Have you heard yet of the “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums?” It started several years ago as a series of presentations and a social media campaign and will soon be published as a book. We’ve recently learned that North Carolina is one of the two primary centers of the authors’ (Deb Ryan and Frank Vagnone) research (New York being the other). Professor Deborah E. Ryan teaches architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte and has organized class and individual student visits to several NC historic house museums.
The core concept of the “Anarchist Guide” is that focusing on preservation, historical accuracy, and exclusivity can undermine the higher callings of museums to be welcoming and engaging spaces. Such ideas, though justifiably controversial, are worth discussing and it is the mission of our NC branch of the Connecting to Collections program to encourage both preservation and access (pres-ac). We have written here before about new access approaches to historic houses, especially programs that depart from the traditional docent-led, roped-off-room tours and facilitate historical imagining with re-enactments and visitor role playing.
Vagnone and Ryan emphasize the importance of cultivating an understanding in visitors of what it was like to inhabit a space in earlier periods. In one class exercise, Ryan instructed students to graph their historic house museum experiences with “energy,” “imagination,” and “excitement” as variables. In the past several years, Ryan and Vagnone have repeatedly included the graph one student created about his visit to Rosedale Plantation in Charlotte as an example in their “Anarchist Guide” presentations. Like most museum visitors, Kevin Schaffner’s energy level started out fairly high and continuously decreased over the course of the visit. His imagination and excitement peaked when he could feel like he was discovering traces of the past by encountering artifacts or century-old handwriting on a wall, but overall, he felt bored by the docent-led tour. This detailed visitor feedback, especially from a younger visitor—a demographic historic house museums often struggle to interest—is valuable, if challenging, and has led Ryan and Vagnone to advocate self-guided tours and allowing visitors to touch artifacts.
When visitors can sit down and enter typically closed-off spaces like bathrooms, Ryan and Vagnone believe historic house museums can sustain visitors’ energy and heighten their imaginations about what it was like to live in the house in the past. In houses with lower visitation levels and fewer safety and security concerns, this may be an option. If the site displays “expendifacts,” sitting on the furniture may be okay. But many historic house museums cannot allow unfettered access in general on a daily basis without compromising the artifacts that make them unique. Preservation and access is always a tough balance to manage.
What innovative approaches has your institution tried? How do you negotiate between these often-competing needs for both preservation and access?
Many thanks to Matt Provancha, Exhibit Developer Extraordinaire at the Mountain Gateway Museum, for this guest post.
Up until the mid-2000s, the Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center was known as the Mountain Gateway Museum and Service Center. No, you couldn’t get an oil change or your tires rotated while you were learning about Appalachian history or touring one of the cabins. The designation “Service Center” referred to the museum’s Exhibit Outreach Program (EOP). You see, since the museum joined the NC Department of Cultural Resources in the late 1970s, part of its mission has been to share the collective experience of its museum professionals with all the little history museums and historical societies in Western North Carolina. Since the Mountain Gateway Museum (MGM) is the smallest museum in the Division of History Museums (with the largest service area) this exhibit outreach program has greatly increased the impact our little museum has on our part of the Old North State, extending our reach well beyond our walls.
Creating exhibits that cost from $30 to $3,000, the MGM has worked with numerous organizations’ budgets. From the creation of simple informational labels to the construction of museum-quality display cases, the EOP has helped non-profit, history-based organizations in our 39-county service area make their exhibit ideas into reality for more than 30 years. Here’s how it works:
- We assist qualified agencies with planning their exhibits by utilizing their existing research to develop an organized and engaging storyline.
- We advise them on collections care in the exhibit environment, and collections storage.
- We help them design their exhibit layout, as well as simple informational and graphic exhibit elements.
- We will design and fabricate exhibit elements, such as: display cases, artifact-specific mounts, and other exhibit furniture as necessary.
