Tag Archives: museums

Hudson Valley sites try to stay afloat

More bleak news about the travails of trying to manage a cultural attraction while the economy’s in the toilet.

When I was an intern, I spent a fair amount of time manning a cash register in a museum lobby.  Some visitors used to complain about admission costs (a paltry four or five bucks per adult back in those days), remarking that we must have been glad we such a nice little cash cow going.  They were so wrong it wasn’t even funny.  In many museums, admissions revenue rarely even comes close to meeting operating expenses.  Indeed, in many cases, it doesn’t even cover basic maintenance costs.  Keep that in mind the next time you feel like griping to the guy at the ticket counter.

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State senator wonders whether historic site employees are “sitting around not doing anything”

Historic sites that are subdivisions of larger organizations or institutions are often left languishing due to the utter neglect of the powers that be.  But there is something far, far worse than the utter neglect of the powers that be, and that’s the attention of the powers that be.

As a case in point, consider a recent news item out of North Carolina.

RALEIGH — The North Carolina legislature is conducting a sweeping review of the state’s attractions – from museums and parks to the state fair and the zoo – to determine whether they should be combined under a single agency and whether their staffing, hours and admissions fees should be adjusted.

The legislature’s study, which is scheduled to be released in March, follows budget cuts this summer that forced some state-owned tourist attractions to cut hours or special programs, lay off workers and increase admission fees. It has many working at the sites worried about their future.

Sounds pretty ominous, but the prospect of laying off a bunch of public employees actually has State Sen. Andrew Brock kind of excited.  I’ll let him tell it.

“I’m kind of excited about the evaluation of some our museums and sites,” said Brock, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing general government.

See there?

Now, don’t get the impression that they’re targeting all the fine cultural attractions North Carolina has to offer.  Some of them are doing a—what’s the word he’s looking for here…

Brock said that while some attractions “are doing a fantastic job” and deserve more state funding…

That’s it!  Some of them are doing a fantastic job, just absolutely fantastic, but…

…while some attractions “are doing a fantastic job” and deserve more state funding, there are others that need closer scrutiny.

“We’ve got some others, you’ve got 100 people on staff, you’ve got few visitors and only a few volunteers,” Brock said. “Are people sitting around not doing anything? Are we paying for positions and nobody has a real job? Those are the ones we will have to take a good hard look at. Some of them, to be honest, we have to make sure it was not political patronage over the years.”

Can’t have people on the payroll just “sitting around not doing anything.”  Can’t fund something that isn’t “a real job.”  Not that Brock is disrespecting state employees, or anything.

Brock cited Tryon Palace in New Bern, a pet of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, as an example of a historic site that might be overstaffed. The palace is a replica of the home of Royal Governor William Tryon, originally built in 1770. The palace, which recently opened a history center, drew 172,264 people during the fiscal year ending June 30. (Department of Cultural Resources officials said the Tryon Palace complex, which includes 41 buildings and had 85 employees when the history center opened in October 2010, now has 59 employees. That number is scheduled to be reduced to 31 employees unless funding is restored in the next budget year.

Right.  Some governor wants to reward a guy who worked on his campaign, so he gets him a job as a part-time tour guide at a historic house museum.  I’m sure that’s what happened.

Among other things, Brock said, the study will look at whether some sites should have shorter or different hours, should charge higher fees and should offer gifts and other services to defray costs.

“We are not going to get rid of our history,” Brock said. “But we may limit their hours, how many days they’re open and also look at their expenses while they are open.”

We’re not going to get rid of our history.  We might make it darn near impossible for people to get access to it, but we’re not going to get rid of it.

For now.

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A wider view from Tryon Palace

The New York Times has a piece on the recently constructed North Carolina History Center at New Bern.  It’s part of the same site that includes a reconstruction of Gov. William Tryon’s impressive eighteenth-century house.

What’s cool about the article is that it uses the center’s exhibits to explain some of the ways historic interpretation has changed over the years.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Tryon and those who sat with him atop the pinnacle of colonial society, the exhibits widen things out a little by examining the everyday lives of ordinary North Carolinians, the ways the environment shaped human history, and so on.  And, of course, the center employs all the latest gadgets in order to engage in its audience.

