Monthly Archives: February 2015

What’s Your Pres-Ac Quotient?

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.

RosedaleChart2Vagnone 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?

Exhibit Outreach Program for Western NC

Many thanks to Matt Provancha, Exhibit Developer Extraordinaire at the Mountain Gateway Museum, for this guest post. 

vignette for the "North Carolina School for the Deaft, Then and Now" exhibit at the Historic Courthouse in Morganton

vignette for the “North Carolina School for the Deaf, Then and Now” exhibit at the Historic Courthouse in Morganton

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.

Matt Provancha designed this exhibit title panel for the Rural Life Center at Mars Hill University.

Provancha designed this exhibit title panel for the Rural Heritage Museum at Mars Hill University.

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.
Provancha built this case for NCDCR's Western Office in Asheville.

Provancha built this case for NCDCR’s Western Office in Asheville.

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.

Disaster Gypsies

???????????????????????????????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.

CREST Training

CREST_logo_edited-1We 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:

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.