Planning, consulting, design, and fabrication time/labor is provided free of charge. The only cost to the interested agency is the cost of materials. MGM is lucky to have some key materials donated to us, so make no mistake: We can, and have, produced exhibits for as little as $30 in the past. [In fact, Gaylord just advertised a case nearly identical to the one I built for the NCDCR Western Office with a starting price at $5,600. My case (at right) cost the Western Office in the neighborhood of $1,200.]
Utilizing the knowledge and resources of the EOP can open many avenues for history-based organizations interested in developing and displaying a high-quality museum exhibit at their institutions. For more information on this program, visit our website at MountainGatewayMuseum.org and click on “Outreach,” or give us a call at 828-668-9259.
Just before Thanksgiving 2014, the Historic Jamestown Society’s Mendenhall Plantation sustained a disaster. Arsonists used bricks and stones to break through windows of the 1817 Lindsay House, squirted lighter fluid on the floor, and set fire. Fortunately for this historic landmark, damage was minimal. The fire burned out floorboards in two places and left sooty residue and smoky odors. Despite the contained area of damage, the mostly volunteer staff had to struggle with a recovery challenge they never expected—disaster gypsies. The director, the only paid staff member of the site, was out of town when the arson occurred and a long-time volunteer board member had to respond to the situation. Disaster response contractors quickly descended upon her and, panicked and disoriented on a cold night, she had trouble keeping them at bay.
Disaster gypsies are irresponsible contractors who show up immediately after a disaster, while emergency responders are often still on site, and promise quick fixes to panicky staff (or inhabitants). They may assure you that if you pay up front, your insurance will reimburse you. Don’t let soothing tones and comforting phrases fool you—these are salespeople out to prey on misfortune. They may promise rapid solutions such as quick drying after floods or chemical washes after fires that will ultimately damage historic structures more than the initial disaster event. Don’t let these ready-at-hand “advisors” rush you. The emergency responders will stabilize the situation and you will have time to sort repair bids out to your institution’s best advantage.
In addition to being forewarned about disaster gypsies remember these tips for dealing with disaster recovery contractors:
- Always call your insurance agent–before agreeing to any recovery service–to find out coverage specifics.
- Be sure the company is IICRC credentialed (Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoring Certification).
- Check Better Business Bureau reports on the local franchise owner.
- Take time to gather and compare multiple bids—3 is a good benchmark number.
The Mendenhall Plantation’s staff’s instincts to hesitate on decision-making served their site well and, for the most part, they avoided signing up with the wrong companies for questionable services. Good restoration companies with knowledgeable contractors do exist. If you can identify them in advance, you’ll be able to take a giant leap toward preparedness.
Mendenhall’s director and 3 board members shared tales of their recent trials and tribulations at a January gathering of cultural heritage practitioners in the Triad region. [Read more about that meeting here.] Above left, Director Shawn Rogers gave meeting participants a tour of the damaged building. (Note the broken and boarded window behind him.) In addition to the group learning an important preparedness lesson from the Mendenhall experience, the arson event catalyzed interest in forming a regional response network. Twenty folks have agreed to participate so far and the group looks forward to future expansion.
We want to take today’s post to brag on our Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team members and assure you of their availability to provide NC sites with tangible assistance. CREST consists of experienced professionals who are dedicated to serving the cultural heritage cause across the state and are willing to take a leadership role in their own regions. In addition to the 3 of us on our C2C team, there are currently 14 CREST members across the state. Each has agreed to help out with artifact recovery in the event that any NC cultural heritage collection suffers from a disaster. Further, each works for an institution that supports his or her time away from the office for this purpose. This willingness to assist other institutions fits into the NC Department of Cultural Resources’ mandate for statewide outreach, and consequently, the majority of CREST members work for state-run institutions. Two of our members work for the National Park Service on opposite ends of the state, one in the mountain region, and the other on the Outer Banks. Notably, 4 of our members work for private organizations: Old Salem, the Asheville Art Museum, Wrightsville Beach Museum, and the NC Preservation Consortium. Our admiration and gratitude especially go to these institutions, which—without any governmental mandates—allow their expert personnel to respond to statewide calls for post-disaster artifact recovery.