Check out the link to the center’s website in the article, too; it takes you to a short video where you can get a taste of the exhibits.

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The limits of recovered experiences

A reader left a comment to my last post about Conner Prairie’s new Civil War exhibit, but she posted it on the “About the Blog” page.  It’s a good comment that deserves a serious response, so I’m going to re-post it here.

She says: “Your review takes very strong positions of the Civil War at Conner PRairie [sic] and completely withholds any observations about the validity of the history, the educational merits or the quality of the visitor experience. Have you visited conner prairie, Michael?”

I haven’t been to Conner Prairie, but I hope to someday.  It’s one of the more important public history sites in the country and pioneered the use of living history for educational purposes.  My criticism is not aimed at Conner Prairie in general, but rather at some specific techniques used in the new Morgan’s Raid exhibit.

First of all, let me address my (admittedly quite snarky) remarks about the children’s play area.  I think it’s a misfire.  I don’t see any educational benefit in letting kids shoot water cannons, splash around in a pool, or climb around on a structure that bears a passing resemblance to a riverboat.  Kids learn by doing, it’s true—but not all “doing” entails learning.

She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself.  The reason I didn’t is because Conner Prairie’s publicity material didn’t really emphasize the content.  Instead, the emphasis is on the visceral experience visitors are meant to have.  The press release I quoted in my post promises that guests “will feel they have lived through a piece of the war and that they had to make the same choices about what to support and who to believe that Hoosiers had to make 150 years ago.”

Historic sites and museums seem to be hitting us in the heart and in the gut these days.  Exhibit planners and site administrators want us to experience what Civil War combat was like, or understand the difficult decisions runaway slaves faced, or sympathize with Abraham Lincoln, or whatever.  Increasingly, public historians are trying to put visitors in historical figures’ shoes.  I think they’re not as successful at this as they’re telling themselves and their audience.

Sure, we can experience some of the outward aspects of life in the past.  That’s one of the things that places like Conner Prairie can do that you can’t do with any other educational medium.  We can get a taste of some common household chore or feel the heft of a knapsack.  We can even sample the sights and sounds of a battle, and see how formations of soldiers moved and fought.

But no matter how much money we spend, no matter how effective our sound systems or how advanced our special effects, we simply can’t recreate the inner experiences of long-dead people.  Being an Indiana civilian caught in the middle of an attack by Confederate raiders involved much more than sounds, smoke, and costumes. There was terror, pain, and uncertainty—all the emotions that one would have if armed men tore into one’s community dealing death and destruction.  That’s a check that no public historian can cash.

Even if we could find a way to make visitors fear for their lives (and wouldn’t that be a hoot?), they’d still process those emotions and thoughts as citizens of the twenty-first century.  One of my historical maxims is that people of the past didn’t just do things differently; they were different.  Their worldviews were the products of accumulated experiences and beliefs that were fundamentally different from ours.  Here’s an example from two very different books.  One of my college professors, Dr. Earl Hess, wrote a very fine study about Union soldiers in combat.  He noted that many of these troops compared fighting to hard, arduous work.  This made sense, because a lot of them shared some background in agricultural labor.  It was a way to get their heads around the experience of battle and explain it to others.  In Black Hawk Down, by contrast, Mark Bowden notes that American soldiers who found themselves caught up in a deadly firefight in Somalia in 1993 compared their experience of combat to modern war films.  While dodging bullets, they thought to themselves something along the lines of, “I’m in a movie!”  Both groups processed the singular experience of combat in ways that mirrored their lifestyles and worldviews, but those lifestyles and worldviews were grounded in different eras.

This is not to say that I think teaching about the emotions and experiences of the past has no place in public history.  It most certainly does.  But both the public historian and the visitor must remember that while we can and should learn about those experiences, we can’t have them.  And we probably wouldn’t want to.

