are the largest form of museum in the United States, but they're also the most under-resourced: smallest number of staff, smallest amount of revenue annually, but they're almost in every community and they can make a tremendous impact on our thinking about history and the value of American culture in lives today.
Catherine Cooper: Is there anything that you would change or recommend after having gone through the pandemic in a new edition of the book or the workshop?
Ken Turino: We've actually thought about that. I am a firm believer that online programming is here to stay. We didn't really cover much of that in the book. I think we would definitely include more of that if we do a revised version of the book in the future. I think there'll be plenty of opportunity. I think that online programming as I said is here to stay, but I think the verdict is out yet on how effective it will be over time.
Susie Wilkening and others have done studies on this. I think there's a real place. I mean I’m here in New England, we have pretty horrible Januarys and Februarys, and if I can avoid driving out in a blizzard to go to a program, I’ll do it online. Where you are regionally will make a difference on that in the future. That's one thing I think right off.
And Max, you have some thoughts about technology?
Max van Balgooy: Now there’s a demand for doing a lot with technology thanks to Covid. If there's anything good about Covid and the pandemic that's maybe one of the good things.
When we put this book together we actually had a placeholder for a chapter on technology and virtual programming and we couldn't find an author for it. Other than people doing a website or maybe a blog; it was pretty rudimentary no one really did any programming on the internet when we were putting this together in 2018. But boy has that changed.
The smallest organizations, thanks to Zoom and good internet connections are doing great programming online now they sort of figured it out. And so, yes, as Ken mentioned if we were to do this book again we'd have a chapter, or the chapters we already have the topics will probably incorporate already an element having to do with virtual programming. That's just my guess.
However, in our book I would say that just because there's not a lot about virtual programming or activities in the book, most of the chapters are written at a very high level. It’s about rethinking what you do. So we have a chapter all about very common methods: the adult guided tour, school programs and exhibitions. The ideas in them, like if you're going to do a school program you need to be aware of the state standards for education or learning, that doesn't change whether it's in person or virtual. If you're going to do an exhibition, don't just be hands-on, be minds-on. And so that's not going to change whether it's an online exhibition or it's an in-person exhibition. So those ideas can be scaled to the different environments.
And while Ken talks about the virtual experience is here to stay, and I would agree with him, there's still a great value in the real place and the real objects. It's very difficult to understand some historic places without actually being there--that again is that spirit of place.
Ken Turino: One of the things I think that I would want to emphasize, you know that came out of the pandemic for me, was just how creative and resilient our community of museums was. And we talked about that in the book, but I think it might be worth even a chapter because people really did adjust and were very creative in how they did things.
We at Historic New England did a lot more outside as people did and invited people into our landscape. This is what you were talking about earlier, Max, looking at our sites holistically, and I think for some people that was a real change and an important change. Again, I don't think that's going away at all.
Max van Balgooy: Most historic sites as I mentioned are small and people always seem to sort of think that, oh someday they'll grow up to be a big place like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon. It's just the wrong approach to take. Small museums are just small institutions and they have certain advantages to them, and one of the biggest ones is that they can turn on a dime much faster than a large organization. And so when we moved to virtual, if someone had some experience with Zoom and could find an author or historian that's willing to talk to the group, they were able to provide that program quickly and reach more people than they would have conventionally.
Catherine Cooper: So what would you like readers to take away from your book?
Ken Turino: We would like readers to take our book!
To me, it's really about how to make your site more engaging for your community, because your community brings your volunteers, most of your money; it supports you, it comes to your programs, and I could go on and on and on. But also if you want people to engage it has to be something that relates to them. It has to be somehow relevant to them.
Max van Balgooy: When we put together the index, there’s a couple ideas that flow to the top, and I think those are the ones that are really important for people. One of them is to have a mission that's meaningful and relevant, and that mission can't be the traditional “collect, preserve, and interpret” and then just plop your name in there. That's a description of what you do, it's not what you want to achieve. Nor can it be a slogan like “a hidden treasure in your community.” That is not helpful; that's not a description of a vision of where you want to go. So you need to figure out what that is, and every place is different; every community has a different history so you need to figure out what that is. Please don't write us and ask us “Please tell us what our mission is.” You need to figure that out; it's hard work.
The second thing is, is that you have to be willing to experiment and take risks. And the history field tends to be one that's pretty conservative in its thinking. I’m not talking about conservative and liberal in terms of political sense, but we tend to be we look backwards. But we need to look more forwards in our field: so why are we doing all this stuff? Why are we collecting all this material? What do we want to preserve in our communities and what do we want to change? That's the kind of vision we need to think about and that may require experimentation and risk. And we need to be able to feel comfortable failing on our work to try something new in order to reach new audiences and to become more meaningful and relevant to our communities.
Ken Turino: I really want the readers to get models they can use. I want to give them ideas that they can adapt. I want them to see that they're not alone in some of these challenges that we're facing, and again, give them some good practical information that they can take and cater to their own communities and their own needs.
We're hoping with our next book to do the same with Christmas—interpreting Christmas at historic sites and museums. We're trying to be inclusive and look at winter holidays in this book. We're going to give people some best practices on how they might decorate their historic sites, what are some of the things to consider. So we're just following through on this first book and we are taking this into other areas.
Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Max van Balgooy: Great, thanks for inviting us.
Ken Turino: Thanks for having us.
Catherine Cooper speaks with Max van Balgooy and Ken Turino about approaches and solutions to solve challenges facing historic house museums.