In addition to all the artifact preservation experience the members have gained as librarians, curators, registrars, archivists, and administrators, each is required to complete 3 Federal Emergency Management Agency courses successfully:
- Introduction to the Incident Command System
- National Incident Management System
- Community Emergency Response Training.
These credentials serve 2 purposes: First, emergency managers and first responders take our group more seriously, knowing that a part of CREST training overlaps their own. Secondly, team members are able to interact with these leaders more effectively. With the training, CREST members understand chains of command and their own place within them, should their deployment be necessary. Members become familiar with emergency leaders’ processes, priorities, and terminology.
CREST members also commit to help our C2C team out with fire recovery workshops. They serve as team leaders, or in other administrative roles, during the workshop. Consequently, each gains hands-on practice in a disaster scenario as a leader, and some of the training concepts, such as Incident Command System, come to life. Moreover, the fire workshops have borrowed from Community Emergency Response Training in developing an artifact triage system. This interplay of knowledge between preservation expertise and emergency management procedures makes CREST members uniquely qualified to lead post-disaster artifact salvage efforts.
Always remember to call on CREST if your NC collection suffers disaster damage.
A rich resource of North Carolina history and culture is now easily accessible online. The State Library of North Carolina has recently completed a collaborative digitization project with Our State Magazine, Digital NC, and additional partners. Staff scanned over 102,000 pages of a comprehensive set of issues from 1933 – 2011. (Our State’s website includes archived issues from the present through 2009.) Not only is the site searchable by key word and subject, but it also has a convenient “page flip view” feature, which allows viewers to peruse any issue, page by page, and pause for more in-depth reading with a click. Browse through and land upon topics that interest you or have potential to engage your community.
June 1933 marked the first issue of The State, which began as a weekly news magazine and evolved into the monthly features publication Our State is today. That first issue referred to local particulars of significant national pressures such as the Depression (1933 was the most intense year) and the end of Prohibition. Interestingly, The State’s coverage indicated that community leaders were relieved the repeal had not increased public drunkenness or crime, but that some business owners were disappointed that beer sales had not yet boosted the economy.
The State provided a forum to discuss and promote North Carolina businesses. The 1933 inaugural issue included an advertisement for Chatham Blankets (right), a product of the woolen mill which was once the primary employer in Elkin, NC. It’s laudable that the Chatham Manufacturing Company supported the new Raleigh-based publication with an advertisement touting the industry’s role in sheep raising in the NC mountain region. Meanwhile, the company produced large, colorful advertisements for national audiences in prominent magazines like Good Housekeeping and Life (as in this 1947 example on right). The current issue of Our State brings the subject of Elkin’s renowned factory full circle by profiling a town pharmacist and local historian, whose grandparents worked at the mill and who now collects Chatham blankets and other local memorabilia.
What 20th-century topics are relevant to your community’s history? If you work with an NC institution, there’s sure to be some useful text and imagery in this treasure trove. So–ready, get set, GO explore Our State!
North Carolina’s Anne Lane initiated a discussion several months ago on an international blog—“Registrar Trek” about light damage and the usefulness of exhibit rotations for preservation. [We also picked up on this idea in one of our posts last spring.] Our whole C2C team is a fan of Anne’s; she is an extraordinary collections manager who is currently working at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center and previously devoted many years of her professional life to the Charlotte Museum of History. She combines broad preservation knowledge with impressive hand skills and a helpful spirit, and we’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from her as guest poster for this blog, as well as an instructor for C2C box-making workshops. Anne’s Registrar Trek post elicited two useful responses from preservation experts. Both stress the need to assess of a variety of risks more holistically, rather than a singular focus on light damage. Instead of leaving them embedded in the comments section of Anne’s post, it may be helpful to our readers to see them up-front here.
