Category Archives: historic houses
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?
Two of our institutional partners in the NC mountain region have been moving mountains—of collection materials, that is—in May.
May Day moving was once tradition, from the colonial period to WWII, in urban areas characterized by a high portion of rentals, such as New York and Chicago. This 1865 political cartoon pokes fun by connecting the tradition to the April surrender of the Confederacy by depicting government leaders packing up and leaving Richmond on May 1.
The Mountain Heritage Center of Western Carolina University is also packing up and moving. Staff members deconstructed exhibitions in late April – early May and have been re-configuring spaces to accommodate more artifact storage. By the end of the month they will move their offices to the campus library, where a new exhibition space will open in August–in time for the academic year.
The Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, part of the National Park Service, began packing its collection of approximately 50,000 objects, ranging from furniture to archival materials, in the historic house in January. This month staff began moving boxed artifacts to an off-site storage facility in preparation for substantial renovations to the structure. Staff decided that rather than closing the house to tourists during the move, they could use the event as an interpretive opportunity. According to the site’s preservation webpage:
During this packing process visitors on tour will have an opportunity to see museum object preservation in person. The home’s interior will start to look more like the Sandburgs are just moving in with boxes still packed as the year goes on. This will be a fun time to visit the home to see the activity and to feel like the Sandburgs when they first moved to Connemara.
The move has also become a way for the site to connect with its social media audiences. Staff has been posting interesting collection finds on instagram, as well as a view into the tracking process. A collection inventory is a necessary and time consuming part of the move. Sharing a bit of the process with online audiences helps the public understand the meticulousness of preservation procedures, as well as engaging viewers with collection discoveries.
Need help planning a future collections move? The Science Museum of Minnesota has reported its experiences and advice for a major collections move, “Moving the Mountain,” and made the guidebook available as a PDF online. Beginning on page 66 are some helpful and well illustrated suggestions for fairly simple artifact mounts that could be used to move the artifact and continue as safe, permanent storage thereafter. Anne Lane, collections manager extraordinaire at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center, will be instructing C2C’s Box Making Workshop next month where she will share her impressive skills for creating custom storage mounts and enclosures and update participants on her institution’s recent moving process.
Thanks to Beth Bullock, Jayd Buteaux, Caitlin Butler, and Bonnie Soper for this guest post. The students first presented this information during a poster session at NCMC‘s annual meeting last week and we’re grateful to be able to share it with NC C2C’s online community.
In the fall of 2014, graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington started a yearlong project focusing on the preservation and interpretation of slave dwellings. The first part in the process was to gather information on the community’s general impressions about slavery and slave dwellings.
We conducted 90 visitor surveys at the Bellamy Mansion and 12 focus groups with various individuals across age groups and races within the local Wilmington community. This was done in conjunction with research on various slave dwellings, the history of slavery, and slave dwelling preservation. The data we compiled represents the largest known collection of visitor responses regarding slave dwellings and offers great insight into visitors’ interest in slavery, slave dwellings, and preservation.
We asked visitors about their knowledge, associations, assumptions, and interest in the history and preservation of slave dwellings, particularly their impressions from visiting the slave quarters at Bellamy Mansion. We also conducted focus groups with various stakeholders, including African American genealogists, historic preservation professionals, African American community leaders, African American parents, and museum docents. The small group interviews helped us gather in-depth responses about the relative importance of preserving slave dwellings and what people want to know about slavery, slave dwellings, and their preservation.
Through these surveys and discussions, we found that there were huge gaps in knowledge of the history of slavery. Most visitors envisioned slavery as a Southern, rural phenomenon and pictured an antebellum plantation setting. Visitors exhibited surprise when presented with an urban slave dwelling, proving that visitors needed context on the differences between rural and urban slavery, and the changes in slavery over time. These gaps in knowledge were found amongst all age groups and walks of life. Other themes that became apparent throughout the project were the lack of awareness of agency in the enslaved community and the impact of media representations upon modern perceptions of slavery.
There was also contention over the preservation of slave dwellings and their interpretation. Some participants in the focus groups expressed concern over the authenticity of the representation of slave dwellings.
Our findings prompted research into local slave dwellings and the existence of slave dwellings throughout the Northern and Western United States. These insights will inform our upcoming public exhibit on the preservation of slave dwellings, but can also aid other museums and historic sites in understanding their visitors’ assumptions and correcting myths in visitors’ knowledge. The exhibit will open at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in Wilmington, NC next month (May 2015).
Thanks to Dale Pennington, Executive Director of Körner’s Folly, for this guest post.
Preservation vs. access is a tricky balance that we all have to deal with in the museum field . In “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums,” Vagnone and Ryan continually assert that visitors really want a tactile and authentic experience while touring house museums. But just because visitors want to touch, should we let them? And to what degree?
I recently had the opportunity to work through Vagnone and Ryan’s self-evaluation to see how my institution measured up to their anarchist guidelines. They sent students as “undercover visitors” to Körner’s Folly and had them graph their experience with “energy,” “imagination,” and “excitement” as variables. Vagnone and Ryan contacted me, excited by some high student marks in these categories. We do not actually allow visitors to touch our artifacts at Körner’s Folly. We do, however, offer self-guided tours, rather than a traditional guided tour. According to Vagnone and Ryan this freedom of movement really helps improve the visitor experience. The self-guided option was also something their students found particularly enjoyable. So let me start with a little background on Körner’s Folly and how we evolved into our current level of preservation vs. access…
The 22-room Victorian house was built in 1880 by Jule Körner, a local artist, interior designer, and furniture designer. After Jule and his wife died, the family removed all heirlooms and personal artifacts, boarded up the doors and windows, and the house sat largely untouched, aside from occasional vandals, until the 1970s. In 1971, the Town of Kernersville wanted to have the house demolished as it was rapidly falling into disrepair. Fortunately, a group of town residents came together and purchased Korner’s Folly. Their goal was to eventually restore Körner’s Folly and open it for tours. They operated as an all-volunteer run organization for nearly three decades, hiring their first professional staff in 1999. Most of original furniture remained in Korner’s Folly because it was too large to move; much of it was literally built in the room it still inhabits to this day.
While many pieces of original furniture remained, there were virtually no surviving small artifacts, valuables, or heirlooms. With a lack of “pocketable” artifacts, an unrestored house, and surviving largely on volunteers, Körner’s Folly was set-up for self-guided tours, with an orientation by a docent, and then a few velvet ropes and signs here and there to help visitors navigate. Today, while we have grown in staff size, we still largely offer self-guided tours. We have added a security camera system, “do not touch signs,” and more interpretive signs, but by-and-large, what grew of out of lack of resources is now an active choice our institution makes, guided by visitor feedback.
When I first started as executive director at Körner’s Folly, I was really unsure of this self-guided stuff. After all, I am very comfortable with rules, policies, and procedures – that’s why I got into this field, right? I thought: “They won’t read anything and they’ll touch everything!” So I started conducting visitor exit surveys, and monitoring how visitors acted on their tours. Of course, we always have visitors who do just as I suspected, but the majority of our visitors are actually respectful. Overall, our visitors report to spend approximately 1.2 hours touring the house on their own, rate their experience as a 4.8 out of 5, and 2/3 report they read “all” of the interpretive signs where 1/3 report they read “some” of the signs. Our visitors appreciate being able to wander, take selfies, and spend as much time or as little time as they like in each room. Additionally, with so many different rooms and architectural features, no spaces in Körner’s Folly were ever closed off from tours. We don’t offer a “behind the scenes” tour because all 22 rooms are open to the public. Since we lack many small original, artifacts, visitors get to walk into all of the rooms, not just do a “hallway tour.”
I have always been really interested in interactive exhibit elements and ways of making audiences more engaged. So we are brainstorming ways to make the self-guided experience more interesting. For example, last year we created a scavenger hunt for children to do as they toured the house. The scavenger hunt is so basic and cost us nothing, and we always get lots of compliments on it (it’s rated 4.7 out of 5). Coming up for next year, we are experimenting with “Please Touch” baskets for a few rooms in the house. These interactive baskets will include (reproduction) items for touch or activities that visitors are encouraged to do.
Challenging the lines between preservation vs. access is not a new concept. Ryan and Vagnone just suggest some different approaches, some that we are already implementing in my institution and some that would not work here. While I like creative ways of engaging visitors, I still can’t grapple with encouraging visitors to outright touch artifacts or sit on the original furniture. But I do appreciate Ryan and Vagnone’s out-of-the-box thinking. What works here would not work at every institution – we all have our own unique circumstances and limitations. I think what’s important about “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums” is that it challenges us to imagine and test new ideas to enhance access, while continuing to preserve responsibly.
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?
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.
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.
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?
As residents of one of the original thirteen colonies, many North Carolinians have celebrated and commemorated the involvement of their progenitors in the push for independence from England. Community leaders in the Coastal Plain as well as the back country resolved to fight for independence from the crown unless Parliament remedied colonial grievances. Disgruntled property holders in Mecklenburg County were the first to draft such a document in May 1775, though questions about this early revolutionary activity have lingered. Local leaders in New Hanover, Cumberland, Pitt, and Tryon counties soon followed suit in the summer of 1775 and later those in Halifax drafted an even more strongly worded petition in April 1776. Our state also boasts 3 representatives to the 1776 Continental Congress in Philadelpia. Read brief biographies of the North Carolina signers here.
Since the 1890s, at least, state residents have commemorated these events and heroes of the revolutionary era by paying homage to their houses, erecting monuments, and honoring their descendants. The Hooper-Penn monument at Guilford Battleground was created in 1897 upon re-interring the remains of John Penn of Granville County and William Hooper, who died in Hillsborough. (Hewes’ grave is in Philadelphia.)
A Fayetteville parade in 1909 celebrated the Liberty Point Resolves and included a float with young women, most of whom were descendants of the signers of that document. Nearly a decade later, the newly formed NC Museum of History collected objects from one of Hooper’s daughters (right). During the 1930s (at least) the town of Edenton organized a children’s pageant honoring Hewes.
Throughout the 20th-century and into the 21st, some NC businesses have featured the signers’ names to both commemorate and capitalize on patriotic sensibilities and local pride. The John Penn motel built in Oxford, NC in 1954 evoked Mt. Vernon with its white paint and cupola. Edenton Brewing Company (now Big Boss) of Raleigh once produced a “Joseph Hewes revolutionary ale.”
Does your collection include objects commemorating the pre-revolutionary resolves or the signers of the Declaration of Independence? If so, are these commemorative objects useful for exhibits or engaging to researchers?