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Looks like Stonewall Jackson’s house will be under new management

The organization that runs Stonewall Jackson’s house as a Lexington, VA museum is in the process of turning it over to Virginia Military Institute, according to the Post. As you might have guessed, this lousy economy has a lot to do with it:

In May, the foundation approached VMI about acquiring the historic house as a way to protect the building and its collections, which the foundation purchased in 1994. Foundation executive director Michael Lynn said the Jackson House, as well as other small museums, are facing difficult times with the downturn in the economy and fewer visitors.

“This is the best possible solution for the long-term viability of the museum,” she said. “Surveys always show a high level of visitor satisfaction with the museum but there just are not enough of them coming.”

I’d imagine this is a difficult decision, but it’s also a sensible one.  I’ve worked at two museums which were parts of much larger entities, a university in one case and a county government in the other.  For all the frustrations that can come with operating a museum as a department of a bigger entity, it has definite advantages.

I’ve always compared it to the difference between living on your own and being a younger child in a big family.  If you’ve got your own place, you don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom and you can crank the TV up as loud as you please…but you also have to keep yourself in the black, or you’ll be out on the street.  The third child in a big family has to learn to play nice with his siblings, but he’s pretty sure there will be food on the table tomorrow.

Since this economic mess has so many independent museums closing their doors, entity-within-an-entity museums can sometimes have a sort of relative security that free-standing museums don’t.  I emphasize relative, of course, because plenty of entity-with-an-entity museums are facing an uncertain feature these days, too.

I hate to learn that the Stonewall Jackson Foundation is in a bind, since they’ve done a fantastic job of interpreting the site, but it’s good to know that VMI is willing to step in.  The house is a wonderful place to see.  Here’s a review that I posted last summer, in case you’re interested.

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Preservation, interpretation, destinations, and denominations

Going back to the subject of Mormon historical tourism, here’s a pretty extensive list of LDS historic sites in the U.S.  Some are full-fledged, public history-type institutions, with the usual trappings: visitor centers, guided tours, restored buildings, exhibit areas, and so on.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this kind of extensive effort to preserve, restore, and interpret a chain of church-related historic sites all over the country is unique to Mormonism.  Just about all of the major American denominations have archives and historical societies.  But historic sites and museums operated under the aegis of a national church body are few and far between.  Some of these churches have episcopal structures that could theoretically oversee this sort of thing, and even de-centralized groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have cooperative programs to fund education and missions, but it seems that no religious group is nearly as active in preservation and interpretation program as the Mormons.

So why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints devoting so much more effort to running historic sites than other religious groups?  I can think of a few possible reasons.

First, there’s a steady supply of enthusiastic volunteers to keep the sites going.  As I noted in my review of the Illinois LDS sites, that church actually utilizes its missionaries to work at them.  This is critical, because interpreters are the foot soldiers of large historic sites.  With lots of young people and retired couples eager to serve eighteen-month or two-year stints as missionaries, and a church organization willing to post them at historic sites, the church has both the human resources and a framework in place to deploy them.  Of course, evangelicals are keen on winning converts, too.  The Southern Baptist Convention recruits, trains, and supports laypeople who serve on the domestic and international mission fields.  They don’t, however, employ them as historic site interpreters.  The fact that the LDS church does so says something about the importance of history to this religion.

Second, Mormonism’s origins are both domestic and comparatively recent.  That makes its most important historic locations more accessible to preservation.  There are plenty of significant places in the U.S. that would make for great Baptist or Methodist historic sites, but none that are as cherished to these denominations as Hill Cumorah or Carthage Jail are to Mormonism.  You’d probably have to go to Europe to find a Protestant equivalent, or maybe even the Middle East.  (Come to think of it, there actually is a living history site at Nazareth, but we’re getting waaayyyy beyond the scope of this blog with that one.)

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mormonism has embraced its own distinctiveness.  The church has a long history of suffering persecution, misunderstanding, and exile, and this lends itself to historic consciousness.  You’re more likely to hold onto your history if it’s a cornerstone of your identity.  As I said in a previous post, visitation to Historic Nauvoo is 80% Mormon.  This suggests that a lot of the people who go there want to be reminded of who they are and who they used to be, and why their deposit of faith is something significant.

