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?

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 14, 2014, in collections access, Exhibitions, historic houses, public programs and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is a beautiful property. Thanks for sharing the great ideas. While our mansion is no where near 39 bedrooms, we’ve also seen a decline and I’m sure these tips will help. Already has me thinking. Thanks for sharing.

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