1. Mark H. McCormick-Goodhart, Director, Aardenburg Imaging & Archives: I don’t know of any materials that rejuvenate from light induced damage in dark storage. I do know of materials that continue to degrade due to light-induced damage after removal from display and subsequent dark storage. I also can cite materials that can recover from some discoloration by fresh exposure to light, but it’s kind of a catch-22 as some components (e.g., inks on paper) in the artwork are being further degraded while other components (e.g., color of the media) are being improved by further exposure to light.
The key knowledge to be acquired by curators and conservators is not easy to gain in many instances, but it is how the light fade resistance compares to other degradation pathways. When a material is very light sensitive, it’s pretty much guaranteed that light exposure on display will be a major factor of concern, but with materials of moderate or high light fade resistance, then other weak links like gas fade resistance, thermal and humidity degradation, etc., may prevail in such a way that worrying about amortizing the time in the light on display may be totally irrelevant. Policies for storage and display need to be decided based on better understanding of all the likely variables of decay and not just one variable only since the variable in question may not be anywhere close to being the weak link in the chain.
2. Robert Waller, Ph.D., CAPC, FIIC, President and Senior Risk Analyst for Protect Heritage Corp.: Mark makes an excellent point about needing to evaluate light damage relative to other risks to the collection in order to understand its importance. It would be a shame to keep objects from view only to have them degrade in other ways or be lost to fire, flood, or theft long before their useful display life has been used. Recognizing the importance of considering risks in context is the driving force behind leading institutions now embarking on comprehensive collection risk assessments. If there are one or more risks other than light damage that dominate the risk profile to a collection then there may be little point to rotating which objects are on exhibit.
It is also important to realize that rotating objects from the collection on and off exhibit does not reduce light damage to a collection as a whole but simply alters its distribution. In some cases distributing light damage more broadly through the collection will result in greater loss of value from the collection. The change in object value seldom has a simple, straight line relation to extent of light damage. Usually the change from a “pristine” state to a “just noticeable change” results in a much greater loss in value than a just noticeable change step somewhere in the mid-range between pristine and completely damaged. This is generally recognized by herbaria who, knowing that dried plant specimens are extremely light fugitive, will choose only one page of a bound herbarium to be opened on exhibit. In this way light damage to the contents of the book is restricted to a single page. The remaining pages remain in the near pristine state for occasional viewing. In contrast, if the book has 100 pages and a different page is displayed each month then it would only be a matter of decades, if not just years, until every plant specimen in the book was severely faded.
Agnes Brokerhof and colleagues presented this issue well in their 2008 paper, now available in book form.
Thanks to Anne for getting this conversation going, and thanks to Mark and Rob for such an insightful discussion and their willingness to share it with our audience.
Most cultural heritage organizations need more funding to accomplish more of the mission-essential work on their to-do lists. The Winston-Salem Urban League administers a grant program that has already helped several arts and humanities organizations in the Triad region and beyond build their capacities. By providing funds to hire older adults, this program offers sets of experienced helping hands to (often cash-strapped) nonprofits. The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and the Delta Fine Arts Center have both been beneficiaries of these grants. The Winston-Salem Urban League also operates a satellite office in Burke County and has extended its funding program to western NC counties. The History Museum of Burke County has taken advantage of this program for several years now with great success.
The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) assigns lower-income older adult workers to local nonprofit and government agencies and pays them minimum wage for 20 hours of work per week. Additional benefits to the employee include sustained independence and on-the-job training to enhance their opportunities in the local job market. Read more about the senior community service employment program here.
Why hire senior citizens when so many volunteers and board members are already part of that demographic—many serving on the front lines of visitor engagement like this docent at Tryon Palace (left)?
- Seniors’ life experiences can be wide ranging enough to allow them to think more comprehensively and creatively about the range of possibilities. Encore Awards honor great examples of community leadership among seniors and one recent recipient was a Baptist minister in Conetoe, NC. His story is inspiring and involves the kind of community engagement to which museums often aspire. By refocusing his congregation on healthful living and growing food, he has nurtured members’ physical and economic well-being, as well as spiritual.