Still, since the church deploys its missionaries to places like Historic Nauvoo, it’s tempting to wonder whether or not historic tourism is an effective means of proselytizing.  I don’t have any figures, so I don’t know the answer.  I can say from my own recent experience that if it doesn’t win converts, it does at least win interested observers.  I doubt I’ll ever become a Mormon, but since visiting Nauvoo and Carthage I’ve become fascinated with Mormonism’s origins as a subject of study—as an interesting historical phenomenon, in other words.  That’s generally how it goes with historic sites.  I can’t tell you how many Civil War buffs have told me that they owe their obsession to a battlefield visit.

But you can’t use your history to generate interest if you don’t have a platform for doing so.  All those church archives and historical societies operated by the bigger denominations are important enterprises, but it’s mostly researchers and history enthusiasts who will use them.  Heritage tourism reaches a broader audience, even if it’s the already-converted who need to know more about their own spiritual heritage.

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Who watches the Watchmen? Maybe public historians should.

Sometimes public historians can find instructive lessons in unlikely places.  Take Hollywood, for example—an industry not known for either intellectual sagacity or scrupulous adherence to historical fact, but one that’s got the art of transferring messages pretty well covered.

When you’re dealing with the past, you’re dealing with different worlds.  All your assumptions have to go out the window—assumptions about the way people think, relate to each other, make a living, etc.  You’re entering a world with its own parameters and its own logic.  In that respect, it’s a little like playing Dungeons & Dragons.  You’ve got to know how the board is set up, what the rules are, and what the forces are that govern the action.

This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges to doing effective public history.  In exhibits and documentaries, you generally have little space and time to convey information.  How do you establish the parameters of the world you’re taking your audience into, given these limitations?  How do you familiarize your audience with the contours of a particular time and place in a way that seems effortless?

The makers of Watchmen, the movie based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, were faced with this same problem.  They, too, had to find a way to orient the audience to a world that’s similar to, but also quite distinct from, our own, and I think there’s a thing or two we can learn here.

In case you’re into neither comics nor movies, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980’s America in which comic book-style superheroes not only exist, but have influenced the course of U.S. history since before WWII.  This America, like our own, has fought wars in Europe and Vietnam, landed on the moon, and become a protagonist in the Cold War.  But the existence of heroes has altered this America’s history at critical points.  Superhero intervention, for example, secured U.S. victory in Vietnam (and thereby ensured Nixon’s continual re-election).  But it also exacerbated tension with the Soviets, so that by the mid-1980’s the world of Watchmen stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Since the movie’s world has its own logic and its own historical background, establishing its context becomes something of a problem.  The conventional approach would be to use scrolling text or a voice-over, recounting all the necessary background with traditional narrative and exposition. 

The filmmakers have taken a more deft and creative approach.  In the opening title sequence, a series of brief little vignettes recount the history of this alternate America and the main characters’ backgrounds by depicting instantly-recognizable moments from American history as they would have played out in Watchmen‘s hero-inhabited universe. 

The plane that drops an atom bomb on Hiroshima flies by, only it’s named after a scantily-clad female crimefighter whose image is painted on the fuselage.  An atomic-powered superhuman shakes hands with President Kennedy.  Another is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting, while a third poses for photographers outside Studio 54.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you can occasionally find this sequence online.  I say “occasionally” because Warner Bros. keeps asking sites that post the video to remove it, which is why a link here is just as likely to take you to a dead end as it is to the sequence itself.  Just go see the movie.*

This five-minute sequence tells you everything you need to know about Watchmen‘s America and its past, with no text or narrative of any kind.  It’s just a series of these historical clips set to the tune of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.  It’s a creative and very effective solution to the problem of context.

Let me suggest that Watchmen offers this lesson for anyone engaged in public history: Figure out the contours of the world in which you’re trying to place your audience, and then find a creative way to establish them. 

The people who tell myths and fables succeed or fail based on their mastery of communication.  Historians engaged in telling the truth should try to be at least as savvy as they are.

*On a related note, you may be wondering why I haven’t added a little pizzazz to this post with a still or poster image from Watchmen.  Well, Virginia, here at Past in the Present, I try to do whatever I can to keep from getting my keister sued off.

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