Category Archives: collections access
We’ve previously reported on Historic House Museum Anarchist activity here in NC, centering on UNC-Charlotte, where co-anarchist Deborah Ryan is a professor, and Körner’s Folly, one of two primary sites of the Anarchists’ recent study. The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums will be published soon (this fall) by Left Coast Press and this spring Ryan and co-authors published a preview article in the Public Historian. That article concentrates Körner’s Folly and another historic house museum in New York. The authors studied both sites according to an assessment chart they’ve developed. Although the anarchists cited room for improvement, they generally gave Körner’s Folly impressive scores in the 5 categories of assessment: community, communication, experience, environment, shelter. Given the anarchists’ fairly radical ambitions for historic house museums to transform themselves and engage audiences, Körner’s Folly’s overall score of 3.02 out of 5 seems pretty good. (Executive Director, Dale Pennington, posted her thoughts on being part of the study several months ago in this forum.)
Recently, the anarchists have orchestrated a controversial project in New York that highlights a collection object from an historic house museum as well as using an historic building in a new way. (left) This makes an even bigger splash than previous projects incorporating artist interpretations of collection objects and is, at least, a creative attempt to connect a wider community with an institution’s collections. Might this be replicated on/ for one of NC’s cultural heritage institutions? What do you think about bright murals on 18th-century wood siding?
What connects individuals to artifacts? The answer is often deeply personal, and while it’s possible for museum audience evaluators to trace clear patterns, the connection is often idiosyncratic. A new model of group tour and the internet itself can embrace the individualization of artifact engagement. Check out the following models at major museums—the Metropolitan in New York and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The much smaller, less well funded museums we work with here in NC may not be able to support the platforms in these examples, but the ideas of customization and engagement can be translated to both history collections as well as to smaller venues. [For example, at left, participants in a Delta Sigma Theta reception at the Greensboro Historical Museum look closely and discuss artifacts in a case related to their organization.]
If you haven’t yet heard of Museum Hack (or even if you have) this TEDx video is a good introduction to the company’s why and how. The founder never liked museums and didn’t bother attending them until a friend gave him a personal tour. Once he was able to explore according to his own impulses and share thoughts and impressions individually, he fell in love with museums and began giving tours to his friends, featuring his top 10 objects and stories in the museum. His tours generated a buzz and became so popular that he’s built a business out of small group museum tours with entertainment as the primary goal. If you were to give a “hack”- type tour of your own institution, what objects and stories would you include?
Online artifact images, accompanied by stories, allow users to customize their own learning (or entertainment) paths. Some institutions have been reluctant to share digitized versions of collection items for several reasons. Among them is the fear that putting collections on the internet will be a disincentive for face-to-face visitors. Despite digitizing and sharing most of its artifacts at high quality resolution for free, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has experienced record-breaking attendance in the last year. Could it be that the virtually unlimited access to collections this museum supplies online actually motivates in-person visits? If your institution shares some or all of its collections digitally, can you correlate that to an increase or decrease in visitation?
In your experience, what other methods of customized engagement with collections have been successful?
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?
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!
Thanks to Professor Susanna Lee and her graduate students for the following guest post! Be sure to click on each artifact link to read and/ or listen to students’ interpretive discussions and ideas on how a 3D print could be useful for museum educational programs.
On October 7, 2014, students in Professor Susanna Lee’s Theory and Practice of Digital History class (HI 534) in the History Department at North Carolina State University went to the North Carolina Museum of History to participate in a 3D-scanning project. The project was an exploration into the cost effectiveness of 3D technology for museums and the methodological problems and challenges with using 3D technology to present historical artifacts. Students first used 123D Catch, MakerBot Digitizer, and other programs to capture 3D scans of four museum artifacts dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students then posted 3D models of the artifacts to Thingiverse, an online space for sharing 3D printable objects. For each 3D model, students also provided an interpretation of its historical significance as well as an explanation of the scanning process. We welcome you to explore the 3D models that students created and interpreted.
- Butter Mold: This butter print was made in the late 18th century, and the hand-carved design appears to be a tobacco plant. The exact origins and uses of this butter print are unknown, but the artifact represents the importance of butter-making on rural farms in early America. Furthermore, the butter print emphasizes the role of women in farm production and income.
- Hog Scraper: This well-crafted hog scraper was likely made in the nineteenth century and used on a North Carolina plantation or farm. Little is known about the origins of the hog scraper, but this durable artifact is a great historical teaching tool for children and adults alike.
- Tea Caddy: According to the museum’s records, this tea caddy was used at the Edenton Tea Party in Edenton, NC in 1774. The Edenton Tea Party is widely recognized as one of the first acts of political protest associated with the American Revolution.
- Child’s Shoe: This leather children’s shoe was likely made by an enslaved craftsman named “Old Jack” in 1862 for the Nolan family of Cleveland County, North Carolina. Although little is known about “Old Jack” specifically, students used the shoe and associated records as a window into the lives of black and white Southerners on the eve of the Civil War.