- The Urban League senior employment grants target lower-income seniors as employees. This demographic focus may help bring diversity into the organization’s group of stakeholders, ultimately helping to construct new bridges to under-served segments of the community.
- For some, decreasing family responsibilities at this stage of life allow seniors more availability to work after regular office hours, at night and on weekends. This coverage can help relieve regular, full-time staff.
Ask yourself what jobs seniors could be good at in your organization; you’ll likely create a long list that the Urban League (or one of the additional 4 SCSEP partners across the state) could help with. Why not take advantage of this potential reservoir of helping hands?
Thanks to C2C workshop participant and History Museum of Burke County board member, Robert Paganuzzi, for this post idea.
In our efforts to nurture a sense of community across our statewide network of cultural heritage practitioners and beyond, our C2C team has bravely plowed ahead into the social media realms of blogging and Facebook. By offering preservation tips and sharing stories from NC’s cultural heritage collections, we have carved out a fairly small online niche. We have 240 followers and another 30+- Facebook followers view our posts each week. Followers’ online addresses suggest that about 2/3 of them hail from NC. Though small, our audience extends across the globe, with over 3 thousand views in 2014 from other English-speaking countries and scattered views from 112 additional countries on every continent. We appreciate all of our readers and especially those who take the time to offer feedback and share any useful or interesting tidbits they find on these posts with colleagues.
The wordpress forum provides quantitative information about blog use by tallying the number of times viewers click on a given post. Sometimes we can infer more qualitative data about topics readers found the most helpful. As a result, here are some superlatives for posts based on views during the past year.
- Most curious: “Beware Carpet Beetles” received a tally of 3,500 views. Although it is important to learn about these heritage eaters for integrated pest management and collections preservation, it’s astounding that this post [from 2012] has been our most popular this year. Also perplexing is that there are rarely corresponding referral links or signs of readers clicking on a link the post provides. These statistics lead us to wonder whether the high number of views is the result of human activity or whether instead, the post has gotten attached to some kind of repetitive robo-visitation.
The following superlatives only had views in the hundreds, not the thousands.
- Best preservation tips: “Pros and Cons of Plastic Storage Containers” and “Sealing Wood for Storage and Exhibition“—a guest post by conservator Marc A. Williams went live in 2012 and 2011 respectively and address essential preservation concerns, applicable for even the smallest museums. This quilt from an NC county historical museum is a good illustration of the importance of sealing wood before using it to mount artifacts–especially textiles and paper. The yellowish, brownish lines on the quilt are the result of acid migration from a wood frame behind. A plexi cover over the quilt trapped the acidic vapors inside a narrow space. Although we can’t all have the in-depth preservation knowledge that many conservators–like Williams–have accumulated, we can learn enough to avoid such errors and strive to “do no harm” to the artifacts under our care.
- Cross-disciplinary: “Mineral Hazards” is a guest post by Chris Tacker, who is a curator at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, published in spring of 2013. That it is our 4th most viewed individual post in 2014 is a testament to the usefulness of Chris’ knowledge and the power of reaching out to colleagues outside our history discipline.
- Most popular 2014 posts: Both “Thinky-Drinky” & “Expendifacts” earned this title and both deal with hands-on experiences in historic houses and sites.
- Most collaborative: “Sleep Tight,” another guest post published this year, was written by a public history graduate student from the UNCG program who worked with staff from the High Point Museum to re-string a period bed at Blandwood Mansion. The group of four used a video that colleagues from Historic Hope Plantation developed for guidance. That’s a total of 6 NC cultural heritage practitioners and 4 allied institutions involved in the project that our blog has the privilege of showcasing!
We hope to continue to provide sometimes exciting and always informative content in 2015, so stay tuned and keep us posted on the challenges you’re encountering as well as what’s working for you.
Thanks to members of our cultural heritage community across the state for sharing these holiday photos. Our C2C team wishes you wonderful holidays and all the best in 2015!
