Monthly Archives: October 2014

New Partnerships for a State Fair Audience

LeRae Umfleet confers with re-enactors during the final stage of installation. Courtesy, NCMOH staff

LeRae Umfleet confers with re-enactors during the final stage of installation. Courtesy, NCMOH staff

This year begins the commemoration for the World War I centennial. The State Fairgrounds has a connection to that topic, since it was once the site of Camp Polk, a WWI tank training facility. The NC Department of Cultural Resources partnered with the State Fair and the NC National Guard Museum to create an exhibit on World War I as part of this commemoration. LeRae Umfleet, the department’s Supervisor of Education and Outreach and C2C’s Project Director, coordinated the project, which involved various divisions within NCDCR. She and Lt. Sean Daily of the National Guard Museum created the immersive environment—a trench. The NC Museum of History supplied some WWI artifacts and cases. Archivists, a videographer, and a graphic designer digitized historic images and produced photo blow-ups, retractable panels, and video footage.

Re-enactors included State Historic Sites staff.

Re-enactors included State Historic Sites staff.

Military Appreciation Day at the Fair (10/22) involved special programming tied to the exhibit and additional support from NCDCR staff and volunteers. About 20 NC Historic Sites staff members and a number of additional re-enactors dressed out in military attire, representing eras from the French and Indian War to Desert Storm, for a morning parade and an afternoon military uniform revue. People filled the exhibit throughout the day, and the programs drew crowds, including many veterans and their families.

Why go to the trouble of an exhibit for an 11-day event? Because the State Fair brings hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from different walks of life together in one space. Some of those fairgoers are not regular museum or historic site participants. If the exhibits and programs pique their interest, they may be more likely to consider these institutions as worthwhile destinations. John Guss, Site Manager for Bennett Place dressed as a Civil War soldier and relished the day’s outreach opportunities. “I don’t believe there is any better collective way that North Carolina State Historic Sites can connect with potential visitors and supporters than by being at the NC State Fair each year,” he commented.  Additionally, a history exhibit dovetails well with the Fair’s other educational features and helps to highlight the uniqueness of the state. Several of the exhibit’s components (specifically, the costumed manikins, graphic panels, and video) will be available to travel around the state for future WWI commemorative programs.

schoolkidswheelchair1Did the numerous attendees absorb any of the exhibit’s information? Visitor timing and tracking studies can help answer this perennial question. The exhibit lined the pathway to the women’s room in the Dorton Arena. Consequently, many viewers were passersby and others may have enjoyed the learning opportunity while waiting for companions. A timing/tracking estimate suggests that about half of the people in the space paused to look. Most, especially younger visitors, were attracted to the trench scene and video footage. The graphic panels and artifact cases attracted fewer visitors, and these tended to be older and male. The one interactive component was a tablet for typing in “your World War I story” and contact information. Only one older woman within a 2 ½ hour period entered information. However, visitors regularly used their own mobile devices as ways to interact with the exhibit by taking pictures of aspects that particularly interested them.

VeteranWhat objects were most engaging? A pair of Vietnam War re-enactors had set up a 2-table display with equipment and supplies. A number of veterans of that war and their companions, often female partners, came to look closely at those objects. Many exclaimed how well they remembered something and the object prompted them to tell a story. Packaged food—“C-rations”—elicited the most reminiscing, perhaps because of the mundane and daily nature of those articles in wartime or perhaps because the memories surrounding food were less serious than those relating to weaponry and other equipment. Regardless, the objects functioned as portholes to the past for these visitors and helped them “bridge” with staff and other visitors.

Bringing historical materials out of your institution and into other community venues can have tremendous outreach benefits, in terms of both quantity and quality. Has your organization tried this? If so, how have exhibits been received beyond the museum walls?


StEPs Toward Improvement

The Standards and Excellence Program (StEPs) is a self-assessment curriculum and certificate program designed by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) experts. There is a modest cost ($175) to enroll and buy the StEPs workbook, but it can serve as an informative and lasting resource for small museums. As staff members work through each of the sections at their own pace, they can register their self-determined progress with AASLH and receive bronze, silver, or gold certificates. These levels reflect institutional accomplishments in “basic,” “good,” or “better” categories, respectively.

The point of the program is to help small museums, many of which rely on unpaid staff, understand national standards in museum administration, collections care, and other essential topics and guide them toward making the improvements they can with available resources. Many of the smallest cultural heritage institutions do not qualify for other national assessment programs, such as MAP or CAP, since these require institutions to be open to the public at least 90 days each year. Learn more about the StEPs program in this free hour-long webinar, “What is StEPS?”

credit: AASLH

credit: AASLH

Recently, AASLH put out a list of all institutions that had earned certificates in the program.  No North Carolina institutions are included, although we know of two—The High Point Museum and the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University—that have begun the program. In fact, watch the short informational video, “Why Enroll in StEPs?”  to spot a fun photo of the Mountain Heritage Center staff, including Anne Lane and Pam Meister.