Despite the high cost of 3D scanners (starting around $800), this exciting new technology may be possible for your institution to try, by partnering with area universities or other organizations. What artifacts from your collection would make the best candidates to reproduce this way?
If you skipped the AASLH conference this year and you don’t follow the Engaging Places blog, you may have missed the “Active Collections Manifesto.” It’s a strong stance on promoting quality over quantity in collections and argues for a discriminating approach to resource expenditures. The Manifesto’s writers have an impressive record of professional accomplishments in the museum field and their ideas are worth considering and debating.
The Manifesto calls for prioritizing collections into different levels and providing a corresponding tiered standard of care. In many ways, collections stewards already do this by default. The objects relating to research requests are usually documented more thoroughly and stored in positions of greater accessibility. In other ways the differing values placed on collection items are more deliberate. Our workshops always promote selecting 5-10 priority artifacts that are crucial for the institution’s mission or community identity as a disaster preparedness measure. Sorting collections into tiers of significance and/ or stakeholder interest and concentrating documentation efforts and scare preservation resources on the upper tiers could have multiple benefits beyond disaster preparedness. Would a field for priority codes in systems like Past Perfect be useful? Prioritizing collections is something those in the library/ archives field already do deliberately and it makes a lot of sense for museums to take a tiered approach to collections too.
Here are two additional great ideas the Manifesto promotes:
- emotion-provocation as a criterion in assigning an object to a tier
- a deaccession special task force: As we’ve seen with assessment programs, outside experts can be convincing for boards and stir up the stagnation that is all too often a dominating force.
As a former curator for a state history museum, I do have some concerns with mass-scale deaccessioning, however, and I’ll share a story from my previous position to explain. As the Manifesto mentions, audiences’ needs evolve and the stories stakeholders want to tell change over time. Some lower-tier artifacts may jump to a higher tier, depending on the story, so in my experience, mass deaccessioning projects need to be undertaken with great care.
One part of my job was managing a historic row house, and I researched those who lived in the house during one decade—the 1850s. That had never been done before because heads of household were tenants, rather than owners, and had been overlooked in earlier interpretations. (This new research approach also uncovered a lot of great information on slaves, but that’s another story.) Anyway, imagine my surprise and delight when I did collections database searches on all the tenants’ names and discovered a pair of shoes that had once belonged to the final tenant of that decade! The pair had probably never left a storage box since its donation in the 1920s, and in a tiered approach it would have been placed on a low level. Once a new interpretive direction came to the fore, the shoes launched into a higher tier.
Similarly, masses of WWI stuff that seemed fairly low priority 20 years ago are undergoing a dramatic shift in significance now in collections across the country as institutions commemorate the centennial.
Professional standards in preservation have risen to such great heights in the last few decades that very few history museums can keep up. A tiered approach to management could really help by considering those standards only for the higher priority level(s). Thanks to Rainey Tisdale, Trevor Jones, and Elee Wood for their bold decree and for supplying more food for thought on collection topics.
—Adrienne Berney, C2C Collection Care Trainer
A few weeks ago, the Gathering Place Project hosted a session on modifying our cultural heritage institutions to become more accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires publically funded organizations to make “reasonable accommodations” for access. Of course, “reasonable” is a subjective term and depends a great deal on the organization’s capacity, staff and financial resources in particular. Another challenge in compliance is that needs vary tremendously. There is no one set of access measures that will allow access for all disabilities. Accommodations for someone who is blind differ from those for someone with intellectual disabilities and again for someone with impaired mobility. Online guidelines can help cultural organizations navigate toward accessibility improvements.
Some suggested modifications are physical: ensuring ramp access to entrances, providing family bathrooms, creating signage in large sans-serif fonts. Other modifications require welcoming attitudes and the development of new procedures to accommodate a wider range of physical and intellectual abilities. Every cultural organization is required under the ADA to assign one staff member the responsibility of functioning as a point person to handle access requests. Upon receiving requests for services to individuals with disabilities, avoid saying “No, we can’t do that.” Instead, get contact information to get back in touch. Brainstorm possibilities and discuss them with other staff members. If you can’t meet the initial request, suggest alternative activities or other ways you can be welcoming.
Most people with disabilities want to focus on what they can do, not their limitations. When they come to participate, ask “How can I help you?” and “What can we do to make your experience more comfortable?” The experience of this Charlotte family, denied access last summer at a historic house museum in Savannah, is a cautionary tale for all of us. Avoid making assumptions about how to proceed. Listen to the patron and present as many access options as possible.