A glimmering moon rises to brighten the dark solstice season sky behind the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The Keeper’s House in the foreground is decked out in Christmas finery. The Murrayville Middle School Jazz Band provided holiday musical favorites at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site’s Holiday Open House.
Santa rides a tractor at the Sampson County History Museum in Clinton. Meanwhile, the Winborne Country Store in Murfreesboro showcases seasonal greenery and treats. A gingerbread house-making event delights visitors of all ages at the Rowan Museum in Salisbury.
The Transylvania Heritage Museum hosted a traveling exhibit of mid-20th-century aluminum Christmas trees, coordinated by The Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum (ATOM). Visitors enjoyed the display from Saturday, November 29th until December 20th, when the museum closed for the season.
Beautiful decorations grace the dining table of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society‘s Latimer House. Not to be outdone in the realm of fancy adornment, Tryon Palace focuses its annual decorating efforts on a specific theme. This year the peacock (right) was the inspriration.
Simpler ornaments predominate at humbler sites. For example, candlelight illuminates a spinning demonstration at the Joel Lane Museum House in Raleigh. Stockings hang from the parlor mantle at Historic Edenton’s Zeigler House.
A parade of Santa Clause figurines ushers in the season at the Caldwell Heritage Museum in Lenoir. A tall Christmas tree brightens the stairwell at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.
A crowd gathered around the pavilion on December 1st to sing carols at the Cashiers Historical Society‘s Lighting of the Town Tree in the Village Green. May your holidays be similarly filled with light, music, and many warm gatherings of friends and family.
With more winter weather on its way, we want to remind readers of localized disasters last winter that involved CREST’s collections recovery efforts. The Yancey County Public Library had a burst pipe (left) during early January’s polar vortex and the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum experienced a roof leak during March’s ice storm. Please review ReadyNC.org for advice and be prepared!
Thanks to Laura J. Leonard, Community Outreach Coordinator for the N.C. Department of Emergency Management for this guest post.
North Carolina encounters unpredictable weather during the winter months. In early 2014 there were four winter storms within weeks of each other that dumped inches of snow, sleet, freezing rain or ice, causing an unprecedented number of accidents and school cancellations. Single digit temperatures were also reported in many areas of the state.
North Carolina can experience a variety of winter weather patterns that provide a mixed bag of precipitation because of its proximity to the Appalachian Mountains, Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Stream and Gulf of Mexico.
“Winter storms are known as deceptive killers because they cause power outages, downed trees, traffic jams and accidents that leave lasting impacts on the state,” said North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry. “Most deaths are not directly related to the storm, but result from traffic accidents on icy roads or hypothermia from lengthy exposure to cold. Three easy steps will help anyone get ready for an emergency: create a plan, make a kit and stay informed. Following these simple actions will help you be ready before an emergency occurs and help keep you safe.”
3 Simple Steps
- Write a plan, which should be a thought-out list of whom to call, where to meet and any special considerations that may need to be addressed.
- Build an emergency supplies kit. Besides artifact recovery materials and important institutional records – you should also include rock salt, sand, snow shovels for winter-weather-related disasters. Ensure a flash light, battery operated radio, extra batteries, and a first-aid kit are on hand.
- Pay attention to the weather forecast and stay informed about potential storms. The free ReadyNC mobile app also provides real-time information about opened shelters and riverine flood levels. A list of phone numbers for North Carolina power companies provides a quick reference so you can report outages. The app also provides basic instructions on how to develop an emergency preparedness plan. It is available for both iPhone and Droid devices.
During the cold winter months, be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning that can occur from improper heating. The colorless, odorless carbon monoxide gas can be deadly and is produced from fuel-burning appliances, generators and heaters. Without proper ventilation, carbon monoxide fumes can accumulate causing headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness.
To prepare your building for winter weather, add insulation to walls and attics. Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows and insulate water pipes to keep them from freezing. Remember to keep generators away from the building and have a trained professional ensure proper wiring. Never run a generator in an enclosed area.
Enjoy the festivities of the winter season along with the peace of mind that your institution is prepared!