The Mountain Heritage Center began working through StEPs in an effort to gauge the institution’s readiness for AAM accreditation. Staff had gone through a MAP in collections stewardship and felt that a comprehensive review of additonal institutional functions would be useful preparation for the more intensive accreditation process. Meister, the interim director, established a StEPs working group that met weekly and consisted of staff, WCU faculty, public history graduate students, and community members. The group was effective and found the StEPs workbook to be a terrific educational tool that helped them focus on making necessary decisions for institutional progress. The process also sparked deeper examinations into key issues about interpretation and audience. Another plus about the StEPs assessment is that it is self-paced. After earning some certificates, staff put the StEPs project on hold when they learned that the Museum will have to move out of its current building and eventually relocate to a new campus visitor center. They plan to reconvene the working group eventually, but in the meantime, the StEPs work they did accomplish will serve them during the important planning stages as the new facility takes shape.

StEPs is versatile enough to be useful for the smallest museums as well those with more staff and institutional resources, like the Mountain Heritage Center. Their example shows how StEPs can dovetail with established AAM programs and keep staff and other stakeholders focusing on institutional progress. Also, don’t forget that the North Carolina Museums Council offers a free on-site consultation service for all museums, regardless of numbers of open days or full-time staff. This, as well as the services our C2C team can provide, means that no North Carolina institution should feel isolated or unsupported. Understanding national standards is worthwhile, as is being part of a nationwide community of practice. Consider StEPs as means to both ends.

Thanks to Pam Meister for her contributions to this post.

Thinky-Drinky: More Engagement Ideas for Historic Houses

As we’ve written here before, historic house museums across the country have been struggling with declining visitation and funding since the 1980s. At the Glensheen Estate in Duluth, Minnesota, annual visitation to the 39-bedroom mansion fell to 50,000 in 2012. To combat this trend and avoid closing, Glensheen and other historic houses are experimenting with new kinds of programs and interpretation strategies. The following 3 examples from the Midwest and New England may be worth a try in North Carolina too.

1. Three Minnesota historic house museums, including Glensheen, the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul, and the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, have “taken down the velvet ropes” for innovative programs designed to attract new audiences. History Happy Hour is an opportunity for younger and older adults can mingle inside period rooms, learn about and discuss a historical topic, and drink wine. An organizer calls such gatherings “thinky drinky events,” and they’ve helped boost both earned revenue and visitation. At Glensheen, the new approach has boosted the historic house’s previously languishing visitation by 19%. Despite the increased collection risks from handling and theft, so far, there has been no noticeable artifact damage from the new programs at these sites.

2. The Hunter House in Newport, Rhode Island has re-imagined the period room and turned the house into a series of interpretive exhibits on the meaning of decorative arts. Each room conveys a different main idea with a juxtaposition of objects. For example, furniture construction is the topic in one bed chamber; the hallway exhibits changing styles with chairs; and the kitchen is filled with objects representing nostalgia for the colonial period. While this approach allows more interpretive flexibility and distinguishes the Hunter House from the many other historic houses in its area, it may have little effect on attracting new audiences. The study of decorative arts is perhaps increasingly esoteric and its interpretation in this instance relies on traditional wall labels and/or guided tours.

3. The Strong-Howard House in Windsor, Connecticut is transforming into a completely hands-on visitor experience.   By researching probate inventories and studying period furniture, staff has directed the reconstruction of furniture and accessories in several rooms. They now invite visitors in to try out the rope mattress canopy bed. For special events, guests can also dine on food made from period recipes and use reproduction furniture and implements. The downside of the Windsor Historical Society’s experimentation with audience engagement is that it doesn’t come cheap. The Strong-Howard project cost $500,000 for phases I & II, amounting to restoration work on the building itself and two rooms full of reproductions. Phase III, which will include the kitchen with a working hearth, will require an additional $200,000 and will open in fall 2015, as long as fundraising progress continues on pace.

Do you know of audience engagement experiments within a North Carolina historic house? If so, do you consider the new approach successful?

Moving Targets for Preservation

MovingTargetAccording to recent reports by the Image Permanence Institute, the 70 degree/ 50 % relative humidity target for collections storage environments is not only outdated and unsustainable, it was never optimal in the first place. What started as a best guess, based primarily on human comfort, became accepted practice in museums and libraries for decades. However, “research at preservation science laboratories in the United States, Canada, and abroad provided data to show that wider fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature were not necessarily damaging to collections.” The old standard is “difficult to achieve, even harder to maintain, expensive and not always necessary.”

But where should collections stewards aim? The target is now always moving based on seasonal drift and material types. For instance, moderate temperatures are not appropriate for preserving certain materials. Most photographs and films should be chilled. For optimal preservation, different types of materials should be stored together and in smaller, customized environments where possible. These separate measure do not have to be costly. A frost-free refrigerator/ freezer can house a photograph collection safely. Many can be stored in the freezer section, while special types, such as glass plate negatives, can be stored in the refrigerator section. Polyethylene or polypropylene boxes with silica gel inside can provide affordable storage for humidity-sensitive materials such as leather and metals.

IPI_EnvironmentIPI’s “Quick Reference” guide can help to plot environmental priorities for various collection material types. Further, The University of Illinois Library is developing another tool to help collection managers make item-level and collection-level preservation assessments and identify actions to improve conditions. The Preservation Self-Assessment Program is a free online method to target solutions. The program is new and currently limited to library materials–books, papers, photographs, and film–but is worth exploring for museum collections too. The Connecting to Collections online community will introduce this tool more fully in an upcoming free webinar, scheduled November 5, 2014.

As collections stewards, we shouldn’t be afraid that the monolithic standard has been debunked. Preservation knowledge has grown more complex, but we are all crafty and resourceful enough to adapt to the new moving targets.