Many counties across the state have service organizations for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Wake Enterprises operates in Wake County and supports employment in addition to coordinating social and learning opportunities for its constituents. These county-based groups could be an untapped audience for many history museums. Participants may need activities on a children’s educational level but can be sensitive about having child-like content. Tactile opportunities such as learning from an educational collection which they can touch can be especially effective and enjoyable. If special tours at your site are impractical, Wake Enterprises has had success with travel trunks, especially when a museum staff member or docent comes to the organization and offers a program. If you can imagine developing an appropriate special tour or program, please get in touch with a staff member at your local county organization to discuss possibilities.
The NC Arts Council offers a range resources for arts inclusion here. Arts Council staff are available to offer advice on accessibility assessments and plans for improvement. Access to cultural heritage institutions is challenging, especially for those who live with disabilities every day. But the opportunities to build deep and meaningful connections to diverse segments of your community can be rewarding. What can your organization do to welcome new audiences?
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?
The hands-on training and opportunities for networking and discussion that C2C offers in regional workshops are important collections care resources, but more and more collections professionals look to the internet for answers. Our team also strives to act as guides for our NC cultural heritage community in navigating the vast tangle of resources available online. In this vein, we urge you to check out a new website http://stashc.com/. Weeks ago the Connecting to Collections online community hosted a free webinar in which Conservator Rachel Perkins Arenstein introduced this new resource and highlighted some of the storage solutions she considers to be the most practical. You can view the archived version here.
The acronym STASH stands for Storage Techniques for Art, Science, and History. This effort represents collaboration across the disciplines and those of us working in history organizations perhaps have the most to gain/ learn from our colleagues in these other fields. Science museums, especially, have developed storage systems that allow both preservation and access. Researchers analyze collection specimens in those institutions as evidence of ecosystem changes and/ or species-specific evolution. Storage systems must allow close inspection of specimens, while minimizing handling and providing thorough support for artifacts that are often very fragile. Many of these solutions are great examples for cultural heritage collections to emulate.
Of the three types, art museums are often the best funded and individual collection items typically boast a much higher monetary value than do historic artifacts. As a result, these institutions can more often afford professional conservation staff who have set professional standards for all types of museums, especially in climate control, filtering systems, lighting, and exhibition mount-making.
Our favorite examples from the STASH website include a discussion and list of disaster recovery supplies for every institution and a nearly comprehensive list of collections care supplies, along with suggested sources. Several of the specific storage solutions are low-cost and simple enough to recommend to the cultural heritage institutions we work with. For instance, check out a quick and easy-to-construct tray system made with corrugated polypropylene board here. This system would work well with many types of lightweight artifacts and help maximize shelf or box space.
What storage techniques are successful in your space? STASH also includes an option for submission so you can share your ingenuity to a broad collections care audience. And of course, we’re always happy to provide a smaller-scale forum for your collections care stories here.
Have you ever wondered why the biggest carbonated beverage companies (Coke and Pepsi) originated in the South (Atlanta and New Bern, respectively)? In the years before air conditioning, the longer and hotter the summer months, the more customers might seek out variety in thirst quenching. Also, suffering through days of high heat and humidity can squelch appetites. Dyspepsia, something we’d call general indigestion today, was a common diagnosis in the 19th century. So it’s no accident that pharmacists, especially in the South, developed appealing concoctions, often with medicinal ingredients, to entice customers. In fact, the name “Pepsi” came from pepsin, a digestive enzyme that was a primary ingredient in the New Bern-originated drink.
What do North Carolinians call carbonated beverages like Pepsi? There’s no consistent answer, although this study of over 5,000 people found that the majority of North Carolinians ask for “soda,” with the brand name “coke” used generically as a close second, followed by “soft drink.” Pepsi did not start out as a soft drink, since alcohol was another ingredient in its 1893 drug store recipe.
Prohibition, which North Carolina adopted in 1908, forced alcohol out of legally sold carbonated beverages and meanwhile encouraged the development of new varieties. Pepsi became the most internationally renowned soft drink with origins in North Carolina, but several others came along in the early and mid 20th century and garnered loyal consumers—even fans.
Created in 1917 in an empty whisky distillery in Salibury, Cheerwine’s name and redwine color nodded deliberately at the new alcohol restrictions. The Carolina Beverage Corporation, still based in Salisbury, is the oldest soft-drink purveyor continuously in the hands of the same owners—the Ritchie family. Distribution of the drink has expanded greatly over the past several decades, beyond western North Carolina and into 12 states. Cheerwine now boasts something of a cult following.
Similarly named, the Bludwine Bottling Company also began in 1917 as an independent soft drink bottler on Main Street in Gastonia. Decades later, in 1953 the proprietor developed Sun Drop. The brand’s official relationship with NASCAR boosted sales throughout the greater Charlotte region and beyond. The Gaston County Museum showcases more artifacts and details about Sun Drop here.
Does your institution contain soda bottles or related artifacts in its collection? We have started supplying Cheerwine for our workshops and found it to be the most popular canned drink among C2C participants. What brands are most